Chikankari is one of the finest traditional embroideries of India, a symbol of Lucknawi culture and elegant courts of the nawabs of Awadh. Chinkari appeared in Lucknow in the late 18th century, and its exquisite aesthetic and craftsmanship have sustained the tradition to this day, through changing patronage and market trends.
Chikankri is not just about embroidery. Its legendary finesse is based on a creative blend of delicate embroidery with very fine dressmaking and sewing techniques. This beautifully illustrated book showcase unknown gems from personal and public collections, and brings to life and history of this unique craft tradition. The various chapters describe the mysterious origins of the craft, the range of costumes, the inspirations behind its motifs, the time-honoured elaborate production process, and the bewildering array of stitches that raised this craft to a truly exceptional art form.
Paola Manfredi Born in Italy Manfredi lived and worked in India for over 30 years. With a background in ethnology, she is passionate about textiles and deeply interested in the history of textile exchanges between East and West. Combining scholarly approach and design interactions, she has worked with craftspeople and their traditional skills to promote the excellence of South Asian craftsmanship, particularly in Aari, Chinkari from Lucknow, and Nakshi Kantha from East Bengal.
She has been associated with international organizations involved with textiles, crafts development and conservation, and her work has been shown in exclusive exhibitions in India and abroad.
Paola Manfredi's research on Chikankari is an in-depth study of its origins, its historical past, its socio-cultural significance, the range of motifs and their symbolic meaning, as well the socio-economic aspects. Paola has been working for more than thirty years with traditional craftspeople, often in rural areas, to develop high quality textiles and handcrafted products, combining active interventions with research and scholarly approach. She reinterprets local traditions, techniques, skills, aesthetics and historic decorative vocabulary absorbing them in her designs and enhancing the current productions, with emphasis on the quality of every aspects of the finished product.
In her writing, she emphasizes on the complexity and ingenuity of the varying techniques, which result in the uniqueness of the embroidery and she emphasize on the importance to document traditional skills and artifacts, as they reflect the often extraordinary traditional knowledge of the artisans, knowledge and skills that are now fast disappearing with a consequent great loss for humanity's immeasurable and diversified heritage. Traditional crafts are deeply connected with the specificity of their environment, thus becoming involved in conservation issues is part of the process of strengthening traditional practices and reviving fragile crafts industries. White on white embroidery has a delicacy, which makes the wearer look very elegant. Few realize that the art of chikan work is not only in the embroidery, but in the creation of the apparel. The seams are artistically worked into a continuous floral motif.
The edges of the angarkhas and kurtas are edged with embroidery. The shoulders are also worked with intricate embroidery. The back of the neck has a leaf of the pan, the tree of life, or the mango pattern. The finished garment is structured and has a form, which flows over the body. Paola became a designer consultant with SEWA-Lucknow, an NGO, on few projects of chikankari in the mid-90s. SEWA- Lucknow started chikankari embroidery production in 1984 aiming at breaking the stronghold of middleman and ensuring fair wages to craftswomen. The embroidery was done by the veiled women of Muslim households. Since they had no possibility of having access to the market, the traders paid them very poor wages. The system also was such that it made it impossible for new entrants to enter the market. SEWA-Lucknow began with developing direct access to markets, upgrading artisans skills and reviving and revitalizing the old traditions, so it could reach its original level of refinement.
Chikankari, which involves very minute intricate white embroidery on finely woven white muslin, has a long and rich history, as its exquisite craftsmanship reached unsurpassed heights in the 18th and 19th centuries. Paola's revival of the designs of the past and the intricate techniques created a rich range of products using the traditional line production. She organized a few exhibitions for SEWA-Lucknow in Milan.
Her 30 years of work in Chikankari has now culminated in a publication, which is one of a detailed study, the like of which has not been done before. It also has a rich collection of illustrations, which she has collected from Museums the world over and private collections. The detailed description of the techniques where most of the 72 stitches are explained is an extraordinary repository of technical know how. She has not neglected to collect the local terminology, which is most important and is often neglected by many Indian scholars. This book will not only help to preserve knowledge of the finest techniques of chikankari and help the designers and producers to maintain the old traditions.
Chikankari is reputed to be among the finest traditional embroideries from India, typical of Lucknow, once the capital of the vast and rich dominions of the state of Awadh. With the gradual decline of Mughal authority in the second half of the 18th century, the Nawabs of Awadh established their independence from the Delhi court. They gave credence to the legendary extravagances of oriental monarchies, shaping their own aesthetic and style, and redefining the concept of court splendour and royal patronage. From the late 18th and up to the middle of the 19th century, Lucknow attracted artists, artisans, musicians, chefs and literary figures, all seeking royal favour. This influx contributed to Lucknow's glowing reputation for beautiful Urdu poetry and literature, for classical music and dance, for fairs and grand Muharram processions. Lucknawi lifestyle came to define class, taste, manners and culture.
A variety of arts and crafts, in particular embroideries of several kinds, flourished in this atmosphere of wealth and sophistication. The karkhanas, or royal workshops, produced exquisite works of zardozi, ari and kamdani embroideries with gold and silver threads on silks, velvets and fine muslins. Chikan embroidery, although it developed towards the end of the Nawabi era, is often taken to epitomize the best and ultimate refinement of Nawabi and Lucknawi culture. 'Classical' chikankari is intricate, yet delicate, white embroidery on very fine white muslin, wherein different stitches create myriads of subtle combinations and textures.
