Magical Hands of Lucknow

Artisans deserve the smartest salute this month as they keep communities together by immortalising the belief of different people in their craft

The hammer and tongs energy of artisans deserves a standing ovation this month of May. Bent over for centuries in numerous workshops to spin exquisite artifacts with nothing except the magic in their fingers, calls for endless celebration.

Agriculture is the dominant economy here but traditionally handicrafts have been the backbone of all mercantile activities. This sector continues to be the largest employer after agriculture. However it is not just about livelihood for thousands of artisans who most importantly have kept communities together by keeping alive the mythological, religious, social, historical and artistic expression of all citizens in their craft, that are both objects of utility and beauty.

For eons people have used and enjoyed metal and woodwork, hand printed textiles and scarves, leather crafts, hand knotted carpets and embroidered goods, stone carvings and inimitable jewelry.

Lucknow continues to be famous for its filigreed embroideries with chikan being the most well known. This kind of embroidery employs a complex set of stitches that make it so unique. The bel or creeper is a common design. The embroiderers create individual motifs or butis of animals and flowers on cloth by first printing the desired design on fabric with wooden blocks, using colours made from mixing glue and indigo with water.

Together with chikankari, other arts and crafts flourished in Lucknow after the decline in the power of the Mughals in Bengal and Delhi. Like other professionals artisans too came to Lucknow, an island of peace surrounded by a sea of troubles in the 18th century, in search of patronage and jobs.

And over time a large part of the population of Lucknow was made up of traders and artisans.

This is because grants were given to all those with talent so that they could live in Lucknow permanently. Artisans had thrived making ornamental shoes, gold embroidery and by weaving art fabrics. In particular jamdani and tanzeb made Lucknow a centre of crafts where all sorts of courtly products flourished. At this time high tariffs made sure that the British were unable to exploit the trade of artisans and had safeguarded the interest of the local mercantile community.


This way the artistes could concentrate on their art without worrying about capital ormarketoutlets. Productionwasinprivate hands and artisans paid a certain amount of tax after which there was no interference in their trade.

Technical training was given on the job by the experienced often by father to son and the goods catered to a non-sectarian market. Artisans used motifs like fish, jungle scene, palm leaf patterns, hunting scenes, human figures both heavenly and monstrous and calligraphy that were acceptable to people of different beliefs.

Textiles was big business. Weaving, dying, printing and the glazing of calicos was the order of the day. The vibrant community of koris and julahas had engaged in large numbers in cotton weaving, making the weavers of Lucknow very prosperous. Innovation was the trademark of artisans here who were excessively ornate without imitating anyone.

Lucknow was known for its silk and cotton products, for its thin and transparent gauze, net and fine plain muslin like garhi and addhi that served as ground material for chikan and kamdani embroidery. Another variety of cloth produced in Lucknow was called sharbati which was high on finesse and light in texture.


Much in demand was the flowered white muslin like jamdani that was remarkable for its intricate and flawless ornamental motifs inserted by hand during the process of weaving. Another kind of flowered muslin was tanzeb. Verses in Arabic and Devnagari were often embroidered into the weave invented by one known as Bhika who is said to have first woven the name and praises of his patron into the cloth. The weaving of tanzeb is so complicated that a handkerchief can take up to half a year to complete.

Lucknow was also famous for its silk products and brocade weavers were known as tashbaff.

Bleaching and dyeing of cloth was followed by weaving into it favourite tints like the pale blue baizai, and turquoise blue zangari. The art of dyeing cloth was done mainly by Muslims known as rangrez and nilgars.

In affluent Lucknow, embroidered articles were much in demand during the lavish celebration of festivals and religious ceremonies, when the most popular floral designs in butis were mango-shaped patterns also used in zardozi coupled with dots of kamdani.

Chikan embroidery was once upon a time a thriving industry and this way of embroidery on silk is Lucknow’s own invention.

Very Popular

Also popular was enamel work on gold and silver jewelry, swords, furniture and bangles. Lucknow artisans were known for decorating the back of ornaments with much care as the front. The base of a huqqa is an example of silver decoration on metal that was often highlighted with gemstones. For those who were unable to afford such luxury there was always copper ware for their use.

The bidri and kuftgari enamel work was also decorated with aftabi or cutout designs.

