Threading Lives

Tanka brings Indian embroideries to the world

The curvilinear beauty of traditional embroideries from India is worth preserving and can only be made possible through a combination of contemporary design and empowerment of the skilled artisans. Delhi-based Tanka have set out to do just that through their social enterprise. “We’re translating the graceful poetry of the phanda, tepchi, murri, tanka and jaali stitches onto garments that women would love to wear to work or a special evening out. Beautiful fits in rich fabrics like pure linen and silk, these are statement pieces for the modern dresser,” says co-founder and former advertising and private equity consultant Manjula R Natarajan, who with her partner Minakshi Gautam, a social sector specialist, has begun retailing their first collection of chikankari embroidered garments.

Hailing from the capital of chikankari, Lucknow, the founders wanted to take beautiful embroideries from their city to the world. Tied to the aim of bringing traditional craftsmanship to a wider audience is the aspect of training for women in the villages of North India who have carried out hand-embroideries for generations. “We are setting up centres with the help of NGOs that are working in those villages that have traditionally done a specific embroidery in order to run skill-building programs and to teach the skill to younger generations. The primary reason why future generations are not pursuing traditional embroidery that has been passed down the generations is because it doesn't pay as well as some other opportunities. We are hoping to do our bit to change that mindset by helping the women earn a livelihood and encouraging them recognize that artisanal work is adequately remunerative and for them to take pride in their work,” says Gautam.

The current collection of the brand focuses on versatile garments including handwoven raw silk jackets that can also double up as crop tops and blouses or long jackets that can accessorize a casual jeans and t-shirt combination. Zardozi embroidery (in gold, copper and silver threads) decorates the silk jackets. The range also includes hand woven silk and cotton chanderi tops with pin tucks and chikankari, linen tops with intricate chikan work, including daraz-ka-kaam (hand-stitched shirts).

Among the artisans whose work has been incorporated in the current collection is Rana. “She is a President’s award winning second-generation chikan artist, who does magic with her fingers. She also mentors girls in villages around Lucknow to help them find livelihood and independence in their lives. The piece you buy from us carries the signature of the girl whose life you just touched. Tanka is an expression of this magic. Where you own a unique garment, the girls find dignity in their lives, and together all of us do our bit to preserve this precious heritage called chikankari”, says Natarajan.

Tanka currently retails from artisanal-focused stores in Delhi and Lucknow and will be present at pop up shops at craft events. “We intend to sell our products only through retail points that are focused on promoting artisanal products and we are being very careful about the places we choose to partner with,” says Gautam.

Future initiatives include a program called "friends of Tanka”. This is planned as a membership-only (by invite) club where people can get made to order products and contribute design, which could earn them royalty. For design contributors, membership fee would be returned in the form of pieces bought from ongoing collections. “It would be a crowd sourcing of both funds and designs for us. More importantly, we intend to build a unique community of people who are passionate about artisanal clothes and want to help promote traditional Indian embroideries,” explains Natarajan.

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