As written by Shalini Raghaviah
Freelance Film Maker, Researcher and Trainer with 15 years industry experience
As I sit reviewing some footage of a documentary film I’m working on, my mind wanders to the winter of 2011, when I first interfaced with chikankari, a Lucknowi hand-embroidery which is subtle and delicate, creating beautiful embossed patterns on fabric. I was covering a workshop that discussed the consequences of this craft acquiring the Geographical Indicator tag under Intellectual Property Rights. I was let in to the story of how these women artisans, who were both economically backward and illiterate, made their case to the Director General of Patents through the leadership of an NGO. They had made a first-time train journey to represent their case at the Director General of Patents, Chennai. It was a long and anxious wait from 2008 to 2010, but finally, their efforts and conviction paid off, when chikankari was awarded the GI tag. Apparently, this craft had enjoyed great patronage under the Nawabs. Afterwards it had fallen into disarray, and the condition of the artisans deteriorated. The award of GI marks the beginning of its movement for revival and recognition.
I met the leader of this group, a 55-year old matriarch, Asma Begum. Asma Begum is a fourth generation chikankari artisan, who had first picked up the needle when she was barely ten. She was aware of carrying on a legacy that was first introduced to India by Mughal Empress Nur Jahan. She still teaches her granddaughters; and that takes it to the seventh generation within one family. Asma Begum didn’t just have a demeanour about her that she was in command. She is also some one who has had the guts to start learning to read and write at the age of 56, enrolling in a local school. The fact that her classmates were only as old as her grandchildren didn’t bother her. She laughed it off when they joked that “granny” has come to be their classmate.
Asma Begum remained in the back of my memory. Now and then, I even met her when I went to visit the NGO I was consulting for. Being film maker, each time I met her, I wondered if it was possible to capture the story of chikankari and these amazing women as a short documentary. Not much later I met two other women from Lucknow who had lent their own contribution to bring chikankari up to speed. One was Shipra Anand, a fashion designer who had started experimenting by combining chikankari with other materials like jute. They received exposure and good sales through trade fairs across the country, bringing more business to the artisans. Shruti Singh Chauhan, a young woman then in the corporate sector, quit her job to work with the Fair Trade section of NEED that her parents had set up. Shruti’s travels and exposure to crafts across other parts of the world lent another kind of twist and appeal to her chikankari products. She is also bringing in a paradigm shift in the work culture by getting small groups of artisans to come to a welfare centre and work fixed hours. This has never been done before, as it a thing that women have done at home during their free time. However, Shruti feels that working fixed hours brings in professionalism and discipline, and improves their artistic skills, which are consistently updated. Finding a larger customer base will just be the consequence of this.
By now, the film that I had in mind has altered shape to include the journeys of these three women, with the story of chikankari in the backdrop. I went ahead and decided to shoot it. I used a bit of my personal savings and crowd funded some amount for a first round of shoot. Later, we received a seed fund from Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage for a second round. I am left with post production, for which I’m crowd funding again. There’s a reason I’ve decided to call this film ‘Thread of Life’, : ‘thread’ is both literal and figurative. Literally, it is the thread used by the Lucknowi women artisans to embroider the chikankari. Figuratively, it is this thread that has given the artisans a life of their own.
I would appreciate any contribution to this film, which can be made through this link, where you can see the trailer and details of fund requirement with multiple online payment options.