Chikankari, the Awadhi fashion

The origins of this needlework remain shrouded in the mists of time. The fine Moghul miniature paintings depict the Emperors in flowy white muslin garments with fine “white” embroidery.

Iklas khan and Sultan Muhamad Adil Shah of Bijapur

Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay opines that chikan could be dated to the time of King Harsha (590-647 CE), who is said to have “ a great fondness for white embroidered muslin garments”, but no colour, no ornamentation, nothing spectacular to embellish it”.  Megasthanes, way back in the 3rd century B.C, has mentioned the usage of “flowered muslin” by the Indians in the court of Chandragupta Maurya.

This ancient form of white floral embroidery with intricate needlework and the raw thread which delighted kings and commoners vanished in between. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, it was revived in the Moghul courts. The court servants embroidered elaborate designs to the nawab’s topi or cap.

The dopalri (two-panel) skull cap is worn across the lucknowi society, by both Muslims and Hindus.

One of the histories attributes the invention of chikan to empress Nur Jahan, consort of Jahangir, who had a Persian lineage. Her interest in the craft was a trendsetter for the Mughal courts.

The majority of written accounts trace the art of chikan embroidery to Bengal and how the artisans migrated later to the cities of Lucknow and Awadh,  to take advantage of the courtly patronage of Nawabs. 

The chikankari embroidery embellished both men and women’s garments. The embroidery was done on men’s angarkhas and chogas (tunics), achkans and kurtas, topis, cummerbands and for women, in their lehengas and odhnis. The pure white on white embroidery translated a simple white ensemble into an exotic fashion statement. During the Colonial era, the application of Chikanwork embroidery increased manifold and embellished the items exported to Britain  – from the muslin dresses, collars, table covers, runners, mats, napkins and tea covers!

Pradhan Rai Pannalal Mehta(1843–1919) served four Maharanas, as Prime Minister of Mewar state in former state of Rajputana. His portrait by Raja Ravi Varma, he wears a Chikankari embroidered angarka worn over a light vest called nima, made with a patterned muslin.

The vintage patterns of chikan embroidery showcase what artistry was possible through nimble fingers, and took influence from the Persian and Moghul architecture. The jaalis of Tajmahal and the walls of the famous Imambara mosque in Lucknow have inspired the motifs in Chikankari embroidery.

The needlework of Chikan has about 32 different stitches which are used separately or in a combination.  The basic six stitches which make it unique are the tepchi (back running stitch), Bakhiya (double backstitch), hool (eyelet), Zanzeera (chain stitch), rahket (stem stitch) and Banarasi. The chikankari stitches fall mainly into two main categories – One, having a flat surface using a single thread, and the other making an embossed effect using as many as 12 threads.

In a Tepchi stitch technique, the embroidery resembles a woven effect on the fabric. Small knots which create pearl-like effects are called Phanda.

Pic : Paisley, the most popular motif in Chikankari embroidery. Garment made in 1800’s from V&A Museum collection

Gandhiji's gift for Princess Elizabeth's wedding!

On the 10th July 1947, the Buckingham palace announced the betrothal of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. 1947 was the worst of all years of post-war austerity. A group of labor MPs questioned the whip of extravagance of royal celebrations. Atlee writes to the palace inquiring about the unpatriotic origins of the “Lyons silk” that had been used for the bride’s wedding dress so that he could reassure his critics in Parliament.

“The wedding dress contains silk from chinese silk worms, but woven in Scotland and Kent. The Wedding train contains silk produced by Kentish silk worms and woven in London. The going away dress contains 4-5 yards of Lyons silk which was part of the stock of the dressmaker Norman Hartnell (He clarifies that while some of the silk worms were chinese, they were “nationalist” silkworms, not communist )

20th November 1947 was the day of the ceremony. Few months later, the Board of Trade asked if the royal wedding dress might go on a tour to advertise British materials and workmanship – the much debated dress was now considered a national triumph! It was on a display at St James Palace alongwith all the wedding presents, but the Queen felt otherwise. She did not wish to part with her wedding dress.

Gandhiji presented this handwoven knitted shawl..
With this accompanying note..

Thillayadi Valliammai

Amongst a lot of injustice against South African Indians, one was the judgement of Justice Searle in 1913 to nullify all the marriages if not celebrated according to Christian rites and registered by the Registrar of marriages. And at one stroke, Indian Hindus, Muslims and Zoroastrians were affected; the wives were degraded to the rank of concubines, and their progeny were deprived of their right to inherit the parent’s property.

This insult to womanhood made the Indian women folks in South Africa to join the struggle. Many of them were Tamils, (Tamil labourers from Madras Presidency worked in coal mines in Natal and Transvasal). The women’s bravery were beyond words – one of them was pregnant, some of them had young babies in their arms. Even Kasturba joins the struggle and lands up in jail. In the Maritzburg jail, they were harassed and the food was of the worst quality, and had a laborious hard task of laundry.

