Gorgeous Terracotta pots, the ‘tehzib’ (polite mannerisms), the famous ‘Zari Zardosi’, the Nawabs, the eloquent Urdu poetry and the lip smacking Kebabs…Do these ring a bell in your mind? For many of us, it takes us to this one place located in Uttar Pradesh around the Gomti River, which is known as Lucknow to the world! Arts and crafts form the heart of this city. Handicrafts account for a major chunk of its economy and this place is a must-visit for everyone who has a liking for indigenous arts.  Lucknow has given another fine art form to the world, called the ‘Chikankari’.

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Chikankari is a unique traditional embroidery style also known as ‘shadow work’. It is a very delicate hand embroidery done originally on soft muslin cloth using a white thread and occasionally a yellowish silk fibre. With the modernization of this old art-form, artisans have started producing these elegant marvels on a multitude of bases like semi-georgette, pure georgette, silk, chiffon and other light and thin fabrics. It is made sure that the fabric is not hard or very thick to make sewing with the needle easier. The intricacy and the exquisite gossamer characteristics of this art form lends it a very subtle elegance and a fine quality that is appreciated by designers all over the world. The art of Chikan embroidery is not just a mere craft anymore. It accounts for a large amount of income of the state through exports and is thus one of the most important economic activities practiced in Lucknow and the neighbouring areas. It provides employment to over 3 lakh people ranging from artisans, dealers, entrepreneurs and exporters.

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The word ‘Chikan’ has Persian roots and finds its lexical origin in the word ‘Chikh’ or ‘Chakin’ which refers to a cloth adorned with needlework. The origin of Chikan has several tales associated to it. The earliest reference to it was in the 3rd century BC when a Greek traveler, Megasthenes mentioned the use of flowered muslins by Indians. Some famous folklore suggest that a traveler passing through a village near Lucknow is accountable for the popularity of the craft. They say that the tired traveler while crossing this little village asked for water from a poor peasant who offered it graciously to him. As a token of appreciation, he taught the skill of Chikankari to the farmer so that he would never fall short of money ever again. Though it is said that Chikankari became an integral part of Indian Culture when the art form was revived by the Mughal Empress Noor Jehan. Despite being a part of the Indian heritage for centuries before this, the origin of chikan is believed to be in the town of Awadh due to the impetus given to the work by Noor Jahan.

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The art has a huge Mughal inclination. The inspiration from Mughal designs can be widely seen in the motifs sewn onto the fabric. Generally floral designs with plants, leaves or creepers (bel) are the most common designs used. Individual motifs and bhutis of animals and birds are also a common sight in this exquisite needlework. Fish, the emblem of Oudh is also widely used.

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Arabesque versions of soft roses, gorgeous lilies, intricate butterflies and other animals lend this couture a mesmerizing expression of indigenous style of the Mughal Era. Chikankari has adopted additional adornments like sequin, bead and mirror work, Mukaish, Kamdani and Badla to lend it a heavier and richer appeal. Also, apart from the original use of white thread, one can find a fine collection of threads of different materials and varied colours. Integrating this needle work with stones, embellishments or jail work gives it an eclectic appeal.

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The process of Chikankari has five different stages: Designing; Engraving; Block printing; Embroidery; and finally washing and finishing. The desired patters are sketched and then engraved on one or more dye blocks which are collectively used to put together a beautiful pattern on the ground fabric. The embroider then stitches on the pattern using different stitching patterns depending on the design and the shape required. There are around 36 different stitches that are done here. They are broadly classified into three types: flat stitches, open trellis like ‘Jali’ work and raised or embossed stitches. Some of these intricate stitching patterns are described here.

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Bakhya: Also called the shadow work, it has two types, Ulti and Sidhi. Normmally done from the wrong side of the fabric, Bakhya is also known as the double back style.

Tepchi: It is a long running stitch which is employed for simple straight designs. It is usually used for outlines.

Hool: It is a detatched eyelet stitch wherein a hole is punched into the fabric and the threads are teased apart which are then held back by small straight stitches all around. It generally forms the centre of a flower.

Jali: Here the thread is never drawn through the fabric making sure that the back side looks as perfect as the front. The fibres of the cloth are torn apart slightly and tiny buttonhole stitches are inserted into the cloth.

Zanzeera is a small intricate fine chain stitch generally used to outline leaves or petals.

While Phanda is a millet-shaped stitch and Murri is a rice shaped minute stitch, both of these are used to embroider the centre of flowers in ordinary Chikankari motifs.

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There are various other stitches like Turpai, Darzdari, Rahet, Banarsi, Khatau and many more which lend the art work a unique look altogether. The style of stitching is chosen according to the pattern to be followed as in this embroidery style, strict rules are followed. It is obeyed that a stitch assigned for a particular purpose has no other alternative and cannot be replaced by any other stitch. Though, frames are used these days by the chikan-karigars, it was not used originally. Originally, the fingers and the thumb of the left hand were used to hold the cloth in place and then the stitching was done by the right hand. Once the stitching is over, the fabric is checked for any flaws and is then washed before it is starched and ironed. The whole procedure can take up to six to seven months.

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Though the art form has reached out to the world and has seen a number of variations under the impact of Globalization, it still retains its authenticity and glamour. It is widely worn by people all across the world in various forms. Be it scarves, sarees, kurtis or even gowns, this indigenous art form has spread all over the fashion industry.

So, next time you visit the Nawabi city of Lucknow, make sure you get your collection of this prized art form!