Then there were the gotawalas or gold and silver lace dealers or kandilakash. This was a highly organised industry with its own mint. The kandilakash worked with a small set of tools or machines like a charkhi or wheel and jantari or iron plate. He invariably used his fingers and toes to make wires by beating thin sheets of gold and silver and running it through holes in the jantri several times to make thin wires called muqaaish or kamdani ka taar. These wires were used to make laces like tashbadla and for kalabatun and filigree embroideries.

Made of clay

There was also a lot of lac and copper work. Clay figures were also made in Lucknow and considered the best. The work in clay included glass tiles, flower pots and colourful jars, displaying a great variety of shades of pale purple, green and blue, once the favourite colours of the city.

Chuhi was the clay in bright red or dark yellow and was used to make cups, saucers and lamps. Pota was light gray in colour and of fine variety. The clay called parai mitti was not from Lucknow but imported from Mathura by kasgars, thakurs and kumhars.

Woodwork including furniture carved in enamel paintings on fine wood had decorated bed rests, cabinets and cupboards and enjoyed a wide market far and near. Many artisans had exported their goods and the commercial value of art remained unchanged till the middle of the 19th century when trade and industry were both snatched away from the hands of local people.

The decline in the life of not only artisans but of the city began due to restrictions imposed on free trade, making bidri work almost vanish. In the absence of zero policy of protection, artisans are starved of capital and markets making them give up their art to often earn a living as laborers!

This weaver is so wow!

Kabeer Weaver

Kabir the most inspiring of all artisans wrote in the 15th century:
I weave your name on the loom of my mind, To make my garment when you come to me. My loom has ten thousand threads To make my garment when you come to me

Brought up in Varanasi in a Muslim household of weavers, Kabir was as skilled in poetry and music as he was in weave and weft. But the only word that the illiterate mystic poet could write was Rama.

The weaver poet was a follower of Swami Ramanand, a Vaishnava saint born in Allahabad in early 15th century and pioneer of the bhakti movement. Kabir imagined the creator of the world as a supreme object of love not to be found in Kaaba or in Kailash but most likely at the washerwoman and the carpenter. Kabir abhorred institutional religion and was suspicious of the self righteous holy men representing both the Hindu, and Muslim religions.

In an effort to explain life to himself he sought and twined together symbols and ideas drawn from conflicting philosophies and different faiths as he might weave together contrasting threads upon his loom, needing all of them to figure out the character of the One like all the colours of the spectrum are needed to demonstrate the simple richness of the colour white.

Kabir had lived in times of great political upheaval, perhaps not too different from our own times and spent his entire life in the belief that no religion teaches human beings to be hateful towards others.

Kabir is buried in Maghar, near Gorakhpur.

Her Royal Highness

Royal Mughal

That Empress Nurjahan had steamed her way into the heart of Mughal Emperor Jahangir by laying out feasts fit for gods, is only half the truth. The lovely lady of Persian origin had also impressed the very fashionable Jahangir with gossamer thin cotton fabrics in white muslin, and filigreed with fant asies in chalk white thread by magi all the way from the Iranian city of Ispahan, invited to Delhi.

Years later as the Mughal court disintegrated, many nimble fingered needle workers had flocked to Lucknow where they continued to sew under the patronage of rulers of Persian origin and so fastidious about fine things in life. Chik in Persian means embroidery and kari is from Sanskrit karya or to do. Over time chikankari has became synonymous with Lucknow and the delicate art was traditionally mastered by men.

Once monarchy was dethroned in the mid 19th century, men moved on to more lucrative ways of earning a living while women found it convenient to take care of the family and also to supplement their often meagre income by doing needle work in the house. However the crass commercialization of the art in recent times is disastrous, particularly for nearly 2.5 lakh chikankari workers most of whom are women and who continue to receive pittance for their intensive labour.

To explore the possibility of returning dignity to the chikankar and to their art Sanatkada, a local NGO for women hosted a discussion with scholar Paola Manfredi, Runa Bannerjee, Mamta Varma, Ruth Chakravarthy and Jaspal Kalra as part of the on-going LUCKNOW TALKS series that revolves around topics of local interest and concern.

Textile designer Paola has been working with chikankar for years and is fascinated with the technical virtuosity and aesthetics of both the art, and the people responsible for creating the most exquisite embroidery on earth. It is her dream to see a museum and training center in Lucknow for thousands of craftswomen whose life and work is threatened today by the shove and push of the market.

