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Threading the Past to the Present

Noor Jahan was said to have been a fine embroideress. She channelled her love for the art and her skill at embroidery to formulate chikankari

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Every other day, Empress Noor Jahan’s Lucknow meets ours, as her rivaayats find new ways of sneaking up on us — left behind in a tanga (horse-drawn carriage) outside a kabab shop, entangled in the manjha (thread) of a kati patang (broken kite), old secrets stuck in dark corners of an even older family home in the Chowk Bazaar and, ever so often, unbeknownst to a fashion statement being made, stuck in the creased corners of a crisp white chikan dupatta.

The delicate and gossamer textures of chikankari weave together many lives and stories, from Noor Jahan to women artisans in modern-day Lucknow’s bustling Chowk.

Considered the most influential woman of her time, the story of Jahangir’s twentieth queen Noor Jahan, born Mehr-un-Nissa, is a dramatic moment in history where the widowed daughter of a Persian noble boldly redefined the role of the empress of Mughal India. Born to the Persian aristocrat Mirza Ghiyas Beg and his wife Asmat Begum, Mehr-un-Nissa went from being a widow to a lady-in-waiting, and from being Padshah Begum (Empress Consort) to the ‘light of the world’ (Noor Jahan). She is said to have been a great patron of the arts. Situated historically at a time when the Mughal Empire was at its pinnacle, Noor Jahan used this very patronage of the arts as her political agency over different parts of a vastly diverse empire.

There are a few historians who connect Noor Jahan’s patronage of the arts as an attempt to inject a somewhat nebulous idea of republic over the Mughal Empire. Naive in its fledgling attempt against the backdrop of the rule of an opium and alcohol addict husband, Noor Jahan’s idea of governance and inclusion was remarkably ahead of her times.

With royal sanction from Jahangir to govern the affairs of the state and coinage struck in her name, Noor Jahan was involved in administration and confederacy in the Mughal Empire. Many put her as the harbinger of great prosperity to the northern and central regions of the Empire.

One such strategically-important region, was Awadh, which, with its distinctive tameez and tehzeeb, had emerged as one of the 12 original subahs (top-level imperial provinces) under Akbar, Jahangir’s father and Noor Jahan’s father-in-law. A seat of political power even today, Awadh in general and Lucknow in particular, went on to synonymise itself with cultural evolution in northern India. Even today, the Urdu language, the Lucknow gharanas (schools of thought) in Hindustani classical music and dance, Awadhi hospitality and cuisine, and Malihabadi Dussehri mangoes continue to serve as aides-mémoires of Awadh’s cultural capital.

A continuing metaphor for the Awadhi legacy particularly in the long and ruthless north Indian summer months is chikankari. Combined with an attention to detail and a love for age-old traditions, chikankari is a rivaayat (institutionalised knowledge) that Lucknow has carefully preserved. The word ‘chikan’ comes from the Persian ‘chikin’ or ‘chikeen’, which translates into delicately-embroidered fabric. Some link the word to a distorted version of the word ‘chikeen’/‘siquin’, a coin valuing four rupaiyya, the fees paid by Noor Jahan for the first embroidery to the Persian artisans. Others believe the word and the embroidery actually originated from East Bengal dialect, in which it means ‘delicate’ or ‘fine’.

Noor Jahan was said to have been a fine embroideress. She channelled this love for the arts, skills at embroidery in one culmination that gave birth to chikankari. Even as she developed intricate patterns of Indo-Persian embroidery, sometimes inspired by Rajasthan and sometimes by Kashmir, often mirrored in the Mughal architecture, she brought in artisans from a village in the Koh Mehr district of Persia. These artists were entrusted with teaching their craft to families in Awadh. Embroidery was on undyed white shazaada cotton or Dhaka ki mulmul, sourced from the eastern ends of the Mughal Empire. At the time, the fabric lengths would largely be used for dupattas. As the artisans — usually women in purdah — began to find a regular source of income, the skills and secrets got passed down generations.

According to Abdul Halim Sharar’s book Guzishta Lucknow: Mashriqi Tamaddun ka Aakhiri Namuna (Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture) after the death of Noor Jahan, chikan had begun to fade from public memory. It was resurrected around the 1830s under the rule of Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, the second King of Awadh and an anglophile. Presented at darbaars and popularised by the king’s extravagant presents to the British, chikankari was brought out of the doldrums, moving from just dupattas to other garments, including the-then evolving gharara (long skirt) worn by women as well as kurtas and panels of the dopalli topi (twin-panelled cap) worn by men.

Even to this day, chikankari takes place in a series of stages over a period of months or sometimes even years. At the outset, a length of cloth is envisaged as a kurta, a dupatta, a saree or whatever it is going to be, and cut accordingly. A wooden block is then created to stamp the pattern on the cloth. Coated with indigo, the image on the block is stamped onto the cloth. The initial stages are usually processed by male artisans. Interestingly, most motifs continue even to this day to be the ones originally created during Mughal times. The obvious buta, koni, arka and others are credited quite ostensibly to the summer soirees of Noor Jahan and her zenana.

The embroidery process starts with every bit worked on by artists, most often women, working in groups specialising in one particular stitch. The process is a part of old Awadhi socialisation and often when a group completes its particular stitch, it is passed on to the next group. These artisans have now organised themselves in a number of successful enterprises. Mechanised factories have replaced clusters and profitability has greatly improved. In true Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim cultures), Lucknow weaves its social fabric, as intricately as it pieces together its chikankari.

In a Lucknow that like many other cities, is consuming its own language, old family homes and rivaayats in an attempt to become bigger and better, each layer of the chikan story is perhaps the story of Lucknow itself.

(Neha Simlai is an international consultant working on environmental sustainability and development themes across South Asia)

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