The Amalgamation of Vision, Soul, and Designs from the Regions of India

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Chikankari work on a Kurta at Praant, Koregaon Park. [Photos by Jignesh Mistry]
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Monika Chordia

It took me a few minutes to locate praan:t, the bungalow where the Alankrit Exhibition was held. What an intriguing name. I had to understand the meaning. Monika Chordia who owns the brand has named it.  “praan:t. is an amalgamation of 2 Hindi words – Praan and Praant meaning soul and region respectively. So it is soulful designs from the regions of India. What keeps us going is that these designs come from Manju’s soul. We appreciate each other in the manner we work. Holding an exhibition at my place is how I pitch in to help the chikankari workers in the village. We enjoy working in this way. We have our fixed clientele who love this work and buy from us.”

Mrs. Manju Jalota is the lady who held her Alankrit exhibition a few days ago. It certainly was a classy blend of Vision and Soul.

praan:t – the Seat of the Soul and Vision

Every year Mrs. Jalota holds the exhibition at praan:t.  Beautiful lehengas, shararas, long kurtas to match, long flared skirts, all in exquisite chikankari work were exhibited at the bungalow. Creative she is and a visionary, she moved away from the regular white on white palette. The clothes were in colors that were pleasing to the eye, colors to beat the oncoming heat; all dyed in pastel vegetable colors. Fabrics from cotton to terry cloth, to organza, and silk have been used. These are fabrics that breathe easily and are good for the summer.

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Manju Jalota

I was awestruck with the elegance and sophistication that I saw in the work. To reach these chikankari workers is difficult as most of them live in remote areas of the state. One needs sheer dedication and love for the work to see the end result.

“The base is chikankari. It is done on a bigger frame otherwise the ladies use a small frame. It takes longer to do it as the work is very fine. In chikan, we have got 26 stitches. And I like that all my dresses should have 8 to 10 stitches minimum. It is work done in remote villages. You have to do a sampling first and then take it to them. Some villages are in such remote areas that even the cars cannot go. So then we go till where the road can take us.  I have a driver who takes it on the scooter to them, explains everything, or I call the village people explain everything and give it to them. It is very difficult for us to go to such remote areas”

How the journey began

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Her journey began 26 years ago in Lucknow. She had moved to Lucknow to her new home. The development authority in Lucknow had taken over a piece of land where a lot of the chikankari workers lived. They were poor and approached her to help them earn money.  Her daughter was to get married. She got a few pieces made for her. The daughter wore them to the Sheratan Maurya in Delhi where she worked. The colleagues loved them and coaxed the mother to hold an exhibition at the hotel. Little was she aware at that time it would take such immense shape where she would be making the ladies of the city look pretty, and also aid the chikankari workers in the village.

She gave work to these chikankari workers and in many ways freed them from the exploitation that is so intrinsic to their line of work in the remote villages of India.  She helped them establish their individual identities. The journey was a challenging one where she met with threat calls along the way to dissuade her from doing the commendable job she has been doing. The amalgamation of Vision and Soul had begun.

Mrs. Manju Jalota the wife of an army officer today works with 4000 workers and 30 villages.

The Origin Of Chikankari

Chikankari workers are Muslim ladies. Rarely do you find men doing this sort of work. No doubt in the recent past the culture has begun to change a bit. Farming is on the decline and crops are seasonal. Some men have begun to take to this task as other jobs are rare to find in the villages.

Why is the art restricted to Muslim women? I was curious.
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Chikankari work on Sarees.

“Indian women had a lot of freedom. They could go to the farms and work there. They had no purdah system. However, the Muslim girls wore burkha and were not permitted to step outside. So to keep them in the house they needed to be kept occupied. How do you it? Hence this culture of making chikankari started.”

