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MEHRU JAFFER | 7 JULY, 2017

Lucknow's Chikan Work Bonds Communities Through History

MEHRU JAFFER


Lucknow's famous chikan embroidery is not mere needle craft but a glowing example of how peace and prosperity thrives when citizens are encouraged to creatively engage with each other.

For the production and the use of chikan embroidery is an exercise in drawing talent from different neighbourhoods to ensure a relaxed relationship amongst citizens, all of whom participate actively in the exquisite creation of goods as well as in the weaving of a composite social fabric.

If one group of citizens is responsible for preparing the textile another group transports the material to its destination. The master craftsman may be male while most of the needle work is done by women. The designers can be both male and female, and often mostly Muslim. However the carpenters who carve designs on wooden blocks belong to a different community. The embossing of designs with wooden blocks on textile is done by someone special while the tailoring of the embroidered pieces is the expertise of another. The needlework is the job of mostly Muslim families but those who sell the finished product are mainly Hindu businessmen. And as for the buyers they are more rainbow coloured than the rainbow.

Such activities were consciously persuaded by those in power in the past so that no citizen was able to earn a living without the help of the other. This way interdependency of human beings on each other naturally became the cornerstone of good relations amongst citizens sharing a certain geographical space.

This, and much more fascinating information is to be found in Chikankari A Lucknow Tradition, a new book by Paola Manfredi, an Italian ethnologist who has been studying Indian textiles for nearly three decades.

The production process of the white embroidery on white transparent cotton cloth is a long journey that passes through different stages, writes Manfredi.

Behind the enduring fame of chikankari is fusion of the subtle aesthetics of embroidery with the art of dressmaking. The embroidery no matter how exquisite is only one aspect of the story, and incomplete by itself.

For the material is handled by many hands, sometime for months. By the time the white pieces reach the final stage they are so dirty that it seems impossible they will ever achieve that immaculate, pure white look required by the customer or the shops.

This is when the dhobi, or the local washerman steps in.

The magic rests with the dhobis. It is not unusual to cross the bridges of Lucknow and see the very picturesque and endless lines of washed chikan pieces drying in the sun. It is fascinating to watch the dhobis at work by the banks of the river in front of the evocative skyline of cupolas, minarets and gardens with the muffled yet incessant noise of traffic and honking of vehicles in the background. The scenery is peaceful the slow flowing river fishermen on their boat throwing nets, buffaloes cooling in the shallow. Standing in the water to the waist in front of wooden rugged planks the dhobis work their magic and transform the dirtiest pieces into impeccable almost pristine white garments.

It is generally agreed that the word chikan is from chikin, the Persian word for embroidery. However there are two versions as to how the needlework came to make a home in Lucknow.

There is the romantic feminine version that traces the origin of chikankari to a princess in Murshidabad, capital of Bengal in medieval times who wanted to attract the attention of the king by doing something special for him. She ended up by embroidering a beautiful cap and the king fell in love with both, the cap and also the princess.

When all the lovelorn ladies of Lucknow heard this great story they wanted to know more about the magical embroidery. Once exposed to it they learnt the stitches in no time and tried to out do each other in dexterity in order to win over the one they claimed to love.

According to the masculine and more popular version, the origins of chikankari in Lucknow goes back to a wandering fakir who was entertained by a Mohammad Shair Khan a long time ago. In return for the hospitality, the fakir wanted to gift his host in Lucknow with something that none could ever take away from him. The stranger sat Mohammad Shair Khan down and taught him the art of embroidery which helped him to earn a generous living for the rest of his life. He passed the skill to his children. The result is that in the early 1960s Faiz Khan, from the same family was the first to receive the Master Craftsman award in Lucknow.

Chikankari flourished in Lucknow from the second half of the 18th century. This is when the court here had replaced the glitz and glamour of Delhi's Mughal court to become patron of all the arts. The loss of job opportunities elsewhere in South Asia and the demand to support the lavish and luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite in Lucknow tempted craftsmen to migrate to Lucknow.

By early 20th century the popularity of chikan embroidery was at its peak.

Sir George Watt, director of the Indian art exhibition in Delhi in 1903 is quoted as saying that royalty here had attracted the finest craftsmen and hence Lucknow had a large range of artistic workers not to be found in any other town of the country. Lucknow chikan work is perhaps the most remarkable of these crafts as it is the most artistic and most delicate form of what might be called the purely indigenous needlework of India.

This delightful book is not an academic research, nor is it a social or economic essay on the chikan industry in Lucknow, clarifies Manfredi. The author calls it a personal journey in search of that mythical chikan embroidery that took her breath away when she saw it for the first time. That mesmerising visual experience made the author wonder about the life and stories of anonymous artists of the past who made them.

The book is also an attempt to redress the perception of chikankari as a minor needlecraft perhaps not fully worthy of the attention of refined scholarship on authentic Indian textiles and to expose a few hidden treasures visible and available for further research, reference and visual delight. She hopes that the book will encourage fortunate owners to look into their chests and trunks and bring back to light some more of these exquisite creations.

The beautifully illustrated Chikankari A Lucknow Tradition by Paola Manfredi is published by Niyogi Books, 2017.

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