Chikan embroiderd sari from 1948: a biography

Tereza Kuldova

Chikan embroiderd sari

Close up of the two saris – the original from 1948 on the top, the new copy below

Chikan embroiderd sari

Mrs. Mangalik with a photo of Shri Ram Narayan

Chikan embroiderd sari

Mrs. Mangalik with the sari

Looking at these pictures we see an older lady dressed in an embroidered sari. But what is her relationship to the sari? What can the sari tell us about her, about the society around her and about the development of fashion and taste in India?

This will be a more personal narrative about an object, a narrative about an emotional bond to a sari, which has been a part of the wardrobe of Mrs. Mohini Mangalik since 1948. This narrative tells a different story of the importance of objects in our lives and their meaning. At the same time, it is a narrative of a particular location, both social and spatial, over time. 

After her university graduation Mrs. Mangalik became a teacher at the famous Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, a college established 125 years ago and since then devoted to the cause of women’s higher education in India. At that time she realized that she had more time for leisure and began to admire the shops of Lucknow, particularly those selling Chikan embroidered saris. While roaming around the Chowk bazaar, she came across a shop, now one of the three oldest shops still existing, selling Chikan embroidery. At that time the shop was run by Shri Ram Narayan (photograph in the frame) and today it is run by his son. She remembers him as a person who was passionate about the art of Chikan embroidery, as someone who talked sincerely about it, not like the others, as she pointed out, who were only interested in selling and profit. He seemed to be genuinely concerned with the quality of the embroidery and he happened to have some really exquisite pieces. After she earned one of her first salaries, at that time around 200 Indian Rupees ($3.50) she decided to buy a sari from him. The broad embroidered border and three embroidered stripes on the pallu (the most elaborately decorated end of the sari which is displayed when worn) was the fashion of the day, and though she wished to have a colorful sari, she decided for this one because of the intricacy of the embroidery. The sari was expensive; in fact, the price for it was as high as a month’s salary of hers. Yet she felt that she had to have it, and purchased it on monthly installments of 50 rupees. This sari and the interaction with Ram Narayan spurred her life-long interest in Chikan embroidery. The sari was with her throughout her life.  In the beginning it troubled her: it was so white that it was hard at that time to find an equally white material for the blouse. But it was not until she wore the sari that she realized how precious it was, and how people admired it and were stunned by the delicate embroidery. Once, she loaned it to a friend of hers who wore it together with diamond earrings and a diamond necklace on Fulbright get together. Looking at her friend wearing the sari she realized how gorgeous it was and how eye-catching. As the time went by, she enjoyed it more and more. She used to be an inspirational professor of English literature at Lucknow University and she still is inspirational, no less in her personal, always graceful style. The way she carries her saris is legendary in certain Lucknow circles. She is a friend of Mamta Varma, a businesswoman-cum-designer who has a little showroom in the Chowk area and is a great connoisseur of the embroidery herself, always eager to investigate old pieces and to learn more. It so happened that Mamta, driven by the notion of preserving the heritage of the Chikan embroidery as well as replicating its former beauty and delicacy, decided to copy the sari, though with a more heavily embroidered pallu this time. She had the printing block done according to the embroidery on the original sari and encouraged the girls to do a really good job in the embroidery; however, one can tell the old sari from the new one from the size of the stitches. The old sari remains a challenge: the tiny stitches are hard to replicate but the aim to match the former glory and delicacy of the craft increases desirability. 

These notions have stood behind the revival of the textile crafts and embroidery since the 1960s and while Chikan embroidery has had its many up and downs (downs particularly during the British rule), the ‘interaction’ with the old pieces is one of those things that has created the desire to resurrect the former quality of the embroidery. It was interactions such as this that have driven a number of businesswomen and businessmen to take the embroidery seriously and try to reinvent a craft that was some two decades ago perceived as dying. Old pieces, some treasured dearly, some decaying, still inspire through their quality that seems almost unachievable nowadays. This particular sari was copied: its design improved upon, it was embroidered on chiffon instead on the original thin white cotton. The blockmaker had to recreate a block with the original fish design (fish is also the symbol of Lucknow, since the time of the Nawabs) and now the chances are great that this act will provoke further copying and further interest in the old pieces of Chikan, its past and its possible futures. The amazing thing is that this sari from 1948 is still being worn, though the embroidery had to be transferred on new fabrics as the original thin cotton was already torn at some places. 

Through this sari we can also observe how its value has transformed and increased, be it economic or emotional value, or even its very meaningfulness. The value of the copied sari is now as well closely connected to this original sari; through its connection to the ‘sari of origin’ it is ultimately more precious than any of the contemporary saris of matching quality and this is how these saris find their place or niche in the contemporary luxury market. We can also observe through this story how the value of the sari was negotiated in the social interactions, at the times when it was shown off, worn with diamonds and admired by others. This is how the sari became something worth taking care of in the first place, in addition to the apparent quality of the hand-embroidery. This is how the sari became a part of personal memory, emotion and sentiment and how this memory became inscribed in the material object.

Further reading

Miller, Daniel & Banerjee, Mukulika. 2008. The Sari. Berg Publishers.

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