From Mughal Courts To Fashion Ramps, How Chikankari Has Evolved

Designer Anjul Bhandari shares insights on chikankari, the fine craft from Awadh and its evolution.

The popularity of fashion designer Anjul Bhandari's Nayab-E-Zama and Tala-E-Daura collections showcasing the fine craft of chikankari is telling of the changing tastes of modern Indians. Chikankari has indeed come a long way from its humble look during the Mughal Era. The white-on-white embroidery handcrafted on muslin has been known as a wardrobe staple of the nobles, but as years passed and brought in industrial revolution, mass production of chikankari outfits took away the true essence of the craft and its understated beauty. But then came fashion designers of modern times who understood its subtle elegance and have revived the craft in unbelievable ways to make it couture.
When it comes to chikankari in Indian fashion, designer Anjul Bhandari is a renowned name. For years she has been romancing this craft from Awadh, creating marvellous outfits with her interpretations. We catch up with her to get insights about the technicalities of chikankari and how she has done her bit to revive and preserve this Indian heritage. 

You've been romancing chikankari for years now. What about it got you to popularise this traditional craft from Lucknow? What makes it special?

Anjul Bhandari: The family I got married to belonged to Lucknow and my mother-in-law was a social worker who worked with craftsmen from the area. That's how I got introduced to the craft. But the aesthetic of the white thread embroidery and the intricacy with which it is done is what really attracted me towards it. The way different stitches would make a design come alive really resonated with me and the classic aesthetic really spoke to my personality and my style. So after having designed for many years prior, I decided to focus on chikankari to give it my take and make it my own.

I decided to focus on chikankari to give it my take and make it my own
The versatility of the embroidery and the way it can look regal yet understated and contemporary is what makes it special. With our signature highlights that are pearl, sequins and now pastel pearls, the embroidery looks very elegant. With our new collection Tala-E-Daura we have also started using gold and silver zardozi and beads which make the embroidery more traditional. Being able to create that diversity with the craft is what makes chikankari special.

Give us insights into chikankari outfits of yore. How were the outfits created for royals?

Anjul Bhandari:Chikankari really soared and grew as a craft in Mughal courts. They wore silhouettes we use even today such as the peshwa, jama, dagla and choga. A lot of jacket-style ensembles which are always associated with royalty were from those times.

Chikankari in the 21st century. How has it evolved?

Anjul Bhandari:Chikankari is a heritage craft so the way it is done remains true to how it used to be done. The use of it however in different silhouettes is how it has grown in terms of shirts, gowns and we've also made some pret dresses in our previous collections. What has changed is how people perceive the embroidery today. They understand that it is a painstaking craft and a heavily embroidered ensemble could take months, sometimes more than a year to make. That education to the customer is something we have really focused on and that has helped people appreciate it even more.

Printing happens using wooden blocks and they become the blueprint for a karigar

Tell us about the technicalities of the craft. How are the designs made, how long does it take to create an outfit like a kurta or a saree?

Anjul Bhandari: The inception of the design starts with myself and a printer. Printing happens using wooden blocks and they become the blueprint for a karigar when sampling and finally doing the embroidery. Our craftswomen look at the printing and sample maybe a kali or a small patch with the different stitches to see what would make the design stand out most. Once approved by me they begin working on the ensemble which could take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to complete depending on the intricacy of the embroidery and the skill of the embroiderer.

How is the craft being preserved over the centuries?

Anjul Bhandari: The Awadh is the epicentre of the craft and many generations of craftsmen continue to work in the industry as it is always in demand. It is one craft that will never go out of style. Usually in India if a family works in a craft, their children do too. The government has also gone on to geo tag the embroidery. That is, it is only chikankari if it comes from the Awadh region and that keeps the authenticity of the craft alive.

How did you set out to revive chikankari in the course of your fashion journey?

Anjul Bhandari: I worked closely with the printers and karigars to understand the intricacies of the craft. Once my understanding of the craft grew, I began experimenting with motifs which you won't find many others do. We started mixing new with the old and creating our own designs so what we create isn't run off the mill that you see in Lucknow markets. And that's what makes it couture and unique. We also often make one-of-a-kind pieces so what you buy from us someone else will not have.
We also added our own highlights using only the best quality baby Japanese pearls, sequins and baby mirrors. Now we do pastel coloured Japanese pearls which were introduced in our previous collection Nayaab-E-Zama and the more traditional gold and silver zardozi and beads which was introduced with our latest collection Tala-E-Daura meaning an age of gold.

What do you think would be the future of chikankari?

Anjul BhandariChikankari is here to stay. The demand is higher than ever and the understated glamour of it will attract patrons to it for years to come. We aim to grow the craft by continuing to do very intricate work, which we are known for and having an even more global presence than we already do.

3 iconic chikankari outfits that you have created for celebs?

Anjul Bhandari: Deepika Padukone wore our exquisite chikankari, pearl, sequins and Swarowvki crystal gharara for the promotion of her iconic film Chhapaak.
One of the first celebrities to ever grace our ensembles was Madhuri Dixit who wore a blue mukaish saree, which was featured in NDTV's top 10 sarees of the year in 2012. Tara Sutaria in the last year has worn two of our sarees - one a chikankari and mukaish ivory saree with marori borders and an organza chikankari saree with daraz and baby mirrors.

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