You gaze at rows of sarees – exquisite, elegant, each more beautiful than the other. It is hard to choose which one you like most. And then one catches your eye. It just stands out from the others. You pick it up. You can’t put your finger on what makes it stand out. It just looks better, it just feels better. When you drape it on yourself, the nods of approval get a little more vigorous. The sideways glances from onlookers get a little more admiring. Congratulations. You are holding a hand embroidered saree. It was not mass-produced. It was painstakingly crafted by hands that love doing what they do. The designs on the saree may be replicated later. But the exact stitches were never created before, and will never be created again. The saree you are holding in your hand is unique. A piece of art.
Historically, across the world, art, crafts and culture have been patronized by royalty. It was a symbol of status. The strength of your armies or the breadth of your empire was no good unless the world acknowledged your cultural superiority. Some empires were simply way ahead of others in this regard. The Mughal empire, for instance, gave us the Taj Mahal and the ghazal. And Chikankari embroidery. Chikankari flourished during Muhgal rule. It continues to thrive till date. Craftsmen and women are trained for 15 to 20 years and it takes over a month to make some of the more elaborate outfits with hand embroidery as they fill in the designs with threads with detail work.
In an era of mass production, notwithstanding competition from machine-made apparel, Chikankari work has carved out a niche of its own. It is much sought after across the world. Every girl who has seen another wearing it, aspires to wear one of her own. And why not? You might not get a Taj Mahal erected for yourself, but you can definitely wear what Mumtaz Mahal wore. That’s as regal as it gets, with the wearer becoming the cynosure of all eyes. It is a must-have in any fashion connoisseur’s wardrobe. As far as fashions cycles go, this is something that has been ‘in’ for half a millennium. The fact that you can wear a Chikan ensemble to your own wedding, or pair up a Chikan kurti with your jeans while going on a picnic, is a tribute the art’s versatility and broad appeal. Coming to think of it, even men look great in Chikan kurtas.
Chikan literally means ‘embroidery’ in Persian. Creation of a chikan work piece begins with the use of one or more pattern blocks that are used to block-print a pattern on the ground fabric. The embroiderer then stitches the pattern, and the finished piece is carefully washed to remove all traces of the printed pattern. The patterns and effects created depend on the types of stitches and the thickness of the threads used in the embroidery. Some of the varieties of stitches used include backstitch, chain stitch and hemstitch. The result is an open work pattern, jali (lace) or shadow-work. Often the embroiderer creates mesh-like sections in the design by using a needle to separate threads in the ground fabric, and then working around the spaces. It consists of 36 different Stitches in which the major stitches are called in Lucknowi language as “Bakhiya” “Fanda” “Murri” “Bijli” “Pechni” “Ghans patti” “Ulti Jali”. [Information courtesy Wikipedia]