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Last Updated: Monday, 3 March 2008, 11:05 GMT
Can Indian embroidery resist Chinese threat?
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Lucknow

Chikan is a form of intricate thread embroidery

In the narrow back alleys of Lucknow city's Vikas Nagar area, a group of women sit on a rooftop soaking in the winter sun.

It's a weekday February afternoon, the men folk have gone to work and small children are asleep in this north Indian city.

The older ones have just returned from school, they've been fed lunch and are now running around playing.

And the women, finally free of domestic chores, are busy doing chikankari - a form of intricate embroidery work which this city is famous for.

"I learnt the craft from my mother-in-law. She was an expert at it," says Nasreen Jehan, while working furiously on a white sari with a purple border.

It will take her 15 to 20 days to complete the job, and she will be paid 400 rupees ($10) for her work.

Little pay

Nasreen is a member of the city-based NGO, Lucknow Mahila Sewa Trust, which is working with more than 2,500 women embroidery workers like her.

Manufacturers employ close to 200,000 women from in and around the city - most of them illiterate Muslims.

Lucknow embroidery worker (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
Most women involved in embroidery work are paid very little

The pay is not much - those registered with Sewa get a minimum of 35 rupees a day (just a little below a dollar).

In many factories around Lucknow, the embroidery-makers are paid as little as 20 rupees (half a dollar) or sometimes even less for a day's work.

But even that paltry sum goes a long way in the slums of Lucknow where most families live in abject poverty.

Farida Jalees, secretary of Lucknow Mahila Sewa Trust, says now the embroidery workers have a reason to be worried.

'Biggest challenge'

Hundreds of thousands of metres of cloth, often with very similar embroidery, is now being made in China and this "Chinese-chikan" has made it to the shop shelves in Lucknow in the past two years.

"In China, the embroidery is done by machine, it looks smooth, it has a better finish. And they can make it quickly, in huge volumes and meet the market demand. This is our biggest challenge," Ms Jalees says.


"Our women here work with hands. So their work doesn't have that kind of finish. And it takes a lot longer to make each piece which means our prices go up. Now if we continue to get Chinese-chikan, then we will be pushed out of the market."

Chikankari is widely believed to have originated in Persia many centuries ago, and it was brought to Lucknow in the 17th century by Noor Jahan, Mughal emperor Jehangir's queen.

For the last 200 years now, chikankari has thrived in the city, so much so that today Lucknow is often called the city with the first claim to the craft.

The embroidery has caught the fancy of fashion designers in Bollywood and has made an impact on international couture too.


But with the invasion of the cheap machine-made Chinese variety, Lucknow's reputation as the number one in the craft is facing a stiff challenge.

At Narang's store in upmarket Sahara Ganj shopping mall, the Chinese-chikan is giving serious competition to the original hand-embroidered variety.

Shop-owner Gurbir Singh shows me some of the samples. It is difficult for an untrained eye to make out the difference.

Women embroiders in Lucknow (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
Lucknow has more than 200,000 women embroidery workers

A shopper takes keen interest in an orange-green shirt. "It's very pretty. I really like it and would love to buy it for my daughter. But this size is too big. Shame they don't have her size," she says.

It's obvious the made-in-China tag doesn't seem to bother the customer.

In the last few years, Chinese products have invaded Indian markets big time. Be it electronics or toys or household items or cheap fabric, the made-in-China label is everywhere.

Chinese products score because they are cheap, and widely available.

Time will tell what impact Chinese chikan will have on the local industry.


Farida Jalees says it should be documented as soon as possible. She is also campaigning for the patenting of the embroidery form to ensure India doesn't lose out the craft to China.

"We are pushing the Indian government to file for a patent on chikan embroidery. Just as we are fighting for patenting the basmati rice, we must fight for chikan too. It belongs to India, it belongs to Lucknow.

Chinese made chikan embroidery in a Lucknow shop (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
The China-made chikan is selling quite well in Lucknow

"It's a matter of bread and butter for the hundreds of thousands of women who are dependent on the craft," she says.

But some say in the present globalised world, competition cannot be wished away and the industry should modernise to meet the challenge head on.

Dinesh Kumar is the owner of Nazrana Chikan Industries - one of the largest chikan garment manufacturers and exporters in Lucknow.

"We have to live with the fact that you cannot stop China from exporting its goods to India. But what I want to know is why can't we change the way we work? Why can't we produce chikan garments which are able to compete with the Chinese fabric in finish and pricing?"

At 1100, his factory is buzzing with activity. The tailors are cutting cloth, sewing machines are whirring full speed, the readymade garments are being counted and labelled and a designer is dressing a mannequin.

The company makes traditional designs for the Indian market, and also high-end clothes which are exported to Australia, Spain, Italy and many other countries.

Mr Kumar says the industry need not fear the Chinese invasion.

"Our craft is very specialised. China can copy some of our designs, they can do some of our stitches, but chikankari has so much variety, they can not copy all our designs. Lucknow's chikan is safe," he says.

Perhaps that's why Nasreen is upbeat about her future.

"There is so much demand. And nowadays so many new fancy designs have been introduced in the market. I think the market will grow further and with that the demand for our work is bound to grow," she says.

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