The origins of chikankari are enveloped in mystery and legend. The mention of this particular work was made during the reigns of Chandragupta Maurya as early as the third century B.C. Megasthenes described it as ‘fine flowered muslin by Indians.’ It is also said chikankari existed in East Bengal during the rule of the Mughal Emperors. It came to Lucknow in the 18th Century during the time of the Nawabs of Awadh. It blossomed into an art of elegance, sophistication, and refinement.

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[L-R] Manju Jalota, Monika Chordia and Prajakta Albuquerque
The Plight of the Chikankari Women

However, the women here struggle to earn a living. The wages earned from the middlemen are meager and can barely support their expenses. The women are paid mostly per piece which takes several months to make and sometimes a year, especially the sarees.

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“There was a saying in the old days. If you want to wear a chikan saree give it this summer because you will get it next summer.” Said Mrs. Jalota.

Boy! was I surprised! That is immense work.

“One piece of lehnga is done in one and a half year. It is all hand work. 5 meters is the lehenga, 2 ½ meters is the dupatta, 1 meter is the blouse.”

Just imagine being paid a paltry sum of Rs.500 per piece after putting in hours and months of work?

“26 years ago when I gave a hundred rupees to my craftsman; she began howling because she had never seen a hundred rupee note.”

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Chickankari Kurta

Besides the meager sum that they are paid, they are also cheated by the middlemen on the number of items they are paid for. The chikankari workers are never paid for all the pieces they have worked on.

“The tendency of the middleman is to pay for 2 pieces whilst he has given you 3 pieces to work on. He will again come and give you 3 more pieces and pay for 2 pieces. So all the time the workers are indebted to these middlemen.”

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Monika Chordia in a Chickankari Dress.

Breaking the Chain

This is where the wonderful soul Mrs. Jalota stepped in and broke the chain of the middlemen which definitely needs praises for… accomplishing this unimaginable feat.

My specialty is that I have no middleman. We have a direct approach to the workers.  We are covering 30 villages and this is not from today. It has taken me years to get to know them and build a trust factor. It is has been an age-old tradition where the middlemen are involved. This has been going on from generation to generation and they are very poor paymasters.  They keep the villagers indebted to them. I broke the chain. If they make two pieces for me they are paid for two full pieces. Because of this, their financial condition is becoming better and better. There are ladies as old as 80 years working.”

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Chikankari work on sarees.

She runs an NGO called the Alankrit Rural Welfare Society.

Has the government extended any support?

“We are a private organization. No one funds us. I have never sought any help from the government.  UP is a state where a lot of chaos takes place. I happen to be an army officer’s wife and can’t go with a begging bowl, nor resort to certain measures. I am very happy that I am a private organization. Whatever we earn goes back to the foundation and the workers.”

Being Recognised For her Vision and Soul

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There was a proud moment in her life when this exceptional soul recognized for this unmatchable work that she has been doing. Her vision and soul has brought to the chikankari workers much work and money. It is a 365 days employment.

“The Ficci Flo ladies have acknowledged me. They would come to Delhi and buy from us. I sell only at exhibitions One fine day I got a call from the chairperson from Chennai. She called me and honored me as the best woman entrepreneur of the year.  I was holding my exhibition at the same time there in 2013. It was at 4 pm.  I asked her how have they bestowed me with this honor. No one knows me here. She said the ladies have been picking up stuff from your exhibition and they have always spoken very highly of you.”

 

Does she have any message to the several other women who have dabbled in this kind of a career?

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“Many ladies started with me. However, they have folded up or followed the path of having the middleman involved. My message would be to maintain consistency.”

One needs constant perseverance through self-belief and passion for your work, especially if one has a noble thought and wants to help the less privileged and needy. A lot of us are blessed with creativity and intelligence and can find ways to help the needy. One of them is creating micro industries where they can earn their livelihood doing different jobs like sewing, handloom etc.

If you have a vision and a soul that connects with it…what can stop you from moving ahead?

praan:t holds the Alankrit Exhibition every year. Those interested can be on the lookout for the exhibition. India Vocal will keep you informed.

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