Native to the city of Nawabs—Lucknow, earlier known as Oudh or Awadh, Chikankari embroidery dates back to the 17th century when it was introduced as a court craft by the Mughal empress, Noor Jahan.
Over time it spread to the cities of Kolkata, Delhi, Dhaka, Varanasi and Bhopal when court patronage was offered to the artisans. However, Awadh remained the home of this art as the finely embroidered Muslins of Chikan became a prescribed requirement of the Mughal Court. The word chikan comes from the Persian word chikaan meaning drapery.
Originally done on Muslin cloth with raw thread, white on white, Chikankari is a form of subtle embroidery in which minute and delicate stitches stand out as textural contrasts, shadows and traceries. In a unique form of this art, 'anokhi chikan' the stitches do not appear at the back.
International Trade fairs in the nineteenth century such as “The Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883-84” and “The Indian and Colonial exhibition of 1886” imparted a huge impetus to the universal demand for chikankari. It was no longer dependent on court patronage as commercialized demand grew.
Like most handicrafts, Chikan embroidery undergoes a laborious process. The pattern to be embroidered is stamped onto the fabric by hand with a wooden pattern block that has been coated with neel (indigo).
The fabric now has the outlines of the designs that will be embroidered into the delicate ‘shadow’ embroidery motifs that are the defining feature of Chikankari. After this the embroidered product is washed. Washing is very important. After the product goes through the preceding steps it becomes so dirty that the finer flaws are not seen unless it is washed. Clipping extra threads, fixing any flaws, and putting finishing touches on product are some of the final steps.
Chikankari has six basic stitches and 'over thirty-five' other traditional stitches used in various combinations based on what the pattern to be embroidered requires. The names of some of these stitches are phanda, chana patti, ghaas patti, bijli, jaali, tepchi, bakhiya, hool, zanzeera, rahet, banaarsi, kharau, keel kangan, bubul and hath kadi.
Depending on the type of garment and the pattern to be embroidered the entire process happens in a series of stages over a period of months or even years. Also, the embroidery itself is divided among the artisans, with pairs or groups of three or more specializing in one particular stitch. When one group completes their particular stitch for a garment, it is passed on to the next group to add their specialty stitch.
After surviving the loss of royal patronage, Chikankari suffered deeply at the hands of commercialization and lost its way in mediocrity as traders flooded the markets with coarse work and thoughtless design owing to growing demand in the 1980s.
Off late, organizations have intervened with sensitive design solutions and have worked with artisans devoted to Chikankari to re-create its original charm. The Color Caravan along with its partner organization in Lucknow is striving to do the same, shaping the craft to the needs and demands of its patrons whilst maintaining its authenticity and intricacy.
Swati Seth is the founder of The Color Caravan. The venture partners with independent craftspeople, Self Help Groups & NGOs across India to co-create products and helps bridge gap between artisans and the market, thereby reviving the handicrafts as well as livelihood.