Chikankari is perhaps one of the most beautiful forms of embroidery—one that designers Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Tarun Tahiliani, Manish Malhotra and Faraz Manan refer to time and time again. Synonymous with Lucknow, fine chikankari is considered the ultimate form of Indian couture craftsmanship. But the women behind the craft are often paid as little as ₹3,000 a month. According to research done over four years by Jaspal Kalra for a PhD thesis, Design Education For The Chikankari Artists: A Tool For Social Innovation (published in 2018), over 200,000 women earn a living through chikankari, getting 5-7% of the price at which the product retails.
Also read: How the ‘buta’ or ‘ambi’ became Scottish paisley
Kalra, a craft innovator who has spent 20 years in academia and the textile industry, decided he wanted to make a difference. In 2015, he started Sangraha, a small artisans’ collective that aims to help women working on the craft by engaging them in the value chain, involving them in more than just the stitch-making process and giving them a voice in how, and at what price, the products are sold. In a modest start, he also invests in their training and education. “The result is that what they make in an hour at Sangraha is what they would make in a day at many clusters,” he says.
Laila Tyabji, a crafts revivalist and a founder of Dastkar, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, says: “Working with craft, you need not only knowledge of the technique and tradition but sensitivity to the craftspeople themselves, as well as an understanding of their social and cultural roots. Kalra was able to win the trust of chikankari women, spurring them on to results that far exceed their original skill levels, not just the embroidery itself, but making bills, developing new motifs, independently manning an exhibition stall and doing displays.”
Around 50 women are part of the crafts cluster in Lucknow where he is trying to innovate not only in form but the retailing. His client list includes the Jaypore brand as well as independent brands from London and Paris such as Bayman and SMR Days. “The irony of a chikan cluster,” he says, “is that it has two faces: one of cheap work at throwaway prices and, in contrast, high-priced designer wear. But the industry’s economics are governed by the lower end and wages have been standardised by it. Chikan needs to be looked at not as a livelihood craft but as an expression of talented artisans. With the paradox of two opposites coexisting, it seems difficult that any entrepreneur would go against the trend to bring a change in core governance of artisan wages.”
He’s trying. For he believes chikan cannot be replicated by a machine. “There is nothing like machine-made chikan. What exists is a textured embroidery done on a computerised machine and it’s called hakoba or shiffli. The inconsistencies and finesse of chikankari is its identity of being handmade.” More worrying is coarse, mass-produced chikankari which does not require skill and takes away from the beauty and expertise of this fine art.
For Kalra, crafts workers are victims of an unjust fashion system which simply does not care about the actual hands behind the garments. “You have to blame the customers, designers and ‘mafias’ who control the making of chikan in a locality.” The problem is craft clusters tend to be controlled in such a way that the women have no direct access to the people who commission the work. “The men who are the middlemen are like a mafia in greed of earning easy and almost dominate the women of a locality in terms of distribution,” says Kalra.
Chikan, or chikankari, is sometimes described as India’s answer to lace. Kari, he explains, is just the Sanskrit word for the act of doing. Its origins remain a mystery of sorts. “Speculation is that it is depicted in Ajanta paintings and it existed in the court of Harshvardhan (606-647),” says Kalra. “White has been a royal colour of this region since times of antiquity. Some scholars have indicated that chikan has existed with some other name in the Ganga Jamuna Doab since centuries. Stitches may have been added to it with each new influence, including Mughal empress Nur Jahan’s. Jali could also be a later addition, inspired by Islamic architecture.”
What makes chikankari an art form that has stood the test of time is its repertoire—there are about 40 different types of stitches. Sangraha is focusing, in its own small way, on design innovations—including work on more abstract motifs and looking at the potential of products such as table mats and runners. For, the beauty of chikankari lies in its versatility: It lends itself to easy updates and can add a sense of beauty to a large range of products. But this also leaves it more vulnerable. Kalra believes, for instance, that the shift from court patronage to the marketplace took a toll on artisans. “The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a fragmentation of the industry, with many more players getting involved in making. While this supported the mass demand, it also divided the value chain into smaller units, giving negotiating power to retailers at every stage,” he says.
Kalra hopes to ensure the women earn enough to take care of their health needs too: Chikankari takes a toll on the eyes and back. He hopes his cluster will grow and help set an example of how a cluster can be run for profit, purpose and, most importantly, the good of craftspeople. As Tyabji says, “To see these young girls, from very conservative, disadvantaged backgrounds confidently travelling with him to Delhi, Bengaluru, even Singapore, they have a new understanding of just how chikan embroidery itself has revived and flowered under the Sangraha banner.”
Kalra believes consumers have the power to change the life of these craftswomen. They just need to ask brands one magic question: “Who made my clothes?” For, “people need to value craft for the legacy of learning it brings with it, the treasure of knowledge and memories, not merely the price and hours of working on the product”.
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, an author and a mindful fashion advocate.
Also read: A master craftsman reimagines bamboo