Evolving with time

Imperial Touch

The centuries-old style of embroidery, undisputedly, has survived the onslaught of contemporary fashion in haute couture and has proved that some things can never go out of style. In fact, it has attained more refinement and evolved with times, without losing its class and elegance.

Mughal influences

Having been in vogue for as long as men craved to scale new heights in sartorial taste, the history of this beautiful and sublime art of exquisite needlework takes one back to the Mughal era. It is said the art has its roots in Persia, from where it was brought to the local artisans through the Mughals, who vastly glorified it.  

The word chikan originated from the Persian word chakin or chikeen, meaning “a kind of cloth wrought with needle work.” Noor Jahan, wife of Mughal emperor Jehangir, is said to have significantly patronised chikankari, as it is called, during her era.

The Mughal influence on the rich handicraft item is also reflected from theories that indicate that earlier craftsmen made use of motifs inspired from Mughal architecture. However, motifs that have remained in style for ages are paisleys, coriander leaves, besides floral and geometrical patterns. It is believed that chikankari gained much popularity in the 18th century, the golden era of the nawabs.  

Nawabs of Avadh, a princely state of Lucknow, took interest in lifting the art to greater heights. The encouragement from affluent nawabs often came in shape of exorbitant rewards for skilled artisans, who succeeded in impressing them with their remarkable craftsmanship.

Nawab Asif-Ud-Daula (1775-1789) and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1851-1856) are known for being instrumental in promoting chikankari. What further draws attention to the remarkable history of chikan work are a few interesting anecdotes. According to one such tale, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had a large bevy of royal wives, who sought his attention and admiration by presenting him something extraordinary.

In one such endeavour, a mistress flaunted her embroidery skills with white thread and made a cap for the nawab. The striking thread work acted like a charm as it brought accolades to the mistress. Looking at the way the Nawab was impressed, the other ladies too began experimenting with chikan work and vastly added to its variety and popularity.

Tales of nawabs and talks of chikan work being honoured by those in the Mughal courts, certainly lends it an imperial touch. From the days of royal splendour and abundance to present times, chikan work has been passed on as a legacy to the new generation of artisans of Lucknow. There, it has thrived as a commercial activity, which attracts buyers from across the country.

Chowk Bazaar is a famous spot in the city, recognised as the breeding ground for craftsmen, and noted for producing the best chikan work. However, there are several other areas in old Lucknow where pockets of karigars exist, comprising housewives as well,  who are also skilled in chikan work. A notable distinction about chikan work is that it has caught the fancy of both men and women throughout the ages. 

Not only that, chikan work has been used beyond clothes. The embroidery can also be found gracing bedspreads, pillow covers, table linen, curtains and drapes.  Primarily appreciated for its exquisite needle work, the sophistication that it exudes is enough to make one fall in love with it. It normally takes a couple of weeks to finish a kurti and around six months to complete a sari adorned with chikan work.

Blend with fabrics

The history of chikankari is indeed overwhelming. Moreover, what surely adds magnificence to this craft is its intricate detail. Elaborate chikankari boasts of an array of stitches, thirty two to be exact, which can be classified into six main types  — taipchi, bakhia, khatao, phanda, murri, anookhi booti and jaali (net). Ulti bakhia or shadow work is a unique and widely used style of embroidery in which the reverse side is adorned with stitches, but its effect or shadow is seen on the other side. The shaded touch gives a superb look to the work.

Lucknow chikan work is traditionally done on delicate and almost diaphanous fabric of subtle hues, apt for summer. Originally muslin was the preferred choice for fabric and the thread used was principally white. However, traditions are making way for modern trends and now, coloured threads are freely used. Besides, craftsmen are also experimenting with fabrics in vibrant colours. Now, beautiful chikankari is also available on silk, crepe and chiffon.

What distinguishes chikan work from other forms of embroidery is the fact that it is laborious hand work, unlike hakoba, which is embroidery done using a machine. And the real art lies in the variety of stitches used proficiently to finish a single piece of chikan work; the variation in stitches sets it apart from kantha work, which makes use of a single type of stitch.

The intricacy of embroidery makes it costly but it is said that the real price is paid by dexterous craftsmen, who spend their lifetime creating magic with thread and fabric.

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