Once practiced in numerous principalities of India, today Chikankari is an integral part of the culture of Lucknow. The term chikankari is derived from the Persian word chikan, which means embroidery on garments and kari, which means work.
There are no direct historical texts which document the arrival and development of chikankari in India. However, there are two different narratives as for its origin. The first and most famous narrative attributes its origins to the Mughal empress Noor Jahan which was later adopted by the Nawabs of Lucknow. While the second confers it to a sufi saint who taught the craft to a man in return for his hospitality. Yet another belief is that it originated in the East Bengal province, where chikan means fine.
However, indirect evidences of Megasthenes have mentioned the ‘white flowered muslins’ as back as the 3rd century BCE. Similar designs, motifs and patterns can also be seen at Ajanta and Bagh cave paintings. Initially, chikankari was done on white muslin cloth and it was called tanzeb. However, today it is done on all varieties of clothes such as georgette, chiffon, coton, etc.
There are a number of steps involved in chikankari such as cutting, stitching, printing, embroidering, washing and finishing. The most intricate step in chikankari is its embroidery which is mostly done by women. It involves many different motifs such as creepers, flower motifs such as jasmine, rose, lotus, flowering stems, etc. There are as many as 40 different stitches used in Chikankari. The most famous stitches categories are flat stitch, embossed stitch and jaali stitch.
- Tepchi is the easiest, cheapest and most common stitch. It is a running stitch done in parallel rows. It is used to fill leaves and petals in a motif. This design is commonly called ghaspatti design. It can also be used to make bel-booti over the entire fabric. It is done on the front side of the cloth. Pashni and penchi are two variants of tepchi
- Penchi is done over the tepchi base. The thread appears entwined over the tepchi. Penchi is also done on the front side of the cloth.
- Pashni patterns are minute stitches within a tepchi stitch.
- Bakhia is done as a shadow work. It is of two types – ulta bakhia, done on reverse side of the fabric and below the motif. Seedha bakhia is a satin stitch on the front side of the fabric.
- Gitti is a wheel life motif made with a combination of satin stitch and buttonhole.
- Zanjira is a chain stitch used to accompany a tepchi or penchi. It can be used as an outline as well as filling stitch.
- Khatao is done using paisley and floral patterns. It provides varied levels of opacity on the fabric.
The embossed stitches have a raised effect and are bolder.
- Murri is a fine satin pear shaped french knot stitch done on tepchi bases.
- Phanda is a shorter version of the murri stitch. It involves spherical knots over the tepchi base. It looks like millets and is used to fill leaves, peals, etc.
- Jaali stitch - The jaali stitch is the most famous of the chikankari stitches and gives a delicate net like effect. The jaalis can be distinguished on the bases of the shape of openings of the warp and weft of the thread.
Each stitch has a specific function in the chikankari embroidery and it cannot be replaced by any other stitch, for example, zanjira is used for the outlining of leaves, petals or stems.
Inspiration for the various types of motifs comes from what the embroiders see around them, their local flora and fauna. Such as the chameli phool, karn phool or earrings, cowries, murri or puffed rice, dhaniya or coriander seeds, peepal leaves, lotus, marigold, lillies turank, akheri or paisley. The crescent moon is used for prayer caps and has religious significance. The motifs are also inspired from the mountains, rivers, tree of life among others. Local fauna has also inspired the chikankari motifs as seen in the depiction of realistic or symbolic fish, as well as peacocks. The local Islamic architecture inspired the embroiders to make intricate jail patterns on the fabric.
Traditionally, geru was used for the printing of embroidery patterns. However, today the artisans use synthetic indigo along with synthetic gum. Similarly, while goat dung, reetha and rehu were used to bleach the chikankari clothes traditionally, today they use bleaching powder, caking soda, caustic soda and washing powder.
Chikankari as a craft involves not just the weavers, but an entire community of artisans and workers such as tailors, carpenters, print makers, washer men. Each of these communities play an important role in the finished product of chikankari. Lucknow received the Geographical Indication tag from the Government of India in 2008.
~Written by Misha Jaswal
- Romancing with chikankary by veena singh
- Chikan embroidery by Sheila paine
- Indian embroidery by Rosemar Crill
- Indian embroideries by Anne Morrel