No place in Lucknow reveals its deep relationship with chikankari as does Chowk. The street bazaar was once the centre of shopping activity in Awadh.
Today, its identity is reduced to being the core of Old Lucknow and with every passing day it finds itself distanced from the tidiness and order of the newer Lucknow that came about on its periphery and eclipsed its existence.
Chowk is to Lucknow what Chandni Chowk is to Delhi: an expanse of narrow streets and alleys, tiny houses and shops. Relics of its glorious past preserved in its folds, occasionally revealing themselves in dilapidating buildings.
On a recent evening, this is where I found myself. Seeking respite in the chaos and cacophony of the street bazaar after a few tough days in a city hospital.
I had returned to Lucknow for the first time almost a decade after my two-year-long stay here. At that time I lived there like a local, bored of everything associated with the Lucknow of olden times; ignoring its domes and minarets, kebabs and nihari, chinhat pottery and chikankari. Simply because they were everywhere. They enticed outsiders, but had no element of surprise for the locals.
That was more than ten years ago.
A decade later, I was exploring this maze of streets which is also the biggest cluster of chikan shops in the city. Few jewellery and wedding goods’ shops apart, chikan is all that is sold here. Chikan is all that’s bought. Chikan is all that’s enquired about and bargained.
The nawab-era Gol Darwaza, one of the city’s most famous landmarks, is the gateway to the most sought-after chikan goods in the city; ones that suit the middle-class customers’ pocket and tourists’ quest for souvenirs. The heavy encroachments are themselves hidden under banners and posters of chikan shops.
A walk through the Gol Darwaza takes one to what is probably the city’s oldest chikan market. Well-lit shops, few of them barely 8-10 feet long and four to five feet wide, take space rationing to a whole new level.
If you are new, you may have shopkeepers going great lengths talking about which of the 36 stitches of chikankari are showcased on the product that has caught your fancy.
If you are an old chikankari fan, there are reasons you may be alarmed!
For long I have laughed at the ‘Chinese’ chikan sold in Delhi markets, it, therefore, was a surprise to find it making way to Lucknow, the exclusive hub of chikankari in India.
A little research revealed that industry body The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), in 2016, had raised concern about the Chinese chikan threatening the centuries-old craft of chikankari. The report noted that the Chinese variant is up to 30% cheaper, and faster to prepare.
Clearly, in the city of nawabs also the quest for a quick buck has turned shopkeepers towards a fast-food version of the ancient and venerable craft.
Whether in Lucknow or outside, all that’s available in the name of chikan today isn’t really chikan.
The Chinese variants have penetrated all markets from street bazaars of Chowk to posh Hazratganj.
The dichotomy of its existence sometimes reveals itself in the reactions of shopkeepers.
While a salesman at Hazratganj’s famous chikankari store Adah tsked at being asked about the Chinese chikan, many shopkeepers and customers in the same market appeared indifferent to it. Their priorities were clear: as long as it gets sold, it’s chikan!
Ironically, ‘authentic’ chikan has become a category of clothes in the city that popularised and preserved the craft of chikankari for centuries.
The rich craft, believed to have been introduced in India by Mughal empress Nur Jahan, is pitted against chikan that is rolled out from Chinese factories.
Chikan craftswomen (for women dominate this workforce) are competing with machines.This competition is more of identity than market. Chikan garments, owing to their intricate designs and time-taking embroidery, have never been priced very low. But the craft’s Chiniseation may eventually lead to its sad and unfortunate death.