Creating a positive impact
Interlacing fabric in the nooks and corners of Lucknow is one such art that is symbolic to the creative industry of Chikankari. It is an alluring form of embroidery that brings only accolades to designers, yet artisans struggle to lead a meaningful life.
The word Chikan literally means embroidery, which was traditionally done on muslin cloth using white thread on white fabric with floral motifs adding elegance to the outfit and grace to the wearer. Chikankari embroidery has evolved over generations. It requires hours of handwork and endurance to design and embroider some exquisite pieces. The embroidery evolves in narrow by lanes where even sunlight fails to light up the houses of masters of embroidery. This poses as a threat to the artisan’s health, as they are prone to diminishing vision by straining their eyes for long hours in badly lit spaces.
Moreover, their earnings do not ensure a healthy lifestyle for the effort they put in. Bargaining power is non-existent as many are confined behind ‘purdah’ or widowed/ divorced by husband and readily agree on anything that is offered to add to the livelihood. They are also exploited bichaulia (middleman) that adds to their misery.
The rising appeal of Chikankari has attracted many entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had a positive impact on the lives of those who handcraft these wonderful items. Currently, the industry is women oriented, but ironically it was once a male dominated sector of art. Today, women are making somewhere around INR 50-80 a day in urban areas; in rural areas women make INR 20-30.
In 2015, I launched Sangraha Karigar Atelier to change the fate of these destitute artisans. The purpose was to provide better reach for their craft and better living wages. Along with faculty from various design schools, we provided a design curriculum via a four month program to 15 women in Lucknow. The mentors supported the women and helped them create a niche for their distinctive designs in to market.
Initially started as a design education project, SKA now is a collective of sub-brands by the women who graduated from the artisan design course. It aims to help artisans create a product having higher market value, design their own motifs and charge a royalty, so that they can also co-create with designers. Today 27 women, who have completed the course, participate in exhibitions and showcase their collection with pride with the assistance of exhibition curators and ecommerce retailers earning INR 200 a day. As a result, from a prevalent trend of margin of embroiderer getting 5%, today these women are getting 25%-30% of retail price for each outfit. Keeping their tradition intact, the women obtain a significant amount while working at the comfort of their homes.
Apart from the monetary gain there has been personality transformation in many of the women. For example, Juhi who spent her childhood as a timid teenager yet the training made her aware of her potential and transformed the unsure girl into a confident young lady. Tabassum who leads the groups manufacturing system and is a tough master for excellence in embroidery expresses “earlier we were just laborers who were commissioned work by an agent but now they feel they are artists.” Sheeba, another member of the group is overwhelmed with the recognition and respect she has received for her skills and creative talent from consumers and design professionals.
Today a handful of women hold strong, with appreciation for work and a chance to provide better lifestyle for their families. Their presence at the exhibitions ensures exposure and uplifted spirits by customer’s praise.
This however, is just the beginning.