Chikan, in the literal sense means ’embroidery’. This traditional embroidery style is one of Lucknow’s most ancient and well-known art forms, believed to be introduced by the Mughals. The simple and precise handwork on the garment, gives it a very subtle, classy feel that modern embroidery techniques lack. The main essence of the garment is a simple design, and while motifs are now added to make the garment look rich, it still remains a simple and affordable fabric choice.
Origin and history Indian chikan work goes as far back as the early 3rd century BC, with one tale mentioning the story of a traveller who taught chikan to a peasant in return for drinking water. However, the most popular, and factually checkable story is that Noor Jahan, the wife of Mughal emperor Jehangir, introduced the Persian art in India in the 17th century. She herself was a talented embroideres, and had a particular fondness for this art. Her husband is said to have loved chikan work too and has established several workshops to perfect this art form in India.
Started as a white-on-white embroidery form, back in the day, the favoured fabric was muslin or mulmul as it was best suited to the warm, slightly humid climate. After the downfall of the Mughal Empire, chikankari artisans spread all over India, but Lucknow remained the main center, with Awadh a close second.
Today, the 400-plus-year-old art form remains a global sensation.
The Lucknow chikankari technique can be broken down in two parts – the pre- and the post-preparation stages.
The pre-work involves determining of the design and engraving the same onto wooden block stamps. These stamps are then used for block printing the design onto the cloth with the help of neel and safeda dyes. The cloth is then cut according to the form that the garment is supposed to take.
Then comes the embroidery process, where the fabric is set in a small frame, part by part, and needlework begins to trace the ink patterns. The type of stitching used depends on the specialty of the region and the type and size of the motifs. Some of the most popular stitches in Lucknow chikankari include the backstitch, chain stitch and hemstitch. The result is an open work pattern, a jail (lace) or shadow work.
The finished garment is first checked for consistency and neatness, and then washed to remove all traces of ink. Before being ready for commercial sales, the garment is starched to obtain the right stiffness.
Special features One of the most prominent features of the Lucknow chikankari work is the stitches. Each and every stitch is done to perfection and the neatness in the work is hard to find elsewhere. The delicate and artfully done hand embroidery gives the garment a look of richness and skillfulness, which is exactly what you pay for.
Colours Having started out as a white-on-white embroidery work on muslin cloth, chikankari has now evolved and embraced the use of colours. Many say that the change is in keeping with the modern fashion trends, and still swear by the classic all-white garment. While white does rule the roost, don’t be surprised to see colourful and silk threads too tracing the motifs, making each garment more versatile in nature.
Motifs Floral patterns and chikankari go hand in hand. Due to its strong Persian influence, flowers have always been a staple with stems, buti and leaves added in to complete the design. Other motifs include embellishments like Mukaish, Kamdani, Badla as well as sequin, bead and mirror work, all of which give the simple work a richer look.
Varieties The traditional muslin cloth that the art was established in has now been swapped for lighter fabrics like cotton, silk, chiffon, organza and net. The idea is to have lightweight fabric that not just makes the embroidery process easier (the needle can pass through without much resistance) but also ensures that the work stands out on its own.
The work is found on a wide range of garments for men and women. You can buy everything from a long kurta, to a saree, anarkali, palazzos and even a range of accessories, and some home décor items like lampshades, cushion and table covers and bed throws.
Current state of the art Lucknow chikan embroidery enjoys popular public attention. Apart from being a traditional, go-to garment for most religious gatherings and festivals, the art also found its way to the Indian ramp and glamour world. One of its first and most famous appearances on the Bollywood screen was in the Indian film Anjuman, starring Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh. The movie is set in Lucknow and deals with exploitation of women and the problems that the local chikan embroidery workers face.
Indian designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have been dedicated to uplifting the status of traditional crafts in India and chikankari has remained their specialty, with actress Judi Dench, of the James Bond series, wearing one of their majestic creations while receiving an Oscar in 2004. Another Hollywood exposure includes pop sensation Madonna wearing a chikankari-embroidered garment in her film, The Next Big Thing.
The chikankari industry boasts of 2.5 lakh artisans, one of the biggest artisan clusters in India.