Chikankari – A Lukhnawi Tradition by Paola Manfredi


Chikankari by Paola Manfredi
Chikankari has been an integral part of my growing up years. Pastel colors with white embroidery were almost like summer uniform in college days. Lately, my visits to Lucknow have been taking me to some Chikankari workshops. Sheer white on white has a sophistication that not many crafts can match. So, when this book came to me for review, I was more than happy to read it and add it to my library.

Paola Manfredi has spent quite some time working with the Chikankari artisans and with people who have some old exquisite pieces of this craft. She has tried to explore the craft both from the perspective of craftsmen involved in creating Chikankari and the connoisseurs of the craft. We know that for any art or craft to flourish requires a strong patronage from the people who buy or consume them. Both the parties are equally important for an art and craft to thrive. Most authors tend to ignore the patronage, and I am so happy Paola mentions them as well.

She repeatedly mentions quoting various sources that women were meagerly paid for their work. In the same breath, she mentions that these women were happy and never really complained of low wages. I think a bit of social context is missing. Most women in those days did not think of this work as a career with competitive rates. For them it was a means to earn a few extra buck while using their free time creatively. I am sure the more creative ones commanded better prices. In fact, in this age and time, I would question the rates that these women are getting from organizations working with them – 30 -50 Rs for 4-6 hours of work (mentioned in the book).

Paola mentions all the native names associated with the craft. She does not bundle them under one generic English word. The generations to come will thank her for this. She explains every stitch, every pattern, every style in the native language. In fact, the vast varieties of each of these will make you feel as if the world of Chikankari had a vocabulary of its own. If you have grown up before the 1990s in North India, as I have, you would have heard most of these terms. It was great to re-visit them and relive your student days.

Her chapter on wooden block makers is beautiful. You never realize that they are as much an integral part of this Chikankari craft. I wonder if there are any wood block makers left. And if the available wooden blocks will become prized possessions.

Some interesting facts I picked up from Chikankari by Paola Manfredi:

A 2nd CE sculpture from Bengal is seen wearing something very similar to Chikankari. Is this a case of continued tradition that was lost to us for some time in between?

Embroidery was a protective talisman on the garments. The more sensitive parts of the body have more intricate embroidery. This is the reason you see all the openings on the garments well embroidered. Was it something like painting the walls for the fear of empty spaces?

All the legends associated with the birth of Chikankari as we know it today, trace it back to a woman. Some say it was a princess of Murshidabad while others attribute it to Noor Jehan. It was probably the boredom in the harem that led these women to invent Chikankari. Or was it the desire to stand out in the crowd of women in the harem in the eyes of the Nawab or King.

The skill of Chikankari is often attributed to Muslim women but Paola says that women of Agrawal and Khatri communities were as good at it, if not better. I would say Muslim women probably started doing it professionally while other women did it for their own families and homes.

Ironically, most surviving samples point that this craft was more popular with men. As most garments discovered by historians belong to them.

Wherever possible Paola has given the etymology of names. I learned that Kantha Stitch comes from word Kanth – which means neck. Or, the word Kurta comes Sanskrit word ‘Kurtak.

Lucknow court had strict uniform codes like Red Pagri for clerks and messengers while the attendants wore white pagris. Palanquin bearers wore pagris with fish stitches. Interesting!

Buttons came to India with British – it is lovely to see the garment fasteners that were used before that – knots and knobs all made of fabrics.

The best part of this book is the photography – that is so sharp that it captures the minutest details of the embroidered pattern while also capturing the delicacy of the material and the craft. All the images are absolutely inspiring and all the photographers associated with this project deserve a huge round of applause. There are miniature paintings depicting the court scenes of Lucknow where people are wearing Chikankari. There is one painting of Zenana or the women’s quarters where women can be seen wearing the delicate dupattas in Chikankari.

This illustrated book brings to you the images of the most exquisite pieces of Lukhnawi Chikankari, its history, its variety, its sophistication and the people behind it. A very well-researched book that is not written in an academic fashion that alienates the general reader.

If you enjoy reading about crafts, you would love this book.

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