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It's chikan!

A teacher-turned-entrepreneur works modern magic using traditional chikankari


IF YOUR idea of chikan is buying a fabric that looks deceptively like what every other person is wearing, blame it on the popularity of the fabric.

The very thing that took chikan to the length and breadth of the country, and even to foreign shores, proved to be its undoing.

To keep pace with the growing demand and to pander to all classes of buyers, manufacturers churned out thousands of pieces with minimal, look-alike work and on fabrics that kept the cost low.

It took decades before designers stepped in to rescue the art from the obscurity it had been pushed into. Now, designer chikan is the flavour of the season. It's expensive yes, but no one seems to mind paying for a fabric whose origins are steeped in royalty.

Even in Coimbatore, geographically so far away from the seat of chikankari - Uttar Pradesh, people are willing to pay the mega bucks to buy chikan. The recent Manju Jalota show at Pralochna Apparel on Avinashi Road was ample proof of that. Almost all her creations (she brought nearly 400, each one different from the other) were upwards of Rs. 1,950, with the most expensive garment - a multi-hued saree that was embroidered throughout - pegged at Rs. 10,500.

This was her fifth showing in Coimbatore and Manju had brought her collection of sarees, fabrics, kurtas and pants.

"You have to change with the times and turn dynamic. After all, I have a product to sell. I cannot keep insisting that I will stick to traditional chikankari work," says the teacher-turned entrepreneur.

After 19 years of teaching at the St. Francis College, Lucknow, Manju quit as Head of the Department of Geography, to set up Alankrit, her designer label.

She gets her work done from craftspersons in about 40 interior villages in UP. Manju has also opened three centres to train women in the art of chikankari. And, she does not sell in Lucknow.

"You never know when your design will get copied." Manju has experimented with the look of chikan, using it on fabrics as diverse as Georgettes, chiffons and crepes, besides traditional cotton. But, on which fabric does chikan look best on? "Thin fabrics like mulmul and kota," she replies.

"Every design is different in chikan. And, there is a variety of stitches. It is possible to use as many as 26 different stitches in a single garment. I've combined chikan with cutwork, badla and zardosi," she says.

To ensure proper money flow and to shorten the time taken to finish embroidery on a garment, Manju gets more than one person to work on a piece.

"Earlier, only one person would work on a saree. So, it would take nearly eight months to finish a saree and the worker would get paid a paltry sum. Now, I have three-four people working on a piece. The work gets done faster and they get more money at the end of the day. It is mutually beneficial," she adds.

But, how easily have rural women taking to this experimentation with chikan?

"Earlier, if I sent in 100 sarees for embroidery, at least 10 would go waste due to various reasons. Now, that wastage is almost nil."

Manju's entrepreneurship even won her the Bharat Jyoti Award and the 2002 edition of FICCI's "Entrepreneur of the Year" award.

SUBHA J RAO

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