Traditional Chikan Embroidery in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, North India

Tereza Kuldova

Traditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from LucknowTraditional Chikan embroidery from Lucknow

Images taken during the author’s fieldwork in Lucknow (2011)

These pictures show a system of production and its result: traditional handmade embroidery in North India. But who are the people involved in this system and how do the materials of production shape their relationships? What local connections does embroidery help to create?

Chikan embroidery is produced in the city of Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Although the geographical origins of Chikan embroidery are uncertain, most written accounts trace it back to East Bengal. At some point, the centre of its production shifted to Lucknow and this embroidery style was patronized by the Nawabs, the Shia Muslim rulers of the Awadh area (1775 – 1856), today’s Uttar Pradesh. During this period some of the most beautiful and delicate pieces were made. The rulers would order angarkhas (a type of salwar kameez or long shirt originating from the Mughal period) from master craftsmen, who took anything up to two years to complete and embroider them. The muslin cloth was said to be so thin and exquisite that the piece could be worn no more than twice before being torn or destroyed. While white thread was traditionally used on thin white muslin cloth, it can be found nowadays in a wide number of colour combinations and materials. In the 1970s it emerged from a period of decline during British rule to become one of the largest craft sectors in India, employing hundreds of thousands of people in Lucknow and its surrounding villages. 

Chikan embroidery and communal relations in Lucknow

While Chikan textile industry forms the heart of Lucknow’s economy and its exports, it is worth drawing attention to the relationship between Chikan embroidery (as an object or material) and the organization of social life. Here the material plays an important role, with the ability to help shape, nurture and sustain relationships, as much as potentially to break them. In brief, I will outline this form of embroidery and the consequences for social relationships that emerge through its production. 

Lucknow is known for its relaxed communal relations between Hindus and Muslims. While other neighbouring cities have in recent times experienced Hindu-Muslim communal violence, riots and murders (e.g. the wave of communal violence in 1992 provoked by the demolition of the Babri mosque by Hindu nationalist organizations in the nearby city of Ayodhya) Lucknow has always remained remarkably calm. So how does the material itself – Chikan embroidery – fit in here? 

Hindu nationalists came to prominence in the 1990s and their political agenda combined with a series of economic liberalization policies was associated with a reemergence of the ‘coolness of Indianness’ and thus also of Chikan. The dreams and narratives woven into the Chikan embroidered fabrics are those of the former royal era of Lucknow during the rule of the Nawabs; Chikan speaks of India before the British. Chikan embroidery is a material manifestation of the ethos of this imagined past when communities lived alongside one another, when Muslim rulers celebrated Holi (traditional Hindu spring festival, known also as festival of colors) and Hindus joined in the processions during the Muslim mourning period of Muharram. This imagery is perpetuated in the stories told, as much as in the branding of the ‘traditional Lucknow’ for both locals and tourists, in which Chikan embroidery stands out as the artefact par excellence embodying this narrative and imagery. It connotes the very concept of Lucknow. 

While this imagined past, manifested through embroidery, runs counter to the narratives of Hindu nationalists with their anti-Muslim platform, Chikan embroidery helps to hold the city of Lucknow together through more practical socio-economic networks of interdependency. These networks are established through the multi-staged production process that involves great numbers of actors at various stages, connecting them in relationships of mutual obligation and patronage. These are networks of interdependency that cut across divisions of class, caste, religion and space. 

Businesspeople hold these networks together through the provision of capital and by way of their organizational power. A businessman, who is often also a designer (businessman-cum-designer), buys selected fabrics, gives instructions to the tailor, and after that sits with the printer to discuss the designs to be embroidered. After printing, the cloth and stitched pieces are sent to neighbouring villages or work centres to be embroidered. The embroidery may take several months, even as long as a year in the case of a delicate sari. After the embroidery is done, the pieces are sent back to the businessman-cum-designer, then again sent out to be washed and dyed, and later returned to the shop where they are checked and finished by girls working there. This is a somewhat standard model. Many people in the business still use middle-men, but at the same time more are working directly with the craftsmen and watch more closely over the production to guarantee better quality and standard. 

It is clear that the production process involves many actors from very diverse communities. Those who have the most capital – the businessmen-cum-designers – are mainly Hindu; the girls who embroider are often Muslim, while greater numbers of Hindu girls are learning the craft as a means to earn a little extra money. They often learn from Muslim girls and will sometimes work with them in small village centers, usually a room in a house where they gather to work on the orders; this is where mutual prejudices tend to dissolve. The tailors are both Muslims and Hindus and so are the washermen and dyers. Some have large set-ups with many rooms for tailoring, washing and dyeing; others do their tailoring on the roadside, sheltered under a tree, and clothes may be washed in the Lucknow Gomti river.

Chikan production encourages people of such different social, religious, class and caste backgrounds to interact and contribute to the production process through this shared labour. Chikan cannot be done in a single place or by any one person. Its existence depends on the shared effort of people and their lives depend on Chikan and its production, while through Chikan, they come to depend on each other. The Chikan embroidery industry thus creates an economic bridge of mutuality. These practical economic networks are crucial for the reproduction of the popular narrative of Lucknow as a peaceful city, where communities have lived in harmony with each other for centuries. This has to be set against the actual social problems and prejudices, and patterns of exploitation in Lucknow, despite its reputation as significanly less affected by intercommunal violence than many other cities in North India.

Further reading:

Kuldova, T. 2009. Networks that Make a Difference: The Production of Social Cohesion in Lucknow, North India. Master’s thesis, University of Oslo, Department of Social Anthropology. The thesis can be downloaded here: http://www.duo.uio.no/sok/work.html?WORKID=91391.

Varshney, A. 1997. Postmodernism, Civic Engagement, and Ethnic Conflict: A Passage to India. Comparative Politics 30(1): 1-20. 

Varshney, A. 2002. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wilkinson-Weber, C. M. 1999. Embroidering Lives: Women’s Work and Skill in the Lucknow Embroidery Industry, State University of New York Press.

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1 Response to Traditional Chikan Embroidery in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, North India

  1. Syed Noor Hossain says:

    I was born in 1945 in the Muslim populated village of Babnan in Hooghly district of West Bengal. The village is well-known for its Chikan industry. As a child I saw almost in every family ladies were engaged in Chikan work. In Collin Lane of Kolkata a lot of people from Babnan used to live and were engaged in this industry. Chikan works were sold in Kolkata and other major cities during the British time. I heard that people from Babnan used take merchandise to USA in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Many of my relations, including my own uncle, travelled to USA with Chikan cargo.
    Unfortunately, I did not find any mention of Babnan at all in the article. I was told by my elders that probably the inhabitants of Babnan originally came from Lucknow because they found some similarities in the food habit and life style of the Muslims in these two places. Babanan was always a prosperous village, probably owing to the Chikan industry. The village also produced the first Muslim graduate of India (in 1861 from Calcutta University), Khan Bahadur Delawar Hossain Ahmed, a civil servant, writer and religious reformer.

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