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Home > Textiles in India > Textiles of North India > Uttar Pradesh
Uttar Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh is a state of overwhelming contrasts in a land where extremes are normality. Densely populated, there are over ninety-eight million people, most of whom are poor farmers - the state is enriched and often flooded by the Ganges river. The Ganges dominates the state, emerging from the foothills of the Himalayas at Hardwar to flow on to the vast expanse of plains, passing by the holiest city of all, Varanasi (formerly Benares). Fine woven brocades of precious metals from Varanasi and delicate white work (embroidery using white thread upon fine white cotton fabric) from the capital, Lucknow, are the most famous textiles of Uttar Pradesh.

[ Chikan WorkBrocades ]

ChikankariChikan Work
Lucknow is a cultured city of beautiful buildings that lies at the centre of Uttar Pradesh. Now the capital of the modern state, in 1775 it had become the capital of the state of Oudh, when it at once began to attract craftsmen, artists and musicians who were patronized by the court. One of the crafts that developed was that of chikankari, or chikan work embroidery, a kind of white work. The pattern, of predominantly floral designs, is stitched using untwisted white cotton or silk (and now rayon) on the surface of the fabric). There is a fixed repertoire of stitches and it is usual for several types to appear on the same piece of embroidery.

Chikankari is a delicate, fine Indian embroidery done in white cotton threads on plain muslin cloth. The ancient history of this style is uncertain, but it is known that in the 18th century it was introduced from the state of Bengal (now Bangladesh) into Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, still the chief centre of production in the 20th century.

Under the patronage of the nawabs of Oudh (now Ayodhya), chikan work attained a rare perfection. It relies for effect on simplicity of design, the motifs being limited in number and the excellence of the work being judged by the minuteness and evenness of the embroidery. The number of stitches is also limited; the most common are the darn stitch, the inverted satin stitch, the elongated satin stitch, network, and appliquι work. The art was in danger of dying out, but a revived demand in the second half of the 20th century contributed to its renewed vitality.

The Chikan designs depend for its effect on the variety of stitches used and different grades of threads used to form the patterns that include, the lace like jali, the opaque fillings and the delicacy or boldness of outline and details.

The most beautiful part of chikan work is the open work ground. An effect of drawn thread work is achieved without drawing out any. The flat stem and stitch and large areas of open work to prevent either a crowded or too scattered appearance balance tiny raised flowers done in what seem to be French knots.

Chikan work is thought to have originated in Bengal and to have been practised in Dacca and Calcutta. The jamdani weaving of Dacca must have been influential, as also eighteenth-century European white work. The visual effect of a jamdani weave is of a series of flowers or geometric designs, set against a semi-translucent mesh background. Bengali chikan work produced the same kind of effect through embroidery - a method both simpler and cheaper than the more skilled weaving process. (Here indeed, a parallel can be drawn with the introduction of embroidered shawls in Kashmir at the beginning of the nineteenth century.)

ChikankariNormally, fine white stranded cotton is used for chikan embroidery. Some stitches are worked from the front of the fabric, others from the back. Sheila Paine, in the book Chikan Embroidery, observes that there are six basic stitches, which are used in combination with a series of stitches for embossing flowers and leaves. Pulled work (known in chikan work by the Hindi word jali, which means a window with a pierced lattice, which can be looked out of but not into) and khatao (an applique-and-cut technique, where one piece of fabric is hemmed on to another piece and then cut away) complete the repertoire.

Now all the fabric used is mill-made, and cotton/polyester mixtures and thin silk are used in addition to cotton. Certainly the nature of the chikan work industry has changed after the beginning of the twentieth century. The quality of chikan work suffered a catastrophic decline due to the loss of patronage from the courts and the zamindar (landlords), and the industry became orientated towards the mass market.

The last two great master embroiderers died in Lucknow in the early 1980s. Whilst there are still embroiderers who work to commission, the vast majority of the work remains cheap and rough, and is used to decorate the salwar-kameez (suit) and other garments that are exported abroad and sold cheaply all over the bazaars of India.

Apart from kurtas, saris, salwar suits, topis, handkerchief and dupattas, chikan embroidery is being used on new items Iike table covers, tray covers, napkins etc. The demand for these exquisite art pieces is ever increasing both in India and abroad. In Lucknow the main concentration of chikan work is to be found in the chowk locality and Daliganj.

Besides chikan work the Zardozi and Kamdani works of Lucknow are also appreciated far and wide. These hand embroidery works with gold and silver thread are done on saris, dupattas, lehengas, cholis, caps, shoes etc.  From time immemorial Lucknow is known for its jewellery and enameling work.

The Brocades of Varanasi
Varanasi Brocade sareeThe town known by its ancient religious name as Kasi, by its present Sanskritized name of Varanasi, and more colloquially as Benares, lies across the Ganges and is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. It is one of the four most important places of Hindu pilgrimage, and an auspicious place to die and to begin again the cycle of rebirth.

The city consists of small and busy streets famous for temples and dharamshalas. Alaipura is traditionally the district of Varanasi where the famous Benares brocades are woven though they are now also woven in other parts of the city.

Brocades are textiles woven with warp and weft threads of different colors and often of different materials. The Benares brocades are woven in silk, with profuse use of metal threads on the pallavs (end pieces) and the field of the sari. The weavers are Muslim, but, significantly, they are not known by the common word for weaver, jullaha, but as karigar, which means artist.

