Three days in Lucknow: A behind-the-scenes look at what goes into the perfect chikankari kurta

We spent a few days interacting with and observing the chikankari artisans of Lucknow

Rashmi Rajagopal Published :  10th January 2020 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  10th January 2020 12:00 AM

It is often in the most unexpected places that one finds pure beauty. Case in point: Husainabad, Lucknow. Here, along the chaotic, narrow and winding streets bordered by open drains are the workshops, set inside houses, where some of the best chikankari work in the country is produced. But the residents of Husainabad are just part of the multiple-step process that the craft demands. 

A kurta with the block-printed design before being embroidered
A kurta with the block-printed design before being embroidered

Artisan connect
It was early December when we flew to Lucknow for a chance to interact with artisans and learn about the work that goes into the much-sought after embroidery technique. Our first day there saw us visiting Radhakrishna Overseas Corporation on Sitapur Road. This factory, set up in 1996, specialises in the production of chikankari garments. We were taken through the various processes involved, right from cutting to stitching to washing. We moved from section to section, examining the tools, fabrics, machinery and block prints (used to print the design over which the embroidery is done). Almost every room was a sea of white. We laid eyes on some of the most pristine cotton kurtas, blouses and fabric displayed on shelves and hangers as Rajeev Sharma, the owner of the company, explained every step to us. However, this was a corporate-like set-up. We were keen on learning about how things work outside, on the congested lanes of Husainabad and the villages around the city where small-time artisans practise the craft.

Chikankari on organza
Chikankari on organza

Fine print
About an hour outside Lucknow lies a cluster of villages where chikankari is an integral part of almost every household. These little hamlets were to be explored the next day, so we stopped by at Husainabad, where craftsmen prep the textiles before they are sent to the surrounding villages to be worked on. The houses are set close together with tiny windows being the only source of ventilation. We stepped inside one house and saw a few young men bent over pure cotton and georgette fabrics, effortlessly and accurately printing designs onto the plain white cloth. The ink used is a mix of indigo and gum. In another house, we spotted piles of kurtas and tunics fully embroidered and stitched, with the blue outline of the designs still in place. This is where the washing and bleaching are done after the garments are worked on. This is the final step.

Saeeda Bhanu with the lehenga she was working on
Saeeda Bhanu with the lehenga she was working on

Stitch in time
The main agenda for the next day was to spend time with the village artisans. Our first stop was at a village called Mohsand. Here, we met Asma, who learnt the craft from her sister-in-law. We watched her working on a piece of fabric, as she told us about the various stitches she has mastered. “Chikankari is something we do when we have free time, after we have sent our kids to school and our husbands to work. The money we get from it is added income, but we cannot live on it,” she said. Then, we were taken to the house of Ruby Khatoon, a 22-year-old, who knows all the stitches that make up the chikankari craft. We were told that there are 40 in total and some of the most common are phanda, jaali, tepchi and bakhia or shadow stitch.

Next, we moved on to Darsanda, a ten-minute drive from Mohsand. We spotted Saeeda Bhanu sitting with her friends on the stairs of her porch working on the most exquisite georgette lehenga. Clad in velvet from head to toe, a scarf covering her hair and neck, Saeeda shared that she makes Rs.2,500 per lehenga. When we asked her if she ever wears what she makes, she replied, “What I create is too pretty to wear every day.” We travelled on foot along the dusty mud roads of this village until we reached the house of Razia Khan, our final stop. This 18-year-old showed us some of her work which was the most intricate and neat of all the artisans we had seen. 

By the time we wrapped up, it was late afternoon and we drove back to the city before sunset. Our time with the artisans was an eye-opening experience and when we visited some of the highly recommended stores later on, we had a better understanding of what we were buying.

On the third day, we packed up and left for the airport, having ticked off all the boxes on our list —  a visit to the Imambara, galouti kebab at Tunday Kabab and shopping at Aminabad and Hazratganj.

Fabindia’s chikankari collection will be launched at the end of Jan.

The writer visited Lucknow on invitation from Fabindia.