The word "chikan" comes from the Persian word chikaan meaning drapery. Some sources attribute the origins of the craft to East Bengal where the word chikan means fine. Chikankari embroidery is said to have originated as a court craft, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir, by his wife Noor Jahan. Traditionally, the chikan embroidery was exclusive done on white items, decorations similar to the cotton, jamdani, and woven traditions.
Fabric used was pure, un-dyed white shazaada cotton or Dhaka ki mulmul, both sourced from Dhaka, Bangladesh. The katcha daagha, the thread used for the embroidery, was also white and procured from Calcutta or Dhaka.
Crafted on cotton, linen, georgettes and chiffons, these light and wearable creations do not stick to your body and allow your skin to breathe in the oppressive heat. The exquisite needlework has made way for diffusion wear. Chikankari has six basic stitches and over thirty-five other traditional stitches used in various combinations based on what the pattern to be embroidered requires. The names of some of these stitches are phanda, chana patti, ghaas patti, bijli, jaali, tepchi, bakhiya, hool, zanzeera, rahet, banaarsi, kharau, keel kangan, bubul and hath kadi.
Depending on the type of garment and the pattern to be embroidered the entire process happens in a series of stages over a period of months or even years. Also, the chikan embroidery itself is divided among the artisans, with pairs or groups of three or more specializing in one particular stitch. When one group completes their particular stitch for a garment, it is passed on to the next group to add their specialty stitch.
Chikankari embroidery is a very laborious and time-consuming task.
Process of Chikankari Embroidery:
Cutting and stitching: The tailor cuts the fabric into the required shape. Then a quick running stitch is done to give the block printer an idea of the placement of the designs to be printed.
Printing: The designs are printed on the semi-stitched garment with blocks using fugitive colours. The cloth to be printed is spread out on the table. Then, the printer dabs the block on the tray of colour and places it on the fabric, banging it with his fist. He repeats the process as he moves along the fabric.
Chikankari Embroidery: The embroidery is done on the printed designs. Different people specializing in different kinds of stitching contribute to the finished embroidery.
Washing: After the garment goes through the preceding steps it becomes so dirty that the finer flaws are not seen unless it is washed.
Finishing: Clipping extra threads, fixing any flaws, and putting finishing touches on garments are some of the final steps.
Whether modestly priced or exhorbitant, chikankari work ensembles breathe their own special magic into your being when you wear them. They make you feel like royalty.
In the modern period the art of chikankari has survived the loss of royal patronage and has also suffered at the hands of commercialisation. Yet managed to stay alive as a tribute to the skill and will of the craftsmen who have handed over this beautiful and elegant technique from generation to generation.