Chikan Embroidery of Lucknow

Magic of the thread

When one talks about the refinement in style Lucknow figures as a superlative – A center de art, where even alien art forms flourished with high degree of refinement and amalgamated with the lifestyle of Lucknow as if these originated and belonged here.’Chikan’ – style of embroidery, is one such art that came from Persia but now is known with a prefix of Lucknow, ‘Lucknow Chikan’. Chikan originated primarily from Persia but there are two theories about its origin. We find this one amusing and interesting, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah a great patron of art in all its form had 365 concubines one for each day (one day celibacy in the leap year though !), these so called royal wives lived in the Kaiserbagh and Chowk, as each lady got only a day to spend with the Nawab they had to do something extra-ordinary to attract the attention of the king. So from them, one of the lady wives in the harem, made a cap for the king and decorated it with simple but delicate white thread embroidery, this cap was later presented to the Nawab to impress him and the trick worked. Nawab started giving more attention to this queen and other queens followed the suit creating a creative pool of Chikankari in Lucknow.

The other theory goes on to state, Ustad Mohammad Sher Khan who was a poor peasant and tilled the ground near Lucknow, learned this art from a traveller as a parting gift. A traveller while passing through the village on a hot summer afternoon asked for water from Ustad Mohammad Sher Khan. Ustad on seeing the plight of the traveller, invited him to rest for a while inside his home, before resuming his journey. The traveller was so pleased with the hospitality that he taught him an art that would never allow him to go hungry. This art was Chikan embroidery, which was later passed on to others by Sher Khan. It is said that once Sher Khan perfected this art the traveller disappeared. It is believed that God himself taught this art to Sher Khan of embroidering.

Chikankaari is a delicate art of embroidery that has become a major commercial activity in the city of Lucknow and its environs. Though the origin of Chikan work has not been affirmed, perhaps it is the corrupt form of the Persian word ‘chikin’ / ‘chikeen’ or ‘sequin’ which means a kind of cloth wrought with needlework. Amongst the many theories regarding the origin of this magnificent art, the most believable is that it was brought by the Mughals from Persia.

Chikan embroidery today is synonymous to the lifestyle of Lucknow. No wardrobe is complete without this in Lucknow. The art has survived the ravages of time to stands tough till date. Some artisans achieved perfection to the level that even a needle could not pass through the fine jaali (net) woven by way of Chikan embroidery. The grace that the Chikan garment promises is incomparable to any other dressing style. Its simplicity and comfort is its beauty.

Although there are 32 kinds of stitches in Chikan work, broadly it can be grouped into six types, Taipchi, Bakhia, Khatao, Phanda & Murri and finally Jaali.

Bakhia : It is the most beautiful stitch in Chikankaari. In this the thread appears only below the surface and small stitches are seen on the right side for outlining the motif being delineated. Below the right side of the cloth, the thread crisscrosses making the covered surface opaque and creating a delicate effect of light and shade.

Khatao : This gives the same type of effect as Bakhia, but is more delicate. This stitch is a type of applique work prepared on calico material by placing calico over the surface and working out floral patterns on the cloth. The details were later worked out by simple stem stitch. This was so delicately handled that only by close scrutiny was it possible to say that the piece had not been embroidered with bakhia stitched but actually appliqued.

Phanda and Murri : These are the most characteristic forms of Chikan and are used mostly to work out the centre of the flowers or to evolve the patterns, such as angoori bale. ‘Murri’ means rice shape and ‘phanda’ millet shape. Though the stitch is essentially the French knot, but it is worked out so finely that the two can hardly be compared.

Jaali : In Jaali work, the thread is never drawn. The Jaali is normally worked by teasing the warp and waft threads of the cloth apart and by preparing minute buttonhole stitches to make a hole of 3/16th of an inch. There are different jaalies, to name a few, Sidhuri, Madrasi, Calcutta Jaali.

The source of most design motifs in Chikankaari is Mughal. These motifs can also be seen in the ornamentation of Mughal buildings like the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. Now days the best work is found on the finest of Muslin. Though this art form has also been transformed on artificial fabrics like rayon and cambric. The beauty of the work lies in the simplicity of the colours used and the soothing effect it has. Mostly, pastel shades are preferred for the base and the thread used for the embroidery is white. The finished dress is best suited for the north Indian summers.

The embroidery itself is so fine and intricate that it takes nearly fifteen days to six months to complete, depending on the design, dress and the expertise of the worker. It has a certain grace and elegance, which ensures it should never go out of style.

The beginning of the 18th century was the golden era for Chikan and it lasted till the war of 1857. This was incidentally, the golden era for the ruling Nawabs as well. Nawabs of Avadh encouraged this art and patronised people who were good at their work and did something unique and innovative. Sometimes the artisans who produced extraordinary pieces of craft or showed exemplary skill in their fields were awarded with a jagirs (estates). The two main patrons of the arts were Nawab Asif-ud-Daula (1775-1789) and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1851-1856). It was due to these extravagant gifts bestowed on artisans, that they innovated and refined the art to perfection in Lucknow. Some of the finest artisans of those days were, Amir Hasan, Haji Mian, Dulba Sahab, Usman Ali, Puttan, Sadiq and Shamshad.

Another unique style that deserves special mention is `Anookhi Booti’ which was developed by Miyan Hasan Mirza. This type of Chikankari is so fine that the embroidery can only be seen and felt on one side of the malmal (silk) cloth.

The Chikan embroidery is so intricate and requires a lot of concentration as well that at times good artisan loose their eyesight by the time they reach old age, not being able to see and appreciate the intricate work of their future generations whom they have passed on this art. We personally appreciate the secular character of this art form, where in all artisans are Muslims while the shopkeepers who sell Chikan are Hindus. Chikan is one reason that has kept both the communities together live with utmost harmony and brotherhood.

When in Lucknow, temptations are many and each irresistible in its own way, but buying Chikan embroidered clothes is a ‘must do’ on the shopper’s list. Every nook and corner of Lucknow houses Chikan shops, but the best place to buy is Chowk Bazaar or the Gol Darwaza lane at Chowk Crossing. You can try your bargaining skills to the brim. It is very difficult to get a best quote unless you are with a local or are a penny smart traveller. Chikan embroidery is not only popular on clothes, but also on table linen, bed cover, napkins etc. Why not Chikan to deck up your bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom too ?


Credits : Prateek Hira / Tornos – Be it a hands-on session of Chikan and Zari embroidery, or appreciating the intricate craft at a workshop, we at Tornos have crafted this experience well. A visit to Kotwara House  reveals a lot from this craft, provides an opportunity to interact with the craftsmen, while a visit to SEWA will help one understand how Chikan empowered women. A session at Almasood’s on the other hand is a great learning experience in the environs of a Zari and Chikan workshop. Do contact us to plan a programme focused around Embroidery in Lucknow as apart of larger textile or a craft tour.