The cradle of chikankari

ageless stitches

The cradle of chikankari

Lucknow, the heritage city of Uttar Pradesh, is where the search for chikankari, an intricate embroidery artfully done over cloth, begins and ends. The city, otherwise known for heritage monuments, Mughlai cuisine, literature, music, dance and riwayat, boasts of many streets that are dotted with wholesale and retail sellers and buyers of chikankari products. However, the good old Aminabad and the posh Hazratganj markets are the first choice for many.

In the biting chill of December, we negotiate the narrow but crowded streets of Chowk area in Nawab’s city — along with people, cycles, cows and horses, and with a cloud of sweet fragrance in the air owing to perfumeries there. We are on our way to a chikan-work manufacturing unit that sits amid many criscrossing narrow lanes.

Historical connect

Though there are legends aplenty associated with this artwork, historians attribute the embroidery’s origin to the times of Nur Jahan, the queen of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The present Nawab of Lucknow, Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, whom we meet later that evening, holds the same belief, and adds that the art has had a royal patronage. He shows us a 200-year-old do-rukhi chikan work Dacca muslin shawl that belonged to the uncle of the last nawab, Wajid Ali Shaw. He also mentions the anokhi buti, an exclusive block-print motif developed by President’s Award winner Hasan Mirza (Pingu Miya).

Well, to know about chikan work of Lucknow, we talk to the Jain family of the Chowk area. Anshul Jain of Jain Chikan & Cap Store (it was established in 1889) has carved a niche for himself in Lucknow as the leading manufacturer of chikan embroidery products. As we speak to this dynamic yet soft-spoken man, he credits his forefathers for his success. And, he explains how the chikankari industry works...

The process of chikan embroidery comprises several steps. First, the manufacturer (most of the times he is the seller as well) procures the required cloth variety — cotton (mulmul, muslin), tasar silk and other fine fabrics — and passes it on to the tailors, for them to give it a basic pre-embroidery stitching. This helps the block-printer to decide the placement of prints. Traditionally, it’s known that chikan embroidery has been exclusive to white fabrics. But now, coloured fabrics have seeped in. The design to be embroidered is printed on the fabric with wooden/copper blocks using colour indigo (neel naksha).

Then the agents take the fabric to the karigars, embroiders, who comprise of mostly Muslim women, and who live in the surrounding villages. Using tools like circular wooden frame, needles, threads of cotton, silk, woollen and zari, and scissors, they begin the work.

The women engage in one of the three types of embroidery — flat, embossed and jali — and select among the popular motifs such as kairi (mango), dhaniya patti (corriander leaf), phanda dhum patti (leaf pattern made of cross-stitch), ghas patti, murri (grain motif), kangan joda murri (pair of grains) etc.

The embroidered product is bleached and given a chemical treatment in a bhatti. This step is of much importance because the embroidered materials are so dirty, stained with food and even blood, that they need to be touched with gloves. Threads that don’t belong in the embroidered area are weeded out. The garment is starched and pressed, and taken back by the agent to the manufacturer. The entire cycle may take upto 6 months.

Anshul says, “Out of 100 pieces sent for embroidery, 15-20 get lost because we receive them in instalments. Well, it does affect the cost of production.”

Market trends

Realistic but undeterred, he then speaks of the colours that have begun to dominate the industry. To know the colours in demand, he speaks to salesmen and customers, besides studying market feedback. Although traditional designs are used in his products, many of them are modified. Here, the old absorbs the new, and what emerges out of this blend is something more exuberant. “It’s a new way of looking at it,” he says, “While most of the chikan-work manufacturers stick to the designs created by their forefathers, I study the market trend and create a new design. But I make sure the originality of the traditional designs are undisturbed,” he adds. Sardar Makhan Singh of Sadar’s Collections, in the crowded Aminabad market, adds his two cents by saying, “It does not really matter how big you are. It’s about how reliable you are.”

According to Professor Kamal Jayaswal of Lucknow’s Dr B R Ambedkar University, a great admirer of this craft, study and analysis of market trends is a must to be successful in this business. In his words, the market of Lucknow alone is worth about 100 crore a month, with  close to 4,000 manufactures in the city.

“Chikan-work manufacturers’ association of Lucknow has got the sales tax waived off on the products, but it seems that the industry is prospering on its own,” he says. “Earlier, men too practised this craft, but in the recent times it’s predominantly women who have taken up this work.” Jayaswal derives that the karigars get the least profit in the production chain, and the agent (or the middleman) gets the maximum. But luckily, these agents are their family members. He rues that the demand in the foreign markets for these products are great but that there are no systematic efforts to boost their sales.
One thing is for sure. The chikankari products here are so mesmerising that one makes a purchase without any regrets.

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