The important traditional weaving centers of Varanasi known for their distinctive style and designs are Madanpura and Alaipura. Each has its distinctive style of weaving. The work of Madanpura is traditional and is known for its highly sophisticated designs and shades of colors, and is woven on light transparent materials. The most outstanding examples are fine cotton, zari, Jamdani, organza, tissue saris or dupattas with konia of kairi, the stylized mango pattern at each of the corners; and a big circular pattern called chand, moon shaped, in the center. The ground of this fabric is either woven with diagonal creepers called jhari, or a variety of small flower patterns popularly known as buttis. Since the material is often light and transparent, the weaving technique is so fine that the pattern gives a double-sided impression. It is a fact that the turban cloth of the royal Mughal courts and other native rulers was woven at Varanasi. Many ruling states of India, including Varanasi, patronized the weavers of Madanpura.

The work of Alaipura is not as sophisticated as that of Madanpura, which is barely five kilometers from Alaipura. Its pieces considered coarser, Alaipura has been producing heavy brocaded material, mainly used for furnishing. Alaipura weavers easily adopted new designs and weaving techniques, and were ready to experiment with other regional patterns. In fact, the experimental nature of Alaipura weavers have helped the brocade industry of Varanasi to survive even at the crucial period when traditional designs were not much in demand and they kept pace with changing fashions and designs. The master weavers of Alaipura can also be credited for weaving some of the brocade designs that were on the verge of extinction in their own regions.

The brocade designs of Varanasi are indicative of the subtle aesthetic sensibilities of the weavers. Effective color combinations, the use of gold and silver zari, and a judicious inclusion of borders and buttis woven with adequate spacing are the outstanding features of Varanasi Brocades.

The brocades are woven in workshops known as karkhanahs, which are a series of interconnecting rooms, usually on the first floor. Almost every square inch of ground space in the room is taken up with looms, and above each loom hangs a crowded arrangement of strings leading down to the loom heddles. The weavers work in artificial light (nowadays, by an electric light), in a calm and quiet atmosphere which is conducive to the concentration needed for the weaving of such complicated designs.

Corner of Silver Brocade sareeThe zari thread, known as kalabattun, consists of finely drawn gold, silver or base metal thread, wound round a silk thread. Silk traditionally came from Bengal, Central Asia and Italy, but now comes from either Malda, in Bengal, or from Kashmir or Japan. Varanasi paradoxically lies within a cotton-growing area, and although there is documentary evidence of cotton textiles dating back to the first millennium BC, there is no mention of silk brocades.

The East India Company arrived in Varanasi in 1764 and took over the administration soon afterwards. Varanasi then became a haven for many rich merchants and noble families escaping from the troubles of post-Mughal north India. These were the clients who patronized the Benares zari and brocade manufacturers, and demanded textiles of the type of fineness that gave the Benares brocades their name. According to local legends, Varanasi was one of the centres to which brocade weaving was brought after a great fire in Gujarat in 1300.

The most famous brocaded textile of Varanasi is called kinkhab (a Persian term) woven with a coarse but durable silk known as mukta which is heavy enough to take brocading with gold or silver thread. Kinkhab was also woven at other centres, notably Ahmedabad and Surat in Gujarat and at Paithan, Aurangabad and Hyderabad in the Deccan. Kinkhab was a heavy fabric, often used for furnishing but rarely for clothing, and was not only a popular trading article on the local market, but was also exported to Europe. Silk-and-zari-work brocade of lighter material and less heavy ornamentation is known as pot-than or bafta. The name for brocades without any metal thread work is amaru.

Benares brocades are woven on pit looms. Traditionally, the design of the brocade was first worked out on paper and then an expert, known as a naksha bandha, rendered the design into cotton threads on a naksha (the indigenous thread device that performs the same function as the Jacquard). The naksha bandhas of Varanasi were so skilled that they tied the designs for the weavers of other brocading centres, such as Surat in Gujarat and Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. Today in Varanasi, the jacquard device has overwhelmingly replaced the use of the naksha.

The delicate designs of the past were replaced at the end of the nineteenth century by patterns taken from Victorian sample books of English wallpaper. These very heavy designs have now been largely superseded by patterns inspired by the folk art of Assam, Bengal and Gujarat, and adaptations of Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari paintings. Varanasi sari brocades, deep-colored and laden with gold thread, are the popular wedding attire for wealthy Indian brides.

The densely populated north of India has a proud textile tradition, but there is not nearly so strong a local demand from the rural population for hand-produced textiles as there is in west India. Contemporary Phulkaris and Chamba rumals are very rare indeed. Rural life has changed irrevocably and no longer is there time or need for the working of these beautiful textiles. The commercial chikan work embroidery long ago lost the rich patrons who would commission the work, leaving it an industry dedicated to the decoration of cheap garments for the foreign and domestic markets.

The remaining strengths of the northern textile tradition are the commercial embroidery and weaving of Kashmir and the commercial brocade weaving of Varanasi. Both have strong mass markets, which provide a base within which textiles, of technical excellence and beautiful design, rival the products of the past.

The originality of the Varanasi weavers lies in the fact that after absorbing the essence of a pattern, the designer used his own interpretation and innovated a pattern suitable for weaving. The Benaras designers also did not like the monotonous quality of the Persian pattern. Innumerable variations were made from a single pattern.

Another adaptation from the Persian prototype that became the specialty of Varanasi is Latifa buti. It is said that a designer called Latif Mia adapted the design so well that it became popular by his name. The Latifa buti pattern is of a flowering plant swaying with the wind. In order to achieve this effect, it is slightly curved, thus creating a rippling effect.

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