Chikankari motifs are heavily floral and intricate. Seen here is typical Khatao Paisley with Jalli, Murri , Bakkia flowers. Details of  my favorite Chikankari Kurta from SEWA Lucknow.   Photo: Author's own 

My mom called up earlier this year from Lucknow asking if I need anything. All I said was “Chikan ka kurta”. Her response was even better “that’s obvious, anything else?”. Lucknow trip and one returns without buying Chikan Kari items… it’s pure sacrilege for any fashion-conscious person. Even if one is not, the city demands pure admiration for its legendary embroidery …Chikankari!  It took me time to accept the fact that for me the only clothes that make long humid hot summers bearable is Chikankari. Come April and I will lovingly dish out all my prized Chikankari dresses. 

Summer in my mind is Chikankari.

Popularized over decades for its work, subtlety, workmanship and its super utility Chikankari remains an embroidery legend. Rumored to be introduced by queen in court for her use, this embroidery is essentially mixture of 32 stitches styles, the most popular being shadow stitch and running stitch. Throughout the history of textile or fashion of India, the endowed textiles have been instrumental in distinguishing the elite from masses. Chikankari is no different. It’s white on white elegance, as it got introduced to mass production and purchase met with changes that can be said just a reflection of what it was once. Today, barring few, the market is offering just coarsely executed work that is no match to what the craft was all about. What makes Chikankari stand out compared to other embroideries is the fabric – it’s done exclusively on sheer fabric that makes ‘shadow’ visible. More, the thread used is untwisted.

Details of Kurta showing  Janjira stitch of Chikankari 

It is said that this craft was once practiced all over Uttar Pradesh, but today it’s restricted to just city of Lucknow. Having got GI, Lucknow and Chikankari is now synonymous with each other.  Nowadays, its done over Voile ,Polyester and even Georgette while typically it was executed over fine muslin cloth. The design vocabulary of this embroidery is dominated by peepal patta, shankh, dhaniya , lotus, paisley, Rivers and floral representation. Lesser known motifs include Chand and peacock. The motifs, in earlier works, represented an idea but now days the importance is no more on the theme or motif’s significance.
Chikankari dupattas, topi’s, achkans, kurta, sari’s, Kurtis and bed linen are easily available in the market showcasing the adaptability which indicates the change in demand and evolution due to demands. Indo-western tops, gowns and fusion wear have also felt the charm of Chikankari.

Meera and Muzzfar Ali has done commendable job in
reviving and promoting Chikankari. Photo: Muzzfar Ali 

Notable designers like Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosala , Muzaffar and Merra Ali, Ritu Kumar have contributed by making the craft appealing and have brought certain freshness. Their intervention not only made the craft contemporary but also fused other detailing crafts. Now a days other crafts like mukhaish, mirror work, sequins, applique and zardozi are fused with Chikankari to elevate the craft from the regular common fare. New design placements, cuts, motifs and color combination by designers has resulted in improvement of the quality of the craft, in a way.  Designers play a vital role in revival and sustaining a craft, a role of influence and champion of the craft that impacts craft’s lifeline in positive manner. 

In story of Chikankari, apart from designers, self-help group(s) have been instrumental in keeping the craft thriving. SEWA of Lucknow is one such organisation. Brainchild of Padma Shree Runa Banerjee ,SEWA of Lucknow have been working in revival, sustaining and promoting this craft since 1984. SEWA has removed the interference of the middlemen and ensured right pay for the craft and brought a level of dignity to the craft. Success of SEWA Lucknow has prompted many NGO and self-help group(s) to promote the craft.

Like most of embroidery, Chikankari is a respectable way for women and men across social class and religion to earn a decent living. On flip side, commercialization and high demand coupled with affordability factor as resulted in machine embroidery, loss of stitches, motifs and visible drop in fineness of the work.

Despite deficiencies of finesse, Chikankari has managed to gain a stronghold on fashion map of India and the World. It has seen a long illustrated history, a strong present and it’s future will be even better. So for this summer too, I will be comfortable in my trademark Chikankari Kurta. 

Details of Kurta. Author's own.

Photos by Google search on Muzzfar Ali. 

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