The beautiful “white on white” hand embroidery is a handicraft hailing from the city of Nawabs, Lucknow. There is a long line of chikankari exponents who are promoting the craftsmanship. Entire families are involved in the chikankari work and the skill is delineated from father to daughter and previous generations to the upcoming ones. The girls and the boys in the chikankari families start embroidery as early as 11 years of age and by the time they reach adulthood their skill set is also promoted from creating ‘kurtas’, ‘topis’ and ‘angarkhas’ to Saris, fabrics for churidars and the latest in fashion!
Looking back at the history of the chikankari it can be ascertained that its history dates back to 2 centuries ago.
The legend has it that chikankari artisans from Persia came to India looking for patrons and found an imminent patroness in Noorjahan, the wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. She is said to have popularized and propagated this embroidery form in the 17th century. Her work was developed as an inspiration from Turkish embroidery. The present word chikan is derived from the Persian word ‘Chakeen’ the meaning of which is a cloth wrought with needle work. This art form grew to its peak during the Mughal Era.
Some are also of the opinion that the art form did not originate in Lucknow but in East Bengal. The literal meaning of word chikan in Bengali is fine. It was done using white threads on pure white muslin or ‘mulmul’ cloth. From Bengal the art moved to Lucknow, which is now an internationally known center for this art form. Chikankari today is an art form extremely popular among those courting traditional styles or those who are more contemporary in their fashion sense.
Chikankari is a delicate, intricate hand weaving which brings to life flowers, leaves and other motifs on cloth.
Chikankari was traditionally done on un-dyed, pure, white shazaada cotton or Dhaka ‘mulmul’ which was imported from Bangladesh. The thread used for embroidery was also white, and is known as ‘kachcha dhaga.’ This traditional form has taken various innovations today in the form of fabric dyed in light, pastel shades and the use of colored thread on white or colored background. Another change is the use of fabric other than cotton; georgettes and chiffons are popularly used today.
Entire families are involved in embroidering and stitching to produce elegant chikankari creations. Each person has developed a different expertise and the cloth is passed on from one expert to another before the final piece is ready. The inspiration for the motifs or pattern largely comes from various Mughal designs. Mughal architecture is prominently on display on the fabrics in the form of trellis, and floral motifs. The inlay pattern of Mughal monuments is embroidered on the cloth. In fact one Mughal monument whose architecture and designs are quite prominently created on the cloth is The Taj Mahal.
Before the embroidery commences, the motif or the pattern is traced on the cloth with the help of wooden blocks which are dipped in indigo (neel) dye. Thus the entire pattern is stamped on the cloth and then the specialist artisans start the more intricate work of embroidery.
The cornerstone of the chikankari work is the delicate and elegant ‘shadow’embroidery motifs. The different stitches that are used in the chikankari embroidery are 6 basic stitches and over 35 traditional stitches. These stitches are used in different combinations based on the requirement of the pattern. A few of these stitches are Phanda, chana, patti, ghaas patti, bijjli, jaali, tepchi, bakhiya, hool, zanzeera, rahet, banaarsi, kharau, keel kangan, bubul and hath kadi.
The texture of the fabric, type of the garment and the pattern to be embroidered decides which stiches or combination of stitches is to be used in the embroidery. Generally one member of a family or a group is expert in one or more than one stitches. When he finishes his stitch, the cloth is passed on to the next stitch expert and in this way the final piece is completed. This is a long, tedious, extremely skilled and difficult job and takes a long time to be completed.
The entire creation is then given a finishing touch through a series of steps inclusive of washing, bleaching, stiffening and ironing.
Chikankari in today’s fashion
The traditional intrinsic needle work gels in perfectly with the contemporary fashion style. A blend of these two has been a highlight at many National and International fashion weeks in recent times. It is heartening to see talented, top notch designers teaming up their designs with this convoluted and chic but essentially traditional hand work.
The presentation of traditional Indian handicrafts in a contemporary modern outlook is undoubtedly promoting this beautiful ancient art. Thanks to the modern fashionistas who are taking an interest in this art form Chikankari is slowly emerging as a popular art trending across the globe.
Where to buy?
Chikankari is available at many online shops such as craftsvilla.com, chikanbarn.com, and FabIndia
If travelling to India then chikankari is best bought from the markets of Ameenabad and Hazratganj in Lucknow.