Paola’s inspiration is the Bhuj-based collective Kala Raksha founded by Judy Frater, an American scholar by birth. Together with local embroiderers, Judy formed the Kala Raksha Trust in 1993 which is a great success story because artisans are responsible for the direct sale of their art, allowing them to dictate their wages. Since the 1970s, Judy has lived in tribal villages of Maharashtra and Rabari villages in Gujarat. She has sold Rabari artifacts in New York with an information kit that provides information on the origin and history of the piece, making the buyers familiar with the product and the people who made it.

“It is my dream to have a Kala Raksha kind of institution for chikankari workers,” is the prayer of Paola. At the moment many chikankar in Lucknow do not earn enough to feed or to clothe themselves. Mamta Varma and Ruth Chakravarthy, two entrepreneurs who have been supporting chaikankari for several decades narrated tear jerking stories of the financial situation of the female chikankar today.

A young girl came to the center in the same clothes every day. When I asked her why this was so she said that she wakes up before sunrise every morning to wash the only pair of clothes she has. She performs the usual household chores as she waits for her clothes to dry before dressing up to come here to embroider,” said Ruth.

Mamta too knows of chikankar who are unable to afford even a cup of tea. Runa Banerjee who is credited for having saved female chikankar from total annihilation said that the workers are a little more self-reliant today. Runa’s work began with a Unicef-supported study on the lives of artisans in India. In the 1980s she found that the life and work of Lucknow’s chikankar was highly exploitative, especially for women and children. In 1984, Runa set up Sewa in Lucknow for the social and economic empowerment of deprived and exploited women. The result is that the life of at least 10,000 women is transformed.

Designer Jaspal Kalra too is a great admirer of the work of Judy in Bhuj, Gujarat. He has taught students at technical modules on how to convert designs into garments. Originally from Lucknow his research and documentation work on chikankari is called essence of an indigenous heritage of endurance.

Together with Paola, Runa, Ruth and Mamta, Jaspal hopes to engage all interested citizens and the state government to help to restore the low morale and self-respect of skilled artisans here and to revive and document the exquisite art of chikankari before it disappears from life.

Forty Stiches

Sometimes brass-blocks are used for extra fine designs as base for chikan embroidery. There are a variety of stitches like the darn stitch done on rough cotton fabric to fill angular designs and to cover the surface of the fabric. Satin stitching is preferred for delicate fabrics like silk, muslin, or linen. Some stitches are done from the bottom side of the fabric, inspiring artisans to follow different stitches to create different designs. No one stitch is a substitute for another. Different artisans excel in different types of stitches like open work or jaali is not done by embroiderers adept at filling work.

Out of at least 40 different stitches known, about 30 are still practiced. The stitches are different types like flat stitches, raised and embossed stitches, and the open trellis-like jaali work. Some of the stitches that are used in chikankari work include taipchi, pechni, pashni, bakhia, ghaas patti, dhanya patti, murri and keel kangan.

Bakhia is of two types- ulti bakhia and sidhi bakhia. The floats of thread lie on the surface of the fabric and used to fill the forms.

Another is khatao, khatava, katava or cutwork or appliqué. Some stitches like gitti, jangira, murri, phanda and jaali are popular. Embroidery is done on fabric already shaped into a pattern by the tailor. Then it is washed in a bhatti, starched, dried, ironed and ready for sale, the entire process taking up to half a year to create one embroidered piece of cloth.

Forty Stiches


All was well with artisans till terrible commercial policies of the East India Company spelled disaster for the crafts. In pre-colonial times, the textile industry accounted for about 30 percent of the total artisan population in towns and villages.

Perhaps, 60,000 specialist weavers and dependents lived in Benaras and some 250,000 in Avadh, 200,000 in Rohilkhand and 30,000 in the lower Doab. Then, most artisans had engaged in large- scale operations, working collectively in informal groups rather than guilds.

However, guilds were common among skilled urban artisans in other parts of the country. In the 17th century, the karkhanas of artisans were sponsored by courtiers in most North Indian towns. The more formal guild was a more common form in pre-colonial south India.

In imperial cities, the court provided substantial protection, both direct and indirect, to collectives. In all regions, community and masterhood were primarily dedicated to the training of labour and to quality control.

No patrons

Azeem Haider Jafri is one of few calligraphers to earn a living practicing his exquisite art. He is a master of regular calligraphy or kitaabat and pictorial calligraphy called toghranaveesi.

With few patrons, it is an uphill struggle for Jafri to make ends meet. Once in a while when he gets a contract to design Quranic verses at religious places like mosques, dargahs and karbalas he feels lucky.

