They shine in the twilight, so many tiny, delicate stars, dancing on the surface of water, reflecting from the exquisite all-white garb, detailed with stitched motifs so fine and precise that they look printed. But they are embroidered in ek taar (one thread) chikankari and mukaish (the art of embroidering thin metal strips onto a fabric). That’s the expertise of Delhi-based fashion designer Anjul Bhandari, 51, whose decade-old eponymous label is built on the rich textile traditions of Awadh.
It takes four, five craftswomen three to four years to embroider one ek taar chikankari sari, which weighs no more than 600 grams. “These are heirloom pieces. They are timeless. They never go out of fashion,” says Bhandari. And their takers, among the many connoisseurs of these fine crafts, are actresses Deepika Padukone, Vidya Balan and Tara Sutaria.
From old to young, Bhandari’s evolving design techniques and sensibilities resonate with women across generations. Starting this year, Bhandari has been decorating her outfits with zardosi, another craft from Awadh to highlight her work on georgettes, chiffons, muslins, pashmina and organza sequined with baby mirrors and Japanese baby pearls. But when she started the business, she only worked with cotton. Last year, her team learnt to dye Japanese baby pearls in pastel shades and used them to add more colour to their pastel outfits embroidered in white thread.
Bhandari releases two bridal collections, a summer line and a Diwali festive collection every year. She is now ready to go overseas and take the collection to bigger audience. “We want to educate more people about the craft and the effort that goes behind creating each ensemble, and ensure that brides have at least one ensemble from Anjul Bhandari for their wedding celebrations,” says Bhandari.
She grew up in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and was married into a Lucknow-based family. Bhandari was introduced to Lucknowi crafts by her mother-in-law, Naina Bhandari, who worked for the artisans’ upliftment. “I always knew of the crafts but when I saw the karigars at work, I was hooked.” In 2010 almost ten years after working as a designer and having done some work with the artisans from Awadh, Anjul decided to focus on chikankari and mukaish to promote the art and sustain the livelihoods of the local craftsmen and women.
“The aesthetic of these crafts resonates with me. I am determined to take these to the mainstream fashion scene” says Bhandari. Thanks to her and her tribe, Chikankari is flourishing, which, in turn, is encouraging the younger generation of traditional crafts families to learn the skill.
Bhandari works with around 1700 artisans, mostly women, even those who can only work part-time due to household responsibilities, helping them become financially independent.
Another very important aspect of her work, like in any other fashion business, is sales and packaging. But it becomes more crucial here as Bhandari is essentially selling heritage to the always evolving clients. “Chikankari has been around for centuries and has many different styles and qualities.
We only work with ek and do taar, the most superior version of the craft, and our promotion strategies also highlight the same,” says Bhandari.
“Moreover, our clients are informed, they know what they want, have a classic sensibility, are not trend-driven and want heirloom pieces. Our classic and timeless creations are perfect for them.” The brand has a stand-alone, by appointment-only studio in Delhi. Its saris, lehengas and other garments are also available at different multi-designer stores across