The origins of chikankari (Hand Embroidery) are shrouded in mystery and legend. As early as the third century B.C. Megasthenes wrote of the fine flowered muslin worn by Indians in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, perhaps the first historical reference of chikan. It seems likely that chikankari was prevalent in East Bengal during the reign of the Mugal emperors, from where it came to Lucknow in the 18th century during the time of Nawabs fo Avadh, and where it flowered into an art of exquisite refinement.
The city of Lucknow, India, evokes emotions and reactions of wondrous nostalgia. It's culture blends aesthetics, refinement, elegant graciousness and impeccable mannerisms with evocations of poetry, music and other distinctive art forms. Amongst these has been the delicate art of very fine "Hand Embroidery" which is termed as "Chikankari" famed not only in the oriental world but prized in all citadels of culture. It is noteworthy that during this period the Master craftsmen were all men.
This highly acclaimed craft fell to abysmal depths once the patronage of the erstwhile Nawabs and landowners ended. It was relegated to a low standard ill paid commercial activity in which almost entirely, only women were involved. Manufacturers used middlemen to exploit women artisans who were not only very poor but also women cloistered and in "Purdah". (Behind the curtains)
Children were the worst sufferers as poverty paved its way for them to go through pains of malnutrition, unhygienic living conditions and illiteracy. For family's survival, extra earning became a need and the children became a victim of circumstances as they were dragged to work. These findings on the conditions of Chikan workers and their children came out very conspicuously from a study done by the founders of SEWA – Lucknow on child labour which was sponsored by UNICEF in 1979.
Since 1979 there were constant interactions with the community for understanding the need of becoming self-reliant as well as a support for the earning members in the family. Regular value and earnings for their work that would enable them to contribute respectable amount in the family.
In 1984, Thirty-One women came together to register an organization of women artisans under the 1860 Society's Registration Act for "CHIKAN KARI." "Self Employed Women's Association" (SEWA – Lucknow) was thus formed with a major agenda of doing away with the middleman and the organization to act as a platform from where the artisans would address the market directly.
Revival of the Royal Craft
The craft still remained in the hands of women, but with a difference. Once again going back to the 18th century and mixing the designs and motifs to suit the choices of the customers in the 21st century.
Established with 31 women in 1984, the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA-Lucknow) began its arduous journey towards providing its member artisans' direct, appropriate and timely wages. The USP was, of course a rejuvenation of Chikankari itself. It has remarkably succeeded in restoring the dignity of the craft. Currently, "Chikankari" products are much sought after by global connoisseurs involving renowned designers, boutiques, fashion houses and small entrepreneurs of possibly all varieties. For many, profit, acclaim and may be the craft itself are central issues, for SEWA-Lucknow it was, is and will always be the craftswoman moving to increasing excellence in her vocation as well as in the quality of her life.
We believe that……..
"Empowerment and Development in a person can take place only when there is sustained and assured regular income. Regular contributions of a respectable amount in the family's income is a gate pass for taking part in the family's decision making, as well for being socially accepted in the community"