Hanging by a thread: Chikankari
Text Giacomo Andrea Minazzi
Chikankari – aka Chikan – is one of the most ancient and refined embroidery techniques ever developed and kept unaltered by the Indian people. Its history is a weaving of mysteries and surprises. Histories of queens who tried to win their king’s love. Histories of craftsmen who use to pass down this technique from father to son.
Since we are in India – the real, noisy, full of odours, messy and chaotic India, where Western influence has not yet arrived–, in Luknow, there is no written nor coded sign of this, neither an alphabetical index of the Chikan contents. There were many doors to knock at, many museums archive to gain access to – according to rules, the doors of these archives must have three different locks and keys must be kept by as many persons who have to agree to meet, and arrive together, to open them – only those who have lived in India can understand this is a hard undertaking. There were also some masters and families who had some masterpieces of inestimable value forgotten in some drawer. They represented an intimate part of the histories of these families, often too much private, too much precious to be shared with a foreigner. One had to get into on tiptoe, to introduce oneself, through these places and people.
Paola Manfredi has been able to trace a tradition that risked to disappear. In 1977, during a one-month holiday with her girlfriends, it was love at first sight for her. By chance, she was soon engaged as a consultant by a clothing company having its production in Delhi. They needed someone who could help them to handle some management matters: delays in deliveries, lack of precision, too much re-elaboration of original designs – the same problems reported by the agents of the India Company in 1600. What had changed was the fabrics, processing and final product quality. If between 1500 and 1600 the Indian fabrics were the linchpin of world trade, the exchange currency for all those spices and exotic products coming from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, now it was represented only by ethnical embroideries, for a little bit more new age public. The leap forward to Chikankari is rather broad.
Paola Manfredi was contacted by the Self Employed Women Association – please note the name and the historic moment – which was pointing out a project for the protection of Indian arts, she started her path on the track of Chikankari. Some trace back its appearance to the fourth century before Christ, others refer to Noor Jahan, one of the wives of the Great Mughal Jahangir, who enchanted by those embroideries from Persia and made with great mastery took them to the Palace, changing the standards of clothing – it seems that she personally made a hat to win (successfully) the attention of the Great Mughal.
Chikankari is nothing but the whitework embroidery made on high-quality cheesecloths, as fine as to result almost transparent, and yet resistant to stand the weight of embroidery. It is discreet, it follows the forms of the clothes, it fits into their creases, it enhances them. Up to 18 different stitches can be applied on one piece of cloth, this is why the collaboration of different masters is required: to create the design, to carve it on small wooden moulds, to adapt them to the cheesecloth, to embroider and to remove the marks left by the moulds, leaving the pieces immaculate.
Paola Manfredi has put this history and this constant research together, in a book. A weaving of words and images– Chikankari. A Lucknawi Tradition.
Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition
Niyogi Books, 252 pagg., euro 44,65