During this time, a tamil “coolie” as he calls himself, by the name of Balasundaram meets Gandhi in his office, asking help to file a law suit. His upper body is full of flogging wounds, and his towel tied at his hips. Gandhi asks him why he doesn’t put the towel over his shoulder, he replies that “the shoulders wont be there the next day” – Gandhi files a case for him against the Government, and Balasundaram gets a judgement in his favour in that case.The first time ever, the laborers get one in their favour, by the way!

Soon Gandhi, Balasundaram and a young girl of 16 years, named Valliammai were jailed in relation to the disobedience movement against this law, in 1914.

She was a tall girl, but the three month jail term makes her so ill. They decided to release them on health grounds, but her health was so bad that she had be wrapped in a bed sheet and had to be carried by Gandhiji and Balasundram back to the Tolstoy farm.

She was on her deathbed, But the clarity and bravery simply inspired the Mahatma. She said if she had another chance she would offer her life again for Satyagraha movement. In his writings he says:

“Valliamma you do not repent of your having gone to jail?” I asked.
“Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,” said Valliamma.
“But what if it results in your death?” I pursued.
“I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?” was the reply.

On her deathbed, she asks Balasundaram to narrate a song. He does that, and hearing that she passes away.

Gandhiji is saddened and later write, “The loss of Valliammai would perhaps affect me more than that of my elder brother (Lakshmidass).” Gandhiji promised her that he will learn tamil, and asks Balasundaram to transliterate the song in English.
And made it the last song as a part of his daily prayers.

Do you know which song is this? A Thevaram song of Thirugnana Sambandar (8.051) called the “Achho pathigam”

முத்திநெறி அறியாத மூர்க்கரொடு முயல்வேனைப்
பத்திநெறி அறிவித்துப் பழவினைகள் பாறும்வண்ணம்
சித்தமலம் அறுவித்துச் சிவமாக்கி எனைஆண்ட
அத்தனெனக் கருளியவா றார்பெறுவார் அச்சோவே

Btw, The Cooptex building at Egmore, Madras is named after her – Thillayadi Valliammai building!

Mata ni Pachedi

Block-printed and painted using mineral colours on cloth. The painting is divided into 11 horizontal rows, featuring linear parades of priests wielding knives, sacrificial goats, devotees rich and poor, horse-drawn carriages, musicians, birds and animals regal and ritual. Seated on a goat in her temple, in the centre of the fifth row, is Meladi Mata. Below her is Jogani Mata on a tree. c.1940. Artist unknown. 73 x 105 inches (185 x 266 cm). Mineral and vegetable colours. Private collection.
Source :

In order to become truly one nation and one people we need to understand the rich strands of our culture. The arts of India are among the greatest aesthetic achievement, and Gujarat had a very rich textile tradition.

In this blog, we focus on the kalamkari work of Gujarat, the form of a backdrop to the mother goddess, the literal meaning of Mata ni pachedi and the canopy of mother goddess, called as Mata no Chandarvo

The temple cloths are made as votive offerings during the time of Navarathra, the nine-nights festival celebrated after the rains. The vaghari community, who were denied access in to temples due to their caste, made these backdrop or canopy for mobile temples. Exactly like Thangkas, the buddhist scrolls.

The Vaghari community have the surname of chitaras (painters). Mata ni Pachedi usually depicts mother goddesses as mataji, mostly with the use of black, maroon colors. The Bua, or the the priests of the goddess, praises her with songs and also have a round earthen pot with barley shoots. This pot is immersed on the ninth day, after taking it in a procession. Peasants, tribes offer these cloth to her when their wishes are fulfilled.

Visat mata on her Vahana, Source : Sahapedia

This multi-colour temple cloth of recent times is in the kalamkari style ( and I can see the similarity of thanjavur kalamkari and thombais here), surrounded by block printed floral motifs. The center figure is the avenging goddess riding on a buffalo, and from her crown springs sprouting corn. She is depicted as having multiple hands and weapons – sword, spear, dagger, trident, arrows etc.,
In her form as Bahuchara, she is four armed – sword, spear, bell and cup of blood

Tara books has made a beautiful handmade cover and textile book on this art. They got the blocks done specially for this, and the book has a special cloth cover too. A group of tailors in Chennai created the panels of the book using cotton cloth, and the main cloth panel in this books was done by Mr. Dakshinamurthy, who works with Kalakshetra now. This book was also displayed in a special vitrine at the V&A Museum in London, as part of the India Festival,

Technique used

  1. Natural materials used for drawing and dyeing, for example black kasim made out of rusted iron fermented with jaggery
  2. Very fine outlines and filling of colors done with kalam (brush)
  3. Rock dust, red earth, lime, turmeric are used as a base for the colours
  4. Predominantly wooden blocks are made as outline in the cloth, and the colours are filled in for black and red (Iron and alum are used for black and red)

Kalakshetra’s natural dyed Kalamkari sarees

Chemical dyes might come in zillion sophisticated formulations. But you can’t match the depth and uniqueness of colours derived from nature.

Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale started the Natural dyeing unit of Kalakshetra in 1970, and the person she chose to head it was Mrs. Shakunthala Ramani. I had an opportunity to interview Late Mrs. Ramani two years back and she enthusiastically showed her books on Kolam, and spoke a lot about her hobby, batik painting.

The Kalamkari unit of Kalakshetra was established in April 1978 with the sponsorship of Crafts Council of India and a small grant of Rs.50000/- from the social welfare board, to provide employment to women.

Mrs. Shakunthala had trained Mr. Prabhakar, who heads the pen kalamkari unit currently. Mr. Dakshinamurthy who heads the block printing department is a store house of information on natural dyeing and printing.

Here’s a video of an interview with Mr. Dakshinamurthy, on what differentiates a Kalakshetra Kalamkari as against the rest!

Interview with Dakshinamurthy sir, why Kalakshetra’s kalamkari is unique..

I have summarised the key points here:

  • No figures of Gods and goddesses in sarees or dresses – only floral or other prints are used
  • Gods/Goddess, mythological stories only for panels
  • 100% natural dyes
  • The block printing follows the Machilipatnam style and the pen kalamkari follows the Sri kalahasti style
  • While the original machilipatnam style uses dark colors for background, Kalakshetra sticks MOSTLY to beige background
  • The key colors used are maroon and black on the foreground

Thanjavur Kalamkari

The art of kalamkari took a southern flavor when the artists of sikkilnaickenpet made the temple wall hangings, thombais (used in temple cars) and as “asmangiri” (canopy cloth) – the colour of jet black is a secret composition even today.

Spotted a panel at Thiruvavaduthurai temple, traditionally these mutts helped to preserve this fine art!

Depicted in the panel is the Pradosha Shivan mounted on his Rishaba! And don’t miss the flying angels, a Victorian touch too..

Calligraphy in sarees

“The word is sacred. Sacred is the word” – “Sada sowbhagvathi bhava”

Saw a fantastic bridal heirloom Paithani saree at the Prince of Wales museum with the above words woven in the pallu!

Pic : A paithani saree with woven words of ” Sada Sowbhagavathibhava” at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai

The practice of calligraphy in weaving is not something new to us- be it in Benares where they use Urdu or Devanagari scripts in a motif or Kabir’s poem!

A calligraphic logo in a benares saree!
Screen printed calligraphic text of the famous song “harivarasanam” in a kerala kasavu saree!

Did you see the video of Sabyasachi making a beneares lehenga for Deepika’s wedding which made news – , the above words were woven in her lehenga!


You thought croptops were the fashion of today?

By 1930’s the royal household women of Baroda wore this sleeveless waistcoat richly embellished, known as “fituhi”- above their blouses. It was made of brocade, tissue, chanderi and the fine fit was just like an european corset.

Image credit : CSVMS Museum, Mumbai

And was done by the tailors of Baroda itself, more the small fitting pockets too! Maharani Chimnabhai II used to wear this, and this waistcoat is from the royal collection of Royal Gaekwar family of Baroda.

Image credit : CSVMS Museum, Mumbai

Kodalikaruppur sarees

The famous Kodalikaruppur Sarees from Tamilnadu

Tanjore Painting original from Madras Museum – The Tanjore king Sivaji and his wife Saitamba Bai – The uniqueness of this painting is the gold gilt and gem setting and painted with ivory!

There are more than 10-12 karupurs in and around thanjavaur and trichy. The place we refer is the one near kollidam (trichy)- Kodalikaruppur, a village which was called as Neela Meghapuram earlier, which is surrounded by rich silk weaving areas of Kumbakonam and Thirubhuvanam.

The place was famous for its fine yarn woven into dhotis, sarees and angavastrams. The weaving was so fine that it attracted the Thanjavur royalties, and a new line of fabrics were produced for the king’s household.

Kodalikaruppur is actually the advanced weaving technique attributed to this village – the introduction of ornamentation on cotton ground woven fabric alongwith gold brocade! This was further embellished with natural dyes applied by kalam or the engraved wooden blocks.

The origin of this fabric is attributed to Raja Serforji of Thanjavur (1798-1832) who announced that a contest would take place to choose a best woven saree to be given as present to his queen for her birthday. A Kavarai chettiar creates this Karuppur prototype – specific characteristic being kalamkari being done on the shimmering textual quality (cotton interspersed with zari or metallic yarn) in the jamdani figures portions of the saree.

Hadway notes that the colours were predominantly in shades of black and red. The famous pallu motif is a take off from the Persian candle stand design.

The Persian candle design incorporated in a contemporary linen saree!

Source : Internet

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