Timeless chikankari

Chikankari has never gone out of fashion. Top designers tell you why it’s the best kind of summerwear.

When the sun smiles strongly, you know it is the time to celebrate cool muslins and soft mulls. Traditional yet contoured in a modish contemporary twist, the ageless chikankari,comes to your cool rescue.

Chikan work with its gossamer quality has become one of Indian fashion’s hottest exports and is an expression of haute couture, combined with mirror work, muquaish and even zardozi.

History

The earliest reference to chikankari dates back to as early as the 3rd century BC. Greek traveller Megasthenes mentions the use of flowered muslins by Indians. Popular folklore attributes the origin of the craft to a simple story: a traveller passing through a village near Lucknow, asked a poor peasant for water. Thankful for the peasant’s hospitality, the traveller taught him chikankari so that he would never go hungry again. Craftsmen still believe that the traveller was a prophet.

Some attribute the popularity of chikankari to the Mughal harems. The word chikan is rooted in the Persian chikin, meaning needlework on colourless muslin called tanzeb (tan=body, zeb=decoration). It is also believed to be a distorted form of chikeen or siquin, a coin valued at Rs. 4, for which the embroidery was sold in Persia.

Noor Jehan, Mughal emperor Jehangir’s wife, was heavily inspired by Turkish embroidery and gave impetus to this form of needle work. During the peak of its popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, Awadh’s chikankari rivalled the most exotic and frothy engineered laces of Europe. But though origins of chikankari are believed to be rooted in Awadh, the work is believed to have been part of the Indian heritage for centuries.

Fashion designer Nida Mahmud says, “From scarves, stoles, tunics, hand bags and even footwear, chikankari has spanned a spectrum.”

Shilpi Madan for The Hindu
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