Otherwise there is a dearth of work. With the onset of computer designing, he finds it hard to compete with technology which is so fast. But hand calligraphy is far more beautiful than designs made on a computer. On computers the space on the page is already defined while it the calligrapher free to use the space as judiciously and artistically as he wants using his hand.

Despite computer technology having taken over lives, Jafri believes that it is sheer barkat or blessing of the Almighty that he continues to fulfil his familial responsibilities as well practice his art which is the love of his life.


No money

Zardoz Asif Ali Muzaffar was 10 years old when he first picked up a needle and some thread.

That was in 1979. He even gave up studies after grade six because the art of zardozi was lucrative business those days. Due to increasing costs and the involvement of a chain of middlemen, a zardoz earns less today than even a daily wage labourer.

Everyone reaps the benefit from this exquisite art except the artisan,” says Asif who is barely able to make Rs 5000 per month.

Asif knows zardoz who left Lucknow and are earning good money in countries like Bahrain, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Lucknow pioneered zardozi work but they are reduced to astute poverty today despite straining their eyes continuously for 10 hours or more everyday in poor light. This affects the eyesight of zardoz, many of them having turned blind in the winter of life.
If living and earning conditions worsen further, the art is sure to die away, leaving the business in the hands of those who nothing of about zardozi.

Zardoz today know how to hold a needle and use it mechanically. Master artisans of yore had played with the needle, the gold wire threads and patterns,” regrets Asif who does not teach the art to his children and wants the government to provide loans and subsidy to artisans so that they are able to earn a living and the art survives.


No loans

Seventy year old Najjan Ustaad is an expert in art of aari that is mostly done in combination with zardozi. He has been at it since 1952. Today thick glasses rest on the wrinkled bridge of his nose but he continues to weave patterns.He works in the same workshop as zardoz Asif.

A loan is just a token. For good returns in this business a minimum capital of Rs 10 lakhs is required,” explains Najjan as his lean fingers hold the aari needle and continue to swirl on the velvet cloth fixed taut on the ‘adda’ before him.

Najjan, earns about Rs 5000 a month and although he would have preferred his children to find more lucrative jobs they embroider as well due to a lack of alternative opportunities.

Very angry

Mojiz Raza, 50 has been a kaamdani artisan since he was seven years old. Today things have changed for the worse for him.

Skilled artisans are reluctant to practice the art and innumerable stitches are already forgotten,” says Raza as he separates the nickel coated wire used in kaamdani to embroider dazzling silver patterns on the cloth. His colleague Yawar Hussain, is an angry man.

Our lot is worse than labourers. But what can we do. We just sit in a room and quietly work day after day,” says Yawar creating awesome patterns in silver and gold, with various stitches like hathkati, nokeeli patti, mundi patti, ring, kaata and jaali.


Worse for women

It is worse for female kaamdani workers who earn even less than their male counterparts. Neelu, 23 is deserted by her husband and she is the sole bread winner of a family of a five year old daughter, a two year old son and a grandmother.

I earn Rs 25 per lachchi, the spool of kaamdani wire which is at least two days of work and by the end of the month I barely make Rs 500,” says Neelu as her hapless grandmother looks on. The grandmother too had earned a living for 40 years embroidering kaamdani but now she is almost blind.

Neelu too may meet the same fate as her septuagenarian grandmother and the less said about the fate of this beautiful art, the better.


Sole income

Rukhsana Begum is a single mother of three tiny tots. Chikankaari is her sole income.

I make about Rs 2000 a month and still do this work as I don’t know how else to make a living,” says Rukhsaana, taking a pause from the mango-shaped buti on a white cloth, held tightly on a round wooden frame. In butis that have jaali work, Ruksana puts a net cloth to give an illusion of the stitch and which is time consuming and labour intensive. According to Ruksana few know all the stitches of chikankaari. She learnt everything from her mother who was taught by her grandmother. To save time and to earn a little more money, Ruksana prefers not to work with intricate stitches, that may soon be forgotten.


Death of artisans

Kazim Hussain is fourth generation gotawala, running his business from a congested alley of Chowk’s Gol Darwaza area.

This is home to a 100 year old shop that has inherited from his ancestors. His shop dazzles with silver and gold gota or lace.

Gone are the days when gota was hand made with real gold and silver thread, rues Kazim adding that today machine made gota is used to cut down costs.
He is afraid that soon the art may perish in age where golden lace made in Chinese have flooded the gota bazaar, signaling the death of the gota artisan as well as the art.


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