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History of Chikankari Hand Embroidery
Wazid Ali ShahHistory of Chikankari
Chikankari is an ancient from of white floral embroidery, intricately worked with needle and raw thread. Its delicacy is mesmeric. For centuries, this fine white tracery on transparent white fabric has delighted the heart of king and commoner alike. It is centered mainly in the northern heartland of india, namely Lucknow, the capital of a large state, called Uttar Pradesh. It has survived the loss of royal patronage, suffered deeply at the hands of commercialization, lost its way sometimes in mediocrity and yet stayed alive, is a tribute to the skill and will of the crafts persons who have handed down this technique from one generation to another.

Today, This delicate form of embroidery is traditionally practiced in and around the city of Lucknow.

Lucknow is a Lovely old city, a city of old gardens and palaces, fine architectural conceit mosques, temples and ageing monuments, a city so favoured by European travelers once upon a time, that it was popularly called the Constantinople of the East. Like Marseille, it has a great deal of historicity. It is synonymous with architectural elegance, cultural finesse, social warmth and anenduring love for gracious living.

Lucknow also has the distinction of being today, the cusp of a very beautiful, very aesthetic form of white floral embroidery, unique to this geographical location.Chikankari has been practiced in Lucknow for almost more than two hundred years. But it did not originate in Lucknow. It flourished in the Mughal Court at Delhi in the 16th and 17th centuries. When the Mughal Court disintegrated the artisans scattered across the country. Some of them came and settled in Awadh. They brought this craft with them and gave it roots.

The origins of chikan are shrouded in mystery and legend. Some historians opine, that chikan is a Persian craft, brought to the Mughal Court of the Emperor Jahangir by his beautiful and talented consort Mehrunissa. The queen was a talented embroiderer and she so pleased the king with this ethereal, white floral embroidery that it was soon given recognition and royal patronage. Workshops were established wherein this embroidery was practiced and perfected.

The word 'chikan’ is probably a derivative from the Persian word ‘chikin’ or 'chikeen' which means a kind of embroidered fabric. In all probability the word chikan is used for the white floral embroidery that Mehrunnissa brought with her from Persia. This form of embroidery became very popular with the king and his nobles and was embroidered on the finest Daccai.Mulmuls or muslin garments which were most appropriate for the hot, tepid climate of Delhi. There are some very fine Mughal miniatures that depict the Emperor Jahangir in white flowing muslim garments. Historians believe this could be chikan. After the decline and fall of the Mughal court, the artisans and craftsmen scattered across the length and breadth of India. Some settled in west Bengal, so for some time chikan flourished in Calcutta, though it is no longer practiced there. Some fled to the Northern state of Awadh and settled in the royal courts of the descendents of Burhan ul Mulk a Persian nobleman, who had found favour with the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah and was appointed as the governor of Awadh.

KesarbaghThere are, however, other opinions on the origin of chikan craft. According to one historians, there is evidence of embroidered muslin apparel depicted in the famous paintings in the Bagh and Ajanta caves dating back to the 9th century A.D. He suggests that this could be early trace of the presence of chikan. Kamala Devi chattopadhyaya opines that chikan can be dated back to the time of king Harsha, who is said to have had “ a great fondness for white embroidered, muslin garments, but no colour, no ornamentation, nothing spectacular to embellish it.” Bana, a contemporary of king Harsha refers to this skillfully embroidered white muslin. We would like to believe that this form of embroidery was chikan but cannot say it with certainity. Megasthenes, dating back to the 3rd century B.C has written of the use of ‘flowered muslin’ by the Indians in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. It could have been chikan. We are not sure.

Dr. Rahul shukla in his book on the Taj Mahal, entitled Art Beyond Time, talks about chikan as being an offshoot of the Taj. This is very likely because, chikan motifs show a strong influence of the motifs and screens (jaalis) present in the Taj Mahal. ‘At present, the Taj motifs are freely used in Lucknow’s chikan work and most of its glory springs form the Taj pitra dura.’ The Persian fondness for floral patterns greatly influenced the Mughal rulers who adopted these patterns in their architecture, their paintings and even their garments. The Indian artists used more flowing designs rather than the stiffly formal Persian styles. Sheila Paine feels that ‘the floral designs of chikan share the same heritage.’

Chikankari used the finest of white cotton fabric called muslin or mulmul. A great deal of muslin was produced in and exported from Bengal. Dacca was the main region where cotton was cultivated due to the high humidity of the region, which prevented the delicate thread from breaking on contact with the air. The cotton spun was very white since the Brahmaputra and the ganges Rivers have bleaching properties. The chikan workers in Bengal used this fine muslin for embroidery.

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