In spite of its celebrated, almost iconic status in Lucknow, chikan embroidery has hardly ever been the focus of in depth research or descriptive works. The earliest detailed account, which has been the reference for most subsequent writings, is by George Watt in Indian Art at Delhi, published in 1903. In the early 1960s, Jasleen Dhamija contributed an article with invaluable personal testimonies from master craftsmen. Sheila Paine's small book titled Chikan Embroidery: the Floral White work of India, written in the early 1980s, remains the main reference on the subject to this day. Clare Wilkinson-Weber's Embroidering Lives: Women's Work and Skill in the Lucknow Embroidery Industry (1999), focused on the chikan craftswomen from a feminist perspective, and is the most in depth and informative academic study on this craft. Veena Singh's Romancing with Chikankari attempted to fill a gap on the subject at a local level.
There are also a few short essays on chikan which were for the most part published before the ubiquity of the internet and are scattered in different publications and magazines, many of which are now unavailable or out of print. The more accessible and informative ones have been written, among other authors, by Laila Tyabji, Ruth Chakravarty, Tereza Kuldova, Clare Wilkinson-Weber and myself.
In the early 1990s I was invited by Laila Tyabji to document chikan embroidery at SEWA- Lucknow for Dastkar's project to create handbooks on Indian embroideries' traditions for craftspeople. At that time I was already involved with designing and producing white on white hand embroideries (ari work mainly) with an Indian master craftsman, the late Salim Khan. My specific knowledge of chikan embroidery was very limited and consisted for the most part, of the works and pioneering efforts by SEWA-Lucknow in the middle 1980s to revive fine craftsmanship in chikankari. In those years, the chikan work available in the marketplace was of rather average quality and consisted mainly of shadow work, one of the less complex stitches in chikan.
The paucity of written references and documentation led me to look for actual old pieces in Indian museums. This was also disheartening, as in most cases I was unable to go past the intricacies of bureaucratic procedures to access the reserve collections. However, the State Museum and Crafts Museum in Lucknow, the Indian Museum in Kolkata and the Crafts Museum in Delhi have been very generous in making accessible their chikankari 'treasures' over the years, despite the intrinsic fragility of the antique pieces in their collections. Private collectors, antique textiles dealers, and museums abroad particularly the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, the A.E.D.T.A (whose collections were later bequeathed to the Oriental Arts Museum, Musee Guimet in Paris) have also been most helpful.
Despite the various private initiatives and government schemes to revive chikan embroidery, and to address the problems of the sector, mainly abysmal low wages and health related issues afflicting the craftsperson involved in it, there is no proper documentation, and almost no samples are visible or accessible. I find myself often wondering how can there be a 'revival' of this craft if no older references and samples are made available to the craftspeople, to inspire them or against which to evaluate their work? The 'revival' has been dependent for the most part on memories, on the oral and practical transmission of the craft by a few master craftspeople or their apprentices who belong to recognized lineages of masters in Lucknow. Recognized by State or National Crafts Awards, these master craftspersons became certified teachers in Government sponsored chikan training programs.
In over two decades of involvement with this craft, I have hardly ever seen any archival or old sample easily available to the craftspeople for reference. There are many reasons for this. One is, of course, economic as to mark a good piece 'not for sale' but for reference is to freeze the investment incurred in its making, which is generally too onerous on a craftsperson or even on a small organization. The few exceptions were samples pieces created expressly for government crafts awards, kept as testimony of the superior craftsmanship running within the family or the organization.
But we do have wooden blocks with their coded graphic vocabulary used for tracing / transferring the motifs on the fabric are the tangible aids, and these retain a memory of the craft. Broken or worn out, the most popular designs on these blocks have been carved again and again, some apparently since the 19th century and early 20th century.
It became an obsession of mine to share with the craftswomen at SEWA-Lucknow either old pieces that occasionally a generous and trusting owner would lend me, or visual documents of fine chikan craftsmanship collected in the most disparate situations across the world. This book is the outcome of that 'obsession'. Its scope has evolved over time, eventually devolving into a less ambitious project than I had originally intended. I know I have just managed to scratch the surface of the story of this craft and its protagonists, with this compilation of existing old records. Yet I hope this will advance further studies on chikankari, both in the embroidery and in the art of dressmaking. I would like to stress here that it is precisely the way in which the art of embroidery and the art of dressmaking fused together in such subtle aesthetics, that generated chikankari's enduring fame. Chikan embroidery, no matter how beautifully executed, is only one aspect of the story and is incomplete by itself.
My search for old pieces met with a number of obstacles along the way. I found that the fragility of the cloth had often reduced surviving glorious robes to tatters. While pieces in public collections were often out of reach, those in private collections took time to access, necessitating the establishment of trusting relationships to enable the sharing of family heirlooms, especially if the pieces were not in pristine condition. Such torn pieces, constituting parts of intimate family stories, were often too private, too precious, to be shared with a stranger. I am deeply grateful to those, who overcoming their initial hesitation and shyness, allowed me to look at their chikankai treasures.
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