As the fashion industry collapses under the looming shadow of coronavirus scares, it's the artisans who'll have it worst. Thus, once it's over, it is our craftspeople who'll need our support the most. Thankfully, it is as easy as purchasing a gorgeous garment from a website or agency that supports them and pays them a considerable cut.
Late as we may have been to truly appreciate the unparalleled beauty of Indian handloom crafts and artisans, we can do our bit by saving our craftspeople from the ripple effect of this pandemic. However, before this lockdown is a thing of the past and we find a way to extend our support to these dedicated artists, how about we delve into the rich history of India's handwoven fabrics?
To help you with the task, we at POPxo have decided to dedicate a story series to Indian crafts and their many charms to keep you occupied during the lockdown. The aim is to take you all on a fabric tour of India to understand their current positioning in the fashion industry across the country. This would be a weekly series that'll take you through the journey of Indian handloom crafts. Willing to join us in this endeavour to uplift the Indian handicrafts and handlooms? Read on:
There was a certain paradox and definite poetry to it when Alia Bhatt was seen sauntering on the streets of Chennai in 2 States dressed in delicate chikankari kurtis. Something about the kurtis simply stayed with me. And while my love for the craft grew since then, it took a good couple of years for me to understand that what I had lost my heart to wasn’t even authentic in the first place. It was drastically different from the champagne gold anarkali that Madhuri Dixit wore in the Jagaave Saari Raina song from Dedh Ishqiya, this much I knew.
And then the craft found its place in Bollywood as Priyanka Chopra was seen in a sunny yellow chikankari piece by Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla just a couple of months after Sonam Kapoor opted for a chikankari lehenga by the couturiers. A few months later, Alia Bhatt was seen championing the craft as she went out for Kalank’s promotions.
This is the timeline that you should be following just in case, you are finding yourself suddenly attracted to chikankari and its many versions available in the market, way more easily than it was some 3-4 years ago. I clearly remember a time when I literally had to struggle to find quality chikankari done on good fabrics. Authentic and good quality chikankari garments, on the other hand, have been crafted on quality fabrics like premium cotton, pure georgette, and organza ever since it gained its present shape in India. However, that’s not how it was done when the craft first made to India. Though, originally, the craft form was practiced on the gossamer yarns of Tanzeb or muslin.
Pristine as it is, the chikankari embroidery is a rather divine craft that retains its beauty in the intricate thread work with a transparent fabric, threads popping out against the white or faded pastels backdrop. It is refined shadow work that is time-consuming as it is elegant. It starts with a process similar to block printing where the base cloth is printed with the motifs that are to be followed in the embroidery.
It is after this stage that the real work begins and the artisans start working on the embroidery following one of 36 different techniques that the craft incorporates. Once the embroidery is done, the fabric requires several rounds of washing before it’s ready to be converted into a garment.
The stories pertaining to chikankari’s introduction to India happen to be as magical as its thread play! As of today, while chikankari retains its most significant form in India, there are a plethora of tales built around how the delicate thread craft made it to the country. There is a story based around a far-off traveller, then there is one around Noor Jahan, the one that holds most weight and, of course, fascination.
With its aesthetic language inclining towards Persia, it is said that the craft form was first introduced to India by Jehangir’s queen Noor Jahan, a patron of chikankari who also boasted of a certain level of expertise in the craft herself. Impressed by the ethereal craft, Jehangir later established a number of workshops to establish the art form in the country. This is how the craft found a suiting home in West Bengal where it flourished for a while during the Mughal rule in India and underwent a sharp decline in the area as the British barged in.
It was in the 18th century that it finally made it to its current home ie.e Lucknow after the court of Oudh shifted to the city and became hugely popular among Lucknow nawabs. And after years of rising and decline, the craft now continues to flourish in Lucknow with thousands of artisans practicing the chikan craft.
This is also the tale that you’d often find being repeated by Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla, Muzaffar Ali Of House of Kotwara, and Anjul Bhandari, designers and present-day connoisseurs of the art form.
It has been almost three decades since both the design houses of Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla and The House Of Kotwara took it upon themselves to give it the form that it has assumed today. Both the design houses have closely worked with the Lucknowi artisans to bring out the beauty of the craft as well it adapts to the contemporary sartorial needs.
Thus, while House of Kotwara gave it new dimensions by creating dreamy chikankari meshes against a black backdrop, Anu Jani and Sandeep Khosla played with the silhouettes and embellishments to give it an individualistic touch.
I call these designers connoisseurs, for it’s in the artisans and the craftspeople that I see the actual creators. For again, what’s a craft without its craftsmen? All of it would have been lost had it not been for generations and generations of artisan families who kept upholding the craft in the narrow lanes of Lucknow but before that, few might know it, in the lanes of West Bengal.
However, when it comes to the wages of these craftsmen, the Nawabi fashion culture of Lucknow seems to royally fail right at the hems of it. Despite’ Bollywood's fascination with chikankari and the labour-intensive technique, a Milaap foundation study suggests that chikankari artisans are paid as low as a sum of Rs 50/day!
Magical and other-worldly, the pristine art of chikankari owes it to generations and generations of artisans who have upheld its beauty through centuries now. If you've ever been able to enjoy the delicate beauty of this craftsmanship then it is time to do your bit by investing in their craft once the lockdown days are over!