Chikankari Export

A consumer’s delight and the artisan’s pride, Chikankari forms an integral part of the Indian Ethnic Wear. Be it Ladies Chikan Work or Ethnic Wear for men, Lucknow Chikan is adorned equally by both men and women. Since time immemorial, Chikan has been accredited as a masterpiece not only in India but in other parts of the world as well. Chikan Embroidery has been famous as Indian Embroidery in different countries. Chikankari has registered and witnessed global acknowledgment and this has proved as a catalyst for the export of not only Embroidered Apparel but also Embroidered Bed Sheets, Embroidered Table Cloth, and Embroidered Cushion Covers.

Lucknow is the birthplace as well as the largest exporter of this unique Hand Embroidery. Although the charm of the city might have pined away recently but a global celebrity like Madonna donning Chikan apparel is a clear indication of the popularity the Lucknow Chikan has outside the country. MLK Exports is the leading export company that is famous for exporting product of this Hand Embroidery. Since 1975, this company has exported Chikan Embroidery products like Dresses to global brands like Amina (Japan), Fashion Fuse (United States), Ghora Tabela (Uruguay), Jackpot (Copenhagen), Betina Gers (Argentina), HHG (Spain), Coline (French), etc. Many more such brands including the aforementioned have ordered stocks worth crores of Rupees and this indicates about the reach and the global appeal of this unique hand crafted artistry. Internationally acclaimed designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have been using Chikan Embroidery in their designs for 20 years now. What makes their contribution even more uplifting for the image of this beautiful Embroidery is that the duo got an actress of James Bond series fame, Judi Dench, to wear one of their magnificent Chikan embroidery creations to receiver an Oscar in 2004. Calvin-Klein, one of the most respected and famous fashion brands of the world once gave an order of 1000 pieces to a vendor in the Chowk area of Lucknow and nobody even got as to such a high profile brand ordered the shipment until the last stock was delivered. Such anonymous and large demands for Chikan kari by famous international brands are common in Chowk area not only for garments but also for bed linen.

SEWA, an NGO to uplift the livelihood of Lucknow Chikan artisans, had Comitato, an Italian Company, as a major client for 10 years and the artisans supplied 2000-2500 pieces of Chikankari in a year. All these examples of global recognition of this unique and indigenous embroidery provide a clear picture of the exports and the popularity of Chikan products ranging from Lucknow Kurtas and kids kurta payjamas to girls salwaar kameez, throughout the globe. Through movies and fashion industry alike, this masterpiece from the bag of Indian artistry has influenced the choices of not only the common masses but also has grabbed the attention of celebrities and stars from around the planet.

 

Chikankari Artisans

When it comes to the art and handicraft of our country, Lucknow Chikan is one of those treasures that has been an international favourite for centuries. The enchanting city of Lucknow is known more for the craft of Chikankari than any other craft or even the monuments that exist today; such is the beauty and importance of this Chikan Embroidery. The rich and the elite of the medieval times had their silk garments of muslin and gossamer decorated with this exquisite and rich needlework and even today, Lucknow Chikan forms an integral part of the wardrobe of the rich and the elite across the country.

Since its conception, Chikankari has been inspired by the intricate and beautiful patterns and the linings on the marble jaali found during the Mughal era architecture. The Nawabs had their own personal artisans and their families trained to design Chikan Embroidery garments that suited the royal stature. With utmost devotion and passion for their masters, these artisans worked on angarkha and topi-palla creating delicate hand embroidery that was unmatched in style and charm. With time however, the encouragement and the patronage gradually diminished and these artisans were forced to look for other means of employment. With this, the art of Chikankari was passed on to the women of their community and till today, Lucknow Chikan is the main source of income for the Muslim women in and around the rural areas of Lucknow city. With around 2.5 lakh artisans presently in the business, Chikan Embroidery is by far the largest cluster of artisans in India. Workers from the stitching block printing, cutting, washing, jaali work and textile printing also form a part of this diverse cluster with all of them residing in or around Lucknow. It is surprising that this beautiful craft of hand embroidery manufactured by hand within the 125 km radius of Lucknow and adjoining districts has reached out to so many people not only in India but all around the world.

Today the artisans of Lucknow Chikan face many difficulties in the form of lack of equipment and the ever increasing costs of manual production that has diminished their profits to a large extent. Moreover the modern means to manufacture Chikankari garments are cheaper and faster than the traditional methods, which is why the craftsmen are unable to sustain a healthy livelihood for their family. Various NGOs have come forward for their welfare. Due to their initiatives in the field of hand embroidery, various State Government and Central Government schemes have been implemented. Craft Development Centres have been established in the suitable areas that have helped the artisans of Chikan Embroidery a lot in the past decades. Still much needs to be done for the development of this skilled set of artisans. One NGO that has worked tirelessly for these people is SEWA (Self Employed Women Association). With the help of the development commissioner (Handicrafts) this NGO has completely transformed the way these women Chikankari artisans earned a livelihood using their needles and threads.

Chikankari Stitches

India during the Mughal rule is known for its rich culture, heritage, food and the “Taj Mahal“. Knowingly or unknowingly our minds miss this fact that India’s gems also lie beyond just Shahjahan’s creation. Lucknow Chikankari or Chikan Embroidery is one such handicraft form. In the previous article we looked at the history of chikankari, at the popular motifs, and how they are transferred on the fabric. In this article we look at the different stitches employed which differentiate this work and mesmerize hand embroidery enthusiasts across the world.
Chikankari embroidery uses a broad repertoire of about 35 types of hand embroidery stitches including chain stitch, button hole stitch, french knots and running stitch and can be broadly divided into three types, flat, raised or embossed stitches and the jaali work.
1) Flat stitches – The flat stitches are very fine stitches. It gives the look as if the embroidery is itself the texture of the garment. Some of the popular ones as known in the local lingo are ulti bakhia1(shadow work), tepchi2 (running stitch), pechni (variation of tepchi where thread is further entwined to give a spring like design) and jangira (chain stitch)
2) Raised stitches – This stitch provides a beaded/embossed type of look to the garment. Some of the popular motifs with this kind of work include murri3 (rice or pear shaped patterns), phanda (finer and smaller than murri work), seedhi bakhiya (satin stitches with criss crossing of threadwork on fabric, reverse of shadow work), ghas patti (leaf patterns with V shaped stitches), dum patti4 (leaf patterns with cross stitches) and keel kangan5 work (nail shaped center with circular murri work around it).
3) Jaali/Jaal6 work – It is done in the form of very fine and delicate net or trellis like design.

Chikankari is known for the popular shadow work, which is work done on the opposite side of the garment so that just barest outline of the pattern appears on the surface and the crisscrossed threads underneath show through creating a “shadow” or opaque pattern. Daraz7 and Katava (similar to appliqué) work where smaller fabric pieces are joined together to create designs, requires a great amount of craft and effort and hence is one of the most sought after by the chikan enthusiasts. Use of beads, sequin, crochet8 and mokaish (white flat silver strip embroidery) have also gained wide acceptance in the original pristine chikan work.
Hand embroidery may be tedious and slow work, however compared to the mass cloned machine embroidery work the finesse and intricacy of chikankari stitches has an appeal and charm which is unparallel. In the next article in this series we look at the industry and the artisan clusters in more details.

 

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.