White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery

Chikankari Embroidery from India – As a child growing up in Lucknow in the 1960s, I recall being dragged along to the stores when my mother and aunts shopped.  Much to my boredom.  Except when we went to the chikankari shops.  Even as a child, I found the gossamer tenderness and transparency of the craft fascinating, and I’m not alone in this.  In 1903, George Watt described it as “the most artistic and delicate form of the indigenous needlework of India.”  Laila Tyabji compares it to a dragonfly wing.  

History of Chikankari Embroidery from India

Though Chikankari is now associated with Lucknow, and for that matter, Lucknow with Chikankari, it became popular with the Mughals and may have originated in Bengal. There are several legends describing its association with Lucknow, all charming.  The most likely is derived from the white on white embroidery of Persia and traveled to India with the Persian nobles who worked at the Mughal court. Nur Jahan was the daughter of one such noble, herself an accomplished and tasteful embroiderer. It is most likely that she popularised the craft, mainly because she lived in Bengal as part of her personal history and must have become acquainted with muslin too.   The name Chikankari interestingly has a Persian origin, where it means ‘needle’ as a metaphor.  

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Noblewomen playing chess at Awadh court. Painting at Musee National des Arts Paris. Several are in chikankari.
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Detail of painting juxtaposed with what the Chikankari probably looked like.
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery

Statue excavated at Chandraketugarh, opined to be wearing muslin with a floral motif

Some scholars opine that the craft was present in India from 400. BC, and cite a terracotta statue of a woman excavated at Chandraketugarh. The woman is dressed in muslin with a floral motif, very similar to Chikankari, as are frescoes in Ajanta. 

Be that as it may, we can accept that Nur Jahan popularised this craft in the Mughal court. As the Mughal dynasty waned in the late 18th century, Lucknow became a center of culture and aesthetics, with its Nawabs giving patronage to the arts and crafts.  Karkhanas were set up for zardozi and aari and, in due course, for Chikankari. 

Process and motifs of Chikankari Embroidery

The process of chikankari includes the following steps

-The design is hand-drawn on paper.

-Blocks are made based on these designs.

-These blocks are used to transfer the design onto the fabric, half-stitched at this stage. 

– The panels are given out for embroidery. Nowadays, it is mainly to women, though traditionally, Chikankari was a male craft. There is a whole gender dialogue around this, with the accepted wisdom- men did better quality work, something not true.  Very often, pieces are embellished with badla, mukaish, or kamdani.

– Finally, the panels are assembled into the final garment, washed, and finished.

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Thread used for embroidery. Image from Injiri.
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Wooden block. Image from Injiri
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Embroidery in process. Image Injiri
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
The embroidery. Image Injiri

Motifs that are Traditionally used in Chikankari Embroidery

Interestingly, the motifs in Chikankari have a uniquely Lucknow flavor, though they are derived from flora, similar to Mughal motifs. Mughal motifs tend to be single flowers or plants, whereas Chikankari is much busier.  Common motifs are trailing vines, the paan or heart shape, the keiri or Paisley. I find the fish motif the most intriguing, as it has a connection with the royal insignia of the Awadh Nawabs, which was a pair of fish. An interesting motif is the daraz, which is used to finish seams, especially the machli ka daraz, a fish pattern unique to Chikankari vocabulary.

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CHikan
A chikankari bel, lush and effusive. Picture from Chikankari by Paola Manfredi
Chikankari Embroidery
Paan Motif. Image Source: Paola Manfredi book Chikankari, A Lucknawi Tradition
Chikankari Embroidery
Paisley Motif. Image Source: Paola Manfredi book Chikankari, A Lucknawi Tradition
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
A fish motif.
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery

A classic white on white by Raw Mango

Materials used for Chikankari Embroidery

Chikankari has traditionally been associated with white on white, especially with Bengal’s fine muslins. Nowadays, many commercial Chikankari uses colored threads, and embroidery can appear on georgette, silk, polyester, and other fabrics. The purist, which includes me, still favors white on white, on pure fine muslin.

HANDWOVEN DIAPHANOUS MUSLIN, THE STORY OF THE WORLD’S FINEST FABRIC

Stitches of Chikankari

The number of stitches in Chikankari and the controversy around them are fascinating aspects of the craft. Paola Manfredi, who has written a seminal book on Chikankari, has attempted to create a sampler, but she too concedes that there may be many more, perhaps as many as 75. There is no consensus on this, so it is better to mention the important ones.  For simplicity, there are three broad categories, flat, raised, and jali work. 

Phanda consists of tiny round knots and is most characteristic of the craft. 

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Phanda refers to knots that are in the shape of Millets Image Source: https://www.adachikan.com/raised/daraz

Taipchi is considered the simplest and consists of a simple darn stitch.

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Tepchi. Image Source: https://www.lucknowisuits.com/

Bakhia is an inverted satin stitch and is considered the actual flat chikan work.

Chikankari Embroidery
Image Source: Paola Manfredi book Chikankari, A Lucknawi Tradition

Murri is a minute satin stitch, something like a French knot.

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Murri. This stitch in its fine form resembles an embossed grain of rice. Image Source: https://www.adachikan.com/raised/daraz

Jali is a drawn stitch and is subdivided into several types.

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Jaali

Khatao is an appliqué, where small pieces of the same material are appliquéd onto the base, using the taipchi stitch.

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
Khatao applique. From Paola Manfredi book

Generally speaking, commercial mass-produced Chikankari uses a small repertoire of simpler stitches, whereas high-quality work uses a broader repertoire.  

Though Chikankari has not faltered as many other crafts of India, it stands at a crossroad of sorts. Much work coming out of Lucknow is shoddy, crude, and commercial and the women executing it are very poorly paid.  Organizations such as SEWA and designers like Mamta Verma, Tarun Tahiliani, Raw Mango, and Jani/Khosla have made laudable attempts to produce high-quality embroideries.  It is vitally important that we support such enterprise so that this most ethereal of crafts does not go the way of the other lost skills. 

White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery
White on White Embroidery of India- Chikankari Embroidery

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PHULKARI EMBROIDERY OF THE WOMEN OF PUNJAB

 

AUTHOR BIO

Mira Gupta

Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury.  She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft.  She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.

Read more articles by the Author HERE

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