Chikankari History

Chikankari is a form of stitching different forms of design on cloth (traditionally white) which has evolved over centuries in the capital of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow. This form of stitching which has delighted both the Kings and the commoners for centuries was patronised particularly by the Nawabs of Awadh. Though the origin of this art form is debatable, it flourished and gained its importance in the past two centuries. That it has survived the loss of royal patronage, suffered deeply at the hands of commercialization, lost its way sometimes in mediocrity and yet stayed alive, is a tribute to the skill and will of the craft persons, who have handed down this technique from one generation to another.

The word ‘Chikan’ is probably a derivative from the Persian word ‘Chikin’ or Chikeen which means a kind of embroidered fabric. This form of embroidery became very popular with the king and his nobles and was embroidered on the finest Daccai mulmuls or muslin garments which were most appropriate for the hot, tepid climate of north India. There are some very fine Mughal miniatures that depict the Emperor Jehangir in white flowing muslin garments believed by historians to be `chikan’.

Today, this delicate form of embroidery is practiced in and around the city of Lucknow, a city so favoured by European travelers once upon a time, that it was popularly called ‘the Constantinople of the East’. It is synonymous with the architectural elegance, cultural finesse, social warmth and an enduring love for gracious living associated with the city.

Creation of a chikan work (chikankari) piece begins with the use of one or more pattern blocks that are used to block-print a pattern on the ground fabric. The embroiderer then stitches the pattern, and the finished piece is carefully washed to remove all traces of the printed pattern.

The patterns and effects created depend on the types of stitches and the thicknesses of the threads used in the embroidery. Some of the varieties of stitches used include backstitch, chain stitch and hemstitch. The result is an open work pattern, jali (lace) or shadow-work. Often the embroiderer creates mesh-like sections in the design by using a needle to separate threads in the ground fabric, and then working around the spaces It consists of 36 different stitches in which the major stitches are called as “Bakhiya” “Fanda” “Murri” “Bijli” “Pechni” “Ghans patti” “Ulti Jali”

This art became limited to a fast depleting community of Chikankari artisans, mostly Muslims concentrated in muhallas of old Lucknow, where exploitation was rampant as the middlemen grabbed the profits, giving a pittance to the ‘kaarigars’. A day of back-breaking labor would yield just about ten or fifteen rupees. Since the payment was per piece the workers would try and turn out as many as they could, greatly compromising the quality of work. A lot of fine traditional designs and stitches were corrupted. From among 32 known stitches merely six were in common use. The good artisans were abandoning the trade for more lucrative jobs and trade. Crude and substandard shadow work was sold even in Lucknow’s posh markets in the name of Chikan.

Today this art form is thriving with some NGO’s and few companies trying to help artisans stitch better garments and sell directly to people across the globe opting to wear chikan saris, kurta, and dresses, eliminating the middlemen which in turn has resulted in better remuneration to the artisans . More monetary benefits have resulted in new generation of artisans opting to take come into the trade. With these positive changes, Chikankari has now been extended to a wide variety of home and linen products like curtains, bed spreads, table cloth, table napkins, cushion covers etc. It is exported across the world and finds place in the works of great fashion designers of the modern era.

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