Italian Love For Lucknawi Lyricism


Paola Manfredi’s coffee table book, Chikankari-A Lucknawi Tradition, is a tribute to the heritage craft, its origins and evolution. 

By Anandi Paliwal

Paola Manfredi has lived and worked in India for 30 years. Her passion for textiles grew stronger here. The exchanges between the East and West intrigue her and have led her to work with Indian craftsmen and their traditional skills, particularly aary and chikankari from Lucknow and nakshi kantha from Bangladesh. Recently, her coffee table bookChikankari – A Lucknawi Tradition, was launched in New Delhi. Paola’s hardcover, published by Delhi-based Niyogi Books, talks about one of Lucknow’s oldest crafts — chikankari. Paola says, “Though chikankaari actually developed towards the end of the Nawabi era, it is often taken to epitomise the best and ultimate refinement of Nawabi and Lucknawi culture. Classical chikankari is an intricate, yet delicate, white embroidery on very fine white muslin, which plays with different stitches to create myriads of subtle combinations and textures. In spite of its celebrated exquisiteness and fame, chikan embroidery has ever hardly been the focus of in depth research or descriptive works.” Present at the launch were specialists in chikan wear, designers Meera and Muzaffar Ali (belonging to the Muslim royalty of Kotwara), and Jaya Jaitly, president, Dastkari Haat Samiti.


Sari, Lucknow, early-mid 20th century, cotton muslin with cotton embroidery, Chhangamal Chikans, Lucknow.


The brilliant pictures in Chikankari – A Lucknawi Tradition showcase unknown gems from personal and public chickan collections that bring to life the history of this unique craft. Various chapters describe mysterious origins of the craft, the range of costumes, the inspirations behind its motifs, the time honoured elaborate production process, and the bewildering array of stitches that raised the craft to a truly exceptional art form with its unique vocabulary.

Why a book on Chikankaari? Paola says, “In the early 1990s, I was invited by Laila Tyabji to document chikan embroidery at Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) – Lucknow, for Dastkar’s project aiming at creating handbooks on Indian embroidery traditions intended primarily for craftspeople. While searching for references and documentation, I was surprised to find almost none! Despite the celebrated finesse of this tradition and various initiatives and government schemes to revive chikankari, very few samples of the highest expressions of this craft were visible or even accessible. How could there be a revival of this craft if no references and samples are available and accessible to the craftspeople with which they could associate their art and evaluate their work? The need to write a book on the Lucknawi tradition originated from the need to document and to bring to the attention of the general public and of the artisans this exquisite needlework.”

In the foreword, Jasleen Dhamija, a veteran Indian textile art historian and crafts expert, sums up the brilliance in Paola’s work. She writes, “the detailed description of the techniques where most of the 72 stitches are explained in an extraordinary repository of technical know-how. She (Paola) has not neglected the local terminology, which is most important and is often neglected by many Indian scholars.”


The carving

Wood to stitch: The three stages of a pattern.


The trace


The final work


The history

During the British Raj, chikankari was done on hand stitched garments. If anything other than embroidery was added or stitched onto the garment, a protective tariff was charged under the trading law.

The book also mentions a wandering saint who taught this fine craftsmanship to Ustad Mohammed Shair Khan, an ancestor of Faiz Khan, the first recipient of the Master Craftsman Award, in the early 1960s. The saint later disappeared and “chikankars believe that he was sent by god himself”, so, they still pay homage at Ustad Mohammad Shair Khan’s Mazar (tomb).


Noblewomen playing chess in the zenana at the Oudh court. Attributed to Nevasi Lal, Lucknow, circa 1790-1800, opaque.


Though Lucknow embroiders lean towards chikan’s Persian origin, scholars believe this craft originated in Eastern Bengal. They believe chikankari started in Eastern Bengal and its knowledge was carried forward to Lucknow in the 18th century, during the period of luxury and extravagance that characterised later years of the Oudh court. Diaphanous jamdanis were produced in sophisticated workshops of Faizabad, Jais and Tanda, by craftsmen, who possibly migrated due to the loss of job opportunities in Bengal, to support the lavish and luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite in Lucknow.

The placement of the embroidery motifs indicates the Central Asian origin of this craft. They were embroidered as protective talismans all around the openings like the borders, sleeves and pockets.

A gender sensitive craft

According to Paola, chikan is a gender sensitive craft. Few versions state how the Mughal empresses Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal initiated this tradition by commissioning master craftsmen to interpret the decorative elements of Isfahan mosques and palaces, and transfer them onto delicate stitchery. In another story, the credit for introducing the art of chikan embroidery to Lucknow goes to an anonymous princess from Murshidabad. Being bored with the indolent lifestyle of the zenana and to attract the attention of the nawab, the lady embroidered a very beautiful cap on delicate muslin for him. Soon, the other ladies, jealous of her success in attracting the Nawab, also took up the art of embroidery.

These stories were romanticised by master craftsmen and the traders, which effectively carried forward the chikan industry. Fine muslins like tanzeb or adhi were produced in Lucknow, as they were preferred fabrics for chikan embroidery. But the growing inflow of British machine-made textiles during the second quarter of the 19th century led to the decline and eventual demise of the handloom muslin industry. Also, with Indian elite opting for western wear during the British Raj, this traditional industry was seriously affected. Economically, this period saw a decline in demand for high quality chikankari on traditional formal wear like angrakhas, chapkans (fitted coat) and achkans.


Short top/blouse-Lucknow, 19th century, silk with cotton thread and silver wire (badla), Crafts Museum Delhi.



Caring for chikan

An excerpt from the book describes the exceptional care that goes behind preserving this traditional craft. What Paola also learnt after working with SEWA for 30 years, was that the ‘dhobis’ played an important role in preserving this delicate fabric. Paola describes the process of washing these delicate items of clothing in her book. “The top of the bowl is criss-crossed with sticks and on these the washer-man places a pile of the soaked embroideries. He then covers it with a plastic cloth and leaves it to steam all night. This removes the magenta dye…the next stage is done by the river…large holes dug along the banks, lined with plastic and filled with soapy water in which they are washed, sorted by colour. The soap is a dry acidic salt (rehu) extracted from the earth and in appearance is like white sand. Then follows the spectacular pounding on the wash boards by the river. Starching is the last stage of chikan after which the pieces are left to dry in the sun before ironing.”

The art of preserving

In early days, people took great care of their clothes without washing them for months on end. When a gentleman went out in Lucknow, he put on his chau goshia, a four cornered cap, fresh from the mould, a spotlessly clean anghrakha worn over linen or muslin pyjamas, a triangular scarf over the shoulders, a handkerchief and cane in each hand, and locally-made khurd-nau (light short-toed velvet shoes) on the feet. At night, the chau goshia was put back on its mould and covered with a cloth. The angrakha, pyjamas and handkerchief were carefully folded and wrapped in a scarf to be put away. This way, expensive clothes lasted four to five generations. In 2008, a group of entrepreneurs and NGOs registered ‘Chikankari from Lucknow’ under the Geographical Indication (GI) law. This certifies the authenticity of a product from specific areas, guaranteeing that it is ‘made according to traditional methods, or enjoys a certain reputation’.

Paola’s book brings to light many lesser-known aspects of a time-tested tradition and its evolving motifs.


Featured image: Angrakha, late 19th-early 20th century, cotton with cotton embroidery, private collection. All pictures: Chikankari – A Lucknawi Tradition.