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.”

Exquisite needlework

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. Cavorting darts in a multitude of threads bring to life filigreed leaves, trellised paisleys, blooming roses and soft roses, even Arabesque interpretations of birds, fishes and butterflies. Most design motifs today are stylised expressions of the Mughal era, even reminiscent of the fine karigari evident at Fatehpur Sikri.

Designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla breathed life into the art form over a decade ago by employing chikan kari in their snob ensembles worn by the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Jaya Bachchan, Dimple Kapadia and Kareena and Karishma Kapoor. Their short kurta-pyjamas are a hot favourite with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Muzzafar and Meera Ali of Kotwara label fame initiated an elegant array of gold and silver chikankari work on black for formal wear and even bridal wear. The daraz chikan kari is the most expensive, stitched-by-hand work and takes months to complete.

Designer Tarun Tahiliani can be credited with reviving the machine technique of chikan work leading to quick production of garments. What has become increasingly popular today are fruity bursts of chikan work on pre-embroidered cloth, spangled with muqaish work, jali work, beads and stones for an eclectic appeal.Duplication is evident with ramp showstoppers crafted laboriously for a few lakhs. “The best thing would be to import these craftsmen to Mumbai in order to maintain high-secrecy. But that's virtually impossible as the karigars are mostly women and even the men around don't want to shift base. So we carry on amid this cheating. Another hassle is that while earlier chikan work was done only on cotton and silk, our creations looked unique because they were on materials like georgette and chiffon. Today, every other person is using these new fabrics and, though they may be cheap imitations they come quite close to the original,” laments Abu Jani

But whether modestly priced or exhorbitant, chikan work ensembles breathe their own special magic into your being when you wear them. They make you feel like royalty.

Different stitches

Taipchi: A long running or darning to form the outline of the chosen motif

Bakhia: or shadow work has two kinds: ulti and sidhi.

Phanda: Millet-shaped stitches used to make flowers and patterns like grape vines

Murri: rice-shaped minute stitches

Jali: Normally worked by tearing apart the threads of the cloth and preparing minute buttonhole stitches

Keel kangan: is used to enhance floral motifs and butties

Hool: is a fine detached eyelet stitch. Worked with six threads it forms the heart of a flower

Zanzeera: A small extremely fine chain stitch, it is used to finally outline the leaf/petal shapes after one or more outlines have been worked

Rahet: A stem stitch, it is rarely used in its simple form but is common in the double form of dohra bakhiya

Banarsi: A twisted stitch worked with six threads on the right side of the fabric

Khatau: similar to Bakhia, but finer, it is a form of applique. The design is prepared on calico, placed over the surface of the final fabric and then paisley and floral patterns are stitched on to it

Turpai and Darzdari are also significant in chikan work.

Designer quotes

Anita Dongre: Chikan work is timeless. you can wear it for both formal and informal occasions.

Sandeep Khosla: Abu (Jani) and I re-introduced chikankari. We made it look hip, fashionable, elegant and cool for every season. The beauty and appeal of chikan kari is simply unbeatable.

Maheka Mirpuri: Chikan is classic. It is perfect for summer because it has a very delicate feel.

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