An Endangered Language

An Endangered Language

While her husband nosedived into opium and alcohol, she wielded the imperial seal in all matters of state. She saw coinage struck in her name and power come to her throne—and though she was the twentieth wife of the Mughal Emperor in 1611, she was called Nur Jahan, The Light of the World.

Nur Jahan

One of the legends surrounding her name recounts how Nur Jahan brought precious embroidery techniques from her origins in Persia and taught the stitches to women in India, now beloved the world over as chikankari. To this day, the city of Lucknow is known for these exquisite 32 stitches, some of which separate the cloth like lace, each of which punctuates the language of the paisley or the floral vine, making of fine Indian cotton a garden of white on white.

I met Mamta Varma at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market nine years ago and began to learn about chikankari from her, a true Ibu from Lucknow. Together in her small hotel room, we poured over samples of the stitches as I wrapped my brain around the complexity of this craft and began to design with her. A partnership grew into friendship as I laughed with Mamta, with her daughter and son; and later wept, as well, as covid took beloved members of her family.

Mamta Varma and her daughter BhairvinMamta Varma, right, with her daughter, Bhairvin Mathur, left.

I learned from Mamta that chikankari isn't just about delicate stitches but also how they are formed and fitted into clothing. One of the stitches called darzdari finishes the seams so flawlessly you cannot know they are there. It's especially difficult, and dying out.

Mamta cared so much about this language of craft that she applied for a grant from the Ibu Foundation to train young women of Lucknow in this complex finish. With the the Foundation's support, Mamta invited the expert who authored the book on this technique, Paola Manfredi, to come lead the training, as soon as the pandemic would allow her travel from Italy. One of our donors, Susan Zises Green, so appreciated the effort that she eagerly funded the project. And then we learn from Mamta that the training was so successful, a whole second group wanted to learn. Could we do it again? (Yes, yes!)

Bharvi's Chikan artisans training with Paola ManfrediEmbroiderers from Bhairvi's Chikan learning the complex stitch (left);  Paola Manfredi with Mamta and students in training funded by the Ibu Foundation. (right)

You can get a tunic like this from China for less money, you might say. Why should I care about these tiny stitches? Because it is a language, I want to say, written and perfected by women in the long history of needle and thread. Because it is one of the ways left in the world to care about excellence, the pride of tradition, the complexity and beauty of life, the imagination of the hand. Because these women care and offer this caring to the world; my wearing their gift is a respectful note of thanks for the language they carry in their bones. Because we belong to one another on this earth, and loving our sisters' true voice is a way to sing of that belonging. Because if no one cares, this language dies completely, and we are without one stunning way to see the world.

So, in the end, this garment (which we now consider an Ibu Classic, offered again and again each year) is an invitation to care about the little things that may not matter one hoot to the passer by who sees you in such finery. But you care, and in that caring is the beginning of change for women everywhere. If god is in the details, this is one heavenly garment, born of women of the cloth.

All the Best,