Figure 1 - Chikankari Garment 

Ganjefa: The Game of Cards is a story written by Naiyer Masud and Deepa Zafir. The story traces the narrator’s (a man) interactions  with his mother and  the people of Lucknow. With the passing of his father, the protagonist makes his way homeward to settle in with his mother. Set in the midst of riots and hardship, the protagonist narrates his mother’s plight and ailing health. Being the breadwinner of the family she struggles day and night, squinting her eyes as she works the needle and thread doing chikankari. Realising that her health is deteriorating she asks her son to call a woman named Husna to come to her aid. He runs through the gullies and eventually reaches her house and requests her to come. In a later conversation the narrator’s mother tells him that he forgot to tell Husna which house he belonged to but Husna herself realised as she immediately identified the Chikankari work done on his kurta. The Chikan work becomes a pincode of one’s identity as it is generally done by somebody who is close to the wearer. Behind every motif and thread is the person who is carefully embroidering the cloth to make a delicate piece of work. The story of Chikankari is one of the makers and their secret intention to reveal their affection. Despite the physical distance they are present through these embroidered layers.




The origin of Chikankari is highly debated but it is widely accepted that it belongs to Lucknow. In every other pocket of Lucknow, mothers and sisters are busy embroidering some Chikankari; mapping  the entire city with their delicate white on white work. Paola Manfredi says Chikankari is “unique, with its own aesthetic codes and technical prowess strongly rooted in the ethos of Lucknow’s cultural and social identity… . Chikankari was not just an added ornamentation, but a complex syntax of dressmaking, superbly mastered by specialized craftsmen, embroiderers and tailors, karegars and darzis, which developed in the stylish atmosphere of the city. (Manfredi, Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition 2017,56). The embroidery, generally associated with the nawabi culture, trickled down to commoners and became a visual marker to identify Lucknavi people. The city, dressed in white enchanted viewers as every piece of clothing differed from the other. Within the piece of textile-the white on white teasingly played with shades and textures as silk and cotton thread was used in interspersed ways. The commonness of Chikankari establishes that it is a language widely used. However, its individuality reiterates that every piece of it is a different declaration of love addressed to somebody special in the eyes of the maker.





The American movie Letters to Juliet, revolves around a sacred site in Italy that is supposed to bring good luck to lovers.  People come to leave notes declaring their love for someone and leave it at the site. To keep the spirit of hope and destiny in love, a group of women respond to the letters. One such reply to a woman gives her the confidence to search for the person she once loved and in the end she is able to find him and they rekindle their affection for one another. 

Chikankari evokes the similar sentiments to the notes of love. One has to take a leap of hope and put aside their pride to reveal their feelings. There are many stories related to Chikankari, one such is the story of a princess in Murshidabad who wooed the Nawab of Awadh with her Chikankari skills. She embroidered a  cap for the Nawab that made him smitten for her. Soon all the other ladies in the harem took to Chikankari as a means to find prospective husbands. 

Hidden away in the zenana, women remained in their premises and didn’t venture out much.  They followed the norms of purdah and scarcely  revealed themselves to the public. Yet they made themselves visible to the people they were interested in by wooing them with their embroidery. These delicate  letters of cloth retained their touch and smell revealing just enough for the other person to kindle an interest in them. 


The motifs embroidered in Chikankari signify this play of hide and seek. They are simple, sometimes opaque and other times slightly revealing. Empress Nur Jahan, a patron of crafts and embroidery was influenced by the architecture around her and imbibed some of the architectural features into embroidery. The Jali, an open, intricately patterned window is found on various monuments. It acts as a decorative piece of work but also functions as a shade. The Jali, though wide and open, is intimate. The little openings within the design,create windows through which you can get glimpses of the outdoors and indoors depending on where you are standing. In Chikankari, there are various types of Jalis. They differ in size and shape but generally the squares or odd shapes are less than one sixteenth of an inch. The small openings of the Jali work compliment the Khatao and Bhakia  applique work that is plain and flat.

