Name of the book: Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition
Author: Paola Manfredi
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs 2495
In the words of Amita Walia, “The magic of Chikankari or the white-on-white embroidery of Lucknow reflects the splendor of Indian craft as pure moonlight resplendent in all its beauty.”
Spread over 252 pages, this illustrated book exquisitely presents a detailed view and well-researched analysis of chikan embroidery – the most artistic and most delicate form of what may be called the purely indigenous needlework of India, as per George Watt (1903).
It delves into the nitty-gritty of the chikan embroidery – the mysterious origins of the craft that developed towards the end of the Nawabi era – which is often taken to epitomize the best and ultimate refinement of Nawabi and Lucknawi culture.
Chikan embroidery in Lucknow is a prosperous industry that connects a complex social fabric. Popular all over the world for the rich designs made on fine muslin cloth, it has today diversified into various materials keeping in mind popular tastes and fashion trends. However, how much of what is available in market today is genuine chikankari? How much do we, as Indians, know about our popular arts and crafts? Have we ever bothered to understand the different designs, the history behind those and the very lives of those who toil to present such pieces of art for us?
Sometimes embroidered to pass time productively and at others as a means of increasing the family income, each piece of chikankari work carries with it a story worth reflection. The time-honoured elaborate production process detailed in the book will make the reader respect chikankari more than ever before. In the age of machine made goods being popular and cheaper, this work is worth knowing deeper about.
Lucknawi chikankari defines Lucknow’s identity and its celebrated magnificent past, despite an admittedly much less glorious present, in the words of the author. How did we reach this stage? The book traces the journey of the embroidery, from the much acknowledged as well as the little-known perspective.
The living conditions, for example, of the workers are not much different from their past counterparts. It has also described how inferior quality of present day embroidery productions have found an effective marketing strategy in the evocative association of chikankari with “royalty” (read Nur Jehan).
Gender narratives in relation to this art make for interesting reading. Also worth observing was the indispensable role of middlemen. They may seem to be a roadblock when it comes to the growth of the artisans. But without them, will it be possible to completely justify the artisans’ and the traders’ needs and demands?
Decoding the chikan industry with a factual description of the entire process, step by step, helps the reader understand the complex process involved in bringing out the delicate beauties. Details right down to the fastening— kas, lappets, tie-strings or tukuma and ghundi (loop and cloth-cased buttons in various styles) are explained with pictures alongside – making otherwise mundane sounding details seem eye-catching. Also interesting were the symbolism and meaning of certain chikan motifs—the paan and the fish motifs in particular.
It is hoped that reading this book will make the reader appreciate better the beauty of a traditional art and would somehow make ‘fair wages’ a reality for the chikan craftsmen and women who in 2012, were paid between 35 to 50 rupees a day for 4-6 hours of daily work for ‘standard’ quality commercial work (as mentioned in the book). What seems like a good statistic is the fact that over the last twenty years or so, with many designers placing this art on the haute couture ramp (the first contemporary Indian being Ritu Kumar in the late 1980s), today the number of chikan embroiderers are now assessed at over 2,50,000, most of them home-based workers from an estimated 40,000 in Lucknow and neighbouring districts in the mid-80s. The entire cycle of hand embroidered production is now estimated to sustain over a million people.
The fine photographs in the book by Najeeb Aziz (Lucknow), Jonas Spinoy (Jaipur), Bish Mohitra (Delhi), Jaspal Kalra (Delhi) and Tommaso Manfredi, as acknowledged by the author in the acknowledgement section, deserve kudos. The amazing details are worth appreciation. The pictures bring to life a book that may otherwise not have been able to bring clarity about various types of stitches, fastenings and the subdued yet striking beauty of chikankari.
Paola Manfredi (born in Italy) lived and worked in India for over 30 years. Her passion for textiles and the history of textile exchanges between East and West is reflected well in the book. The designs that Indians take for granted, like the paan and keiri for example, are described in such a way that the reader begins to see it in a different light thereafter. She has indeed combined scholarly approach and design interactions and facilitated a well-researched book for the reader. It is a collector’s item as it is richly endowed with pieces from history museums and personal collections.