Chikan: Between the Threads

Eyebrows will not be raised if you walk into a handloom store in India and ask for Lucknawi chikan. Worn by kings and commoners alike, the popularity of Lucknow’s chikankari embroidery transcends time and class. The history and traditions of chikankari are as intricate and interwoven as its embroidery and Paola Manfredi’s book Chikankari, A Lucknawi Tradition captures it well. Paola has spent the last 30 years working on the revival of Lucknow’s chikankari at  SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) - Lucknow and her deep knowledge and insights stand out in her book.

The history and traditions of chikankari are as intricate and interwoven as its embroidery

Published by Niyogi Books, Chikankari, A Lucknawi Tradition looks at the origins of chikankari, the social context in which it emerged and the cultural influences that are resplendent in the  symbolism of its motifs. The book answers many questions at many levels. At the most basic, my first question was why is this embroidery called  chikan? Well, the book has the answer-  it comes from the Persian word chikan which was loosely applied to embroidery on various garments. Kari is a Hindi word for work; hence chikan-kari.

The <i>chikankari</i> work of Lucknow is well known for its elegance and skilled workmanship
The chikankari work of Lucknow is well known for its elegance and skilled workmanship|Niyogi Books

Where does chikan embroidery get its name from?

There are many fascinating themes that are covered as well. For example the competing male and female narratives of chikankari. Traditionally, male weavers were considered to make the finest quality of work. But chikankari also served as a way of livelihood for women who had fallen on bad times. Hence, there was an undercurrent of rivalry between the male and female artisans over who was better at chikankari. This even reflected in the narratives of the origins of chikankari. The feminine narrative attributed the origins of chikankari to Mughal Empress Nur Jehan, while the male version attributes it to a wandering Sufi saint who taught the art to craftsmen at Lucknow.

There are many theories about the origin of<i> chikankari</i>
There are many theories about the origin of chikankari|Niyogi Books

While chikankari is almost synonymous with Lucknow, this book also point to an older, far off origin of the embroidery - in  East Bengal. Not surprisingly this is vehemently refuted by those in Lucknow!

The narrative of female artisans attributed the origins of chikankari to Mughal Empress Nur Jehan

Manfredi cites historic evidence to back her theory on the origins of chikan. For instance, there is evidence of  embroidered textiles being bought from the Dhaka region of Bengal by Arab traders, way back in the 12th and 13th centuries CE. Much later, when the European traders set base in Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries CE, textiles from the hinterland were the primary focus. There is a very interesting reference in the book to one fabric sample showing flowered muslin from Bengal, recovered from Swedish cargo ship, Svecia, which was wrecked in 1739.

Paula Manfredi’s book Chikankari, A Lucknawi Tradition is a treasure trove of stories and her deep knowledge, which comes from  three decades of research on the subject is clearly visible. This is a must read for not just anyone interested in Indian textile, but also the uninitiated.

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