Stitches like the Khatao (inverted stain stitch), Bhakia (herringbone), Tepchi ( running stitch), Murri (french knot) are used to embroider symbols of status and ritual importance like the paan motif and fish insignia. However, it is when they are used to create intricate patterns that have no defined motif or meaning, that the delicacy of love is reflected. Symbols of jewelry - the Kil (nose pin), Kangan (Bangle) and Bijli (earring) are interwoven into the floral Chikankari work, making the woman’s quiet  presence felt within the busy surroundings. The stitches invisibly hold the garment together with the forces of affection and care. 


Figure 2- Motifs


Paola Manfredi calls Chikankari a ‘System of Gracefulness and Elegance’ wherein the ‘the fabric, the embroidery, the designs and the cutting, the way the different portions are assembled together, blending aesthetic with functional into a whole’(Manfredi,  Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition, 2017, 235). The elegance of the Chikankari garments is reflected in the care that has been taken to even make the seams a part  of the ornamentation of the garment. Daraz, is an exquisite yet simple  way in which pieces of cloth are joined together. It is  done stylishly in applique patterns of tiny triangles, fish, cypresses, creepers, tiny flowers. The long, thin creeper-like patterns are found near the armhole, collar and sometimes across the entire garment, hiding all the seams with its visible unending decorative designs. 

Figure 3- Seams


The use of muslin for Chikankari further elaborates the theme of subtle presence. The seams, though underneath, are revealed by the translucent nature of muslin.Muslin, like Chikankari, reflects the teasing  and quiet nature of declaring  one’s affection for another. The fabric is thin, soft and comfortable. It was popularly used by the Mughals for these reasons but it was also symbolic of piety. The lightness of the fabric gave an ethereal, otherworldly quality which rulers used to establish their divinity. The fabric maintained this piousness as well as created a delicate grandness with the use of Chikankari. 


The layers of white on the Chikankari garment signify the thought and  detail that goes into its aesthetic process. The muslin’s white is offset by the white thread of the cotton and its differing shade of white that is produced by the use of silk threads. The patterns utilise all these shades of white to make it an elegant and graceful garment that is widely accepted in society. Within the system of respectability and grace, feelings of intimacy are intertwined in the creepers and seams. They are visible  upon closer look and are felt only by the body of the wearer. The wearer steps out of his house, carrying the presence of his lover, sister, mother who is hidden within the settings of the home. Through the garment, the privacy of affection is sheltered and at the same time the wearing of Chikankari outside, unabashedly announces that everyone has a loved one who is physically apart from them in this moment but very much present within them.  



Written by Rukmini Swaminathan. 

Rukmini is a researcher at The Registry of Sarees. She is interested in textile, design and architecture history and hopes to explore  her interests through these journal entries.



Zafir; Deeba , and Naiyer Masud. 2008. ""Ganjefa": The Game of Cards." Indian LIterature, November: 72-97.

Ashmore, Sonia. 2012. Muslin. London: V and A Publishing .

Findly, Ellison Banks. 1993. Nur Jahan; Empress of Mughal India . New York: Oxford University Press.

Islam, Saiful. n.d. Muslin. China: Artron .

Kenney, Nicolas. 2014. "Emotions and City Life." Urban History Review 5-7.

Manfredi, Paola. 2017. Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition . Delhi: Niyogi Books.

—. 2016. "Chikankari from Lucknow: Origin of a legend." Indian Horizons, April- June: 47- 62.


 Image References

 Figure 1- Chikankari Garment,  Lucknow, 2014 

Manfredi, Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition, 2017, 167

Figure 2- Motifs, Lucknow, 2014 

 Manfredi, Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition, 2017, 207

Figure 3- Seams, Lucknow, Late 19th or Early 20th Century,

 Manfredi, Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition, 2017, 162



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