LUCKNOW: When Shahida was studying she wanted to be a surgeon. But the untimely death of her father, which further pushed her family into abject poverty, did not allow her to continue with her education beyond Class Seven. With the mounting pressure to make a living she took to doing chikan embroidery, a vocation followed by five generations of women in her family.

In last three decades, Shahida has perfected the craft and is counted among the few veterans in the field, who work mainly on high value export orders. She is content with the Rs 850 that she gets for every elegant chikan dress that she creates after putting in 15 strenuous hours of work daily; it doesn’t bother her that her masterpieces will eventually be sold at a price tag of no less than $250, around Rs 15,000.

It really comes as no big surprise that whereas the turnover of the export house where she is employed has increased by over four folds in last seven years, Shahida, with her average monthly income of Rs 2,500, continues to struggle to meet her everyday expenses. A single mother, she is the sole breadwinner of her family of four and her only concern now is the education of her three daughters. “I was not able to go to high school but my daughters will not meet the same fate. I want them to continue their education and pursue their dreams,” says Shahida, her eyes fixed on the georgette ‘kurta’ that she is embroidering in pink.

There are scores of chikankari artisans like Shahida scattered across Lucknow, the bustling, historic state capital of Uttar Pradesh. In fact, over the last 400 years, exquisite chikan threadwork, created by the nimble fingers of local women, has firmly established itself as the most sought after craftwork from the region. Of the 2.5 lakh artisans in Lucknow and its adjoining areas, two lakh are women, mostly from the Muslim community, who make less than half-a-dollar a day.

Of course, these poor wages belie the increasing demand of chikankari nationally and internationally. According to Vinod Kumar Arjundas, mentor of Ada Chikan, a leading chikan retail outlet in the up-market high street of Hazratganj in Lucknow, “The appeal of Chikankari is global today. There is huge demand for chikan dresses from the Middle East, US, the UK as well as several European countries.”

Incidentally, Ada Chikan supplies to loyal customers across all major Indian metros and the overseas market at prices that can go as high as Rs 2.5 lakh. The business boasts of high profile buyers, including former US president Bill Clinton, poet and lyricist Gulzar as well as many Hindi film actors like Sridevi and Manisha Koirala, among others.

Apart from the entrepreneurs, the rising appeal of chikankari has attracted a whole lot of middlemen to this thriving industry. There are 3,000 retailers and manufacturers in addition to 5,000 exporters operating from Lucknow and Delhi alone. Only 10 per cent of the items produced are for the local markets. The rest is supplied to other metros in the country while a major 25 per cent is shipped abroad.

Unfortunately, none of this has had a positive impact on the lives of those who handcraft these wonderful items. Apart from the everyday challenges brought on by poverty, they have to contend with serious health issues, mostly weakening eyesight and painful cervical spondylosis, for which also they have no money to seek treatment.

“On an average it takes five to seven days to make a ‘kurta’ (top). If the embroidery is more intricate then it may take up to 15 days. The work is so strenuous that no one can continue for more than seven to eight hours at a stretch. It’s not uncommon for women artisans like me to lose their eyesight. Sadly, after that happens they remain jobless,” shares Shanti Devi, who works for S.S. Chikan Work, based in the Chowk area of old Lucknow.

Women either take up work at home or they head to one of the many basement factories that are operational in the Chowk area. In their 8 to 10-hour working day they just get a 30 minute break. Most of them are not allowed to speak to customers and they are frequently subjected to abuse and mistreatment.

“There is no hope for us and no support from the government. My eyesight is already getting weak and I realise that I will not be able to continue much longer. When that happens, who is going to feed me and my family?” questions Najma, an artisan, who is doing embroidery for the last 26 years.

With no government support or social security to better their lives, Najma knows that only a good education can save her children from falling into the trap that she did all those years ago. “My daughters do know this craft but I do not wish them to take it up professionally. I am sending them to school so that they get better jobs and have a better life than their mother. I'm working in shifts to earn more to make this happen,” adds a determined Najma, who quit her studies after high school. Her elder daughter is going to graduate soon while other two are in Class 11 and Class 10. Her son is in now in his first year of college.

“Since the chikan craft industry is unorganised, it’s the entrepreneurs who thrive even as the women workers silently bear the exploitation. We are doing our bit by organising them and ensuring a better marketplace for them but we have our limitations. Funds are a problem especially when there is not much support from the government. We use the money that we generate by selling their products,” says Runa Banerjee, CEO of the Self Employed Women Association (SEWA), Lucknow, which she co-founded with Sehba Hussain way back in 1984.

SEWA has been extensively involved in organising women engaged in the chikankari industry and has built up a network of over 7,000 women who are supported by the organisation not just in securing minimum wages and creating a market for their products but also in getting education for their children as well as better health services.

This move towards empowering the chikankari workers has led manufacturers and middlemen to trade the city artisans for their rural counterparts from places like Kakori, Sitapur, Barabanki, Lakhimpur and Malihabad, where they are still okay with getting a mere Rs 25-50 per ‘kurta’.

Where excessive commercialisation has certainly not meant a better life for them, most artisans rue that their craft, too, is compromised. Shamina Rizvi, a veteran chikankari worker from the Saadatgunj area of Old Lucknow, complains loudly, “Most businessmen have no idea of the craft. To maximise their profits they are forcing us to create coarse work using just four to five basic stitches. The art is slowly dying. There are a handful of artisans who can do all 32 stitches.”

Most of the products are made from basic stitches like 'bakhiya' (seam), ‘ulta bakhiya’ (shadow work), 'jaali' (net), 'chana patti', 'murri', 'tepchi' and 'ghaas-patti'. Shailendra Kakkar, who runs a chikan manufacturing house in Chowk, says, “The high-end designer houses can wait till 6-8 months to finish their order line but the commercial market cannot afford the long supply period. So we tend to use embroidery designs that are less time consuming.”

Shamina Rizvi has the final word, “The work I do is widely admired and yet I cannot earn enough to live a respectable, if not a comfortable, life. Am I really asking for too much?”

( Women's Feature Service)