How this school dropout from Lucknow took Chikankari art across the world

Nitesh Agarwal started his business on credit and now earns Rs 7 crore annually by selling Chikankari sarees, kurtis, handcrafted shoes and other items in 40 countries. He provides livelihood to 2,000 women artisans while promoting the 17th-century craft

Riya Singh
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Nitesh Agarwal sells Chikankari products in 40 countries

Nitesh Agarwal sells handcrafted Chikankari products in 40 countries

In 2005, Nitesh Agarwal found an exporters’ directory in a garbage bin near his house. Intrigued by the voluminous book, he picked it up and started calling some numbers. Living in Lucknow, Nitesh was well aware of the market for clothes with Chikankari, the intricate embroidery done with white cotton thread on cotton or silk fabrics in soft pastel colours. 

He began calling exporters, saying that he was a manufacturer from Lucknow working on an order basis. “One person gave me a good response and asked me to send some samples. I got around 30 samples from Chowk (market in Central Lucknow) on credit of Rs 30,000 and sent them to the exporter in Mumbai. He returned all the samples barring one,” recollects Nitesh with a laugh.

That sample was a white cotton Chikankari saree and the exporter wanted around one thousand pieces. Nitesh accepted the order, but he knew artisans could not handcraft so many sarees in a short period of a month.

“So I collected all the dead stock from shops in Lucknow and sent the 1000 sarees to him. He accepted the order and paid me Rs 3.75 lakh (Rs 375 per saree),” he says.

In business terms, dead stock refers to unsold products that are unlikely to be sold in the future as well. Nitesh, however, made a profit of only around Rs20,000 from the transaction, paying the rest to shopkeepers from whom he had sourced the products. The incident gave a new direction to the life of Nitesh, who had to discontinue studies after class 10 due to financial problems. “I dropped out of class 10th in the year 2000. I later completed High School in 2003 but could not study further,” he says.

"I believe textbook knowledge alone is not enough to make it in life. Life itself is also a big teacher," Nitesh says. 

Chikankari was introduced by the Mughals and patronised by the Nawabs of Lucknow. Pic: Triveni Chikan Arts

Though Nitesh successfully executed the 1,000-sarees order, he kept facing difficulties subsequently. Either he could not complete export orders on time or the client would reject the order or not pay. He soon ran out of money. At that time, one of his old customers agreed to loan him Rs13,000 and Nitesh decided to give another try to business.

Making a fresh start

“I restarted with Rs13,000 and began local trading of Chikankari products -- buying from local producers and wholesalers and selling them at my shop – Triveni Chikan Arts. With a margin of 10 percent, I started earning some regular money. In about three months, I made around Rs 1 lakh,” he says.

At that time, some of the Chikankari artisans with whom he had worked in the past, came to him with some dead stock they wanted to get rid of.

“It was very fancy clothing. To sell it, I went to Delhi where I met a few people. One of them was travelling to Singapore and agreed to take me along,” Nitesh says.

Also Read: Dr Hemalatha Jain: The professor reviving age-old handloom weaving of sarees in Karnataka

Nitesh paid Rs30,000 for the flight tickets, carried the stock and sold some of the goods there. The trip costs and other expenses left him with losses again but he had seen the world of exports first hand and he understood its potential. “I saw the big picture in Singapore and realised I could travel with my work. The next trip was again to Singapore with some Chikankari kurtis,” he says.

But Nitesh’s first big money came from South Africa in 2012. He hired a container for sending the Chikankari products to South Africa, where he spent two months.

“The response to our handcrafted embroidered products was very good in South Africa. I covered all my past losses and sold Chikankari products worth Rs 1.5 crore,” he says. 

saree chikankari
A Chikankari saree can take three months to complete. Pic: Triveni Chikan Arts

From there on, Nitesh started preparing garments keeping in mind the requirements of overseas markets. “I used to travel, take orders from buyers from all over the world, and ready the goods in Lucknow with a group of artisans. I would also go myself for market surveys to understand the local tastes and dispatch from here,” he says.

Also Read: This family continues 900-year-old Patan Patola weaving in Gujarat

Why Chikankari business worked

Over time, he understood the huge demand for handmade traditionally embroidered Indian garments in the overseas market and the popularity of Chikankari in particular. Historically, Chikankari embroidery was exclusively crafted on mulmul, a delicate muslin cotton fabric. Today, it is done on cotton, wool, chiffon, crepe, organdy chiffon, and silk, embellished with contrasting coloured threads.

The genesis of Chikankari lies in the intricate motifs found in Mughal architectural designs. Dating back over 400 years, Chikankari in Lucknow flourished under the patronage of Nawabs. Lucknow Chikankari received the geographical indication or GI tag in 2008. Over 700 families in and around villages of Lucknow are still engaged in Chikankari embroidery and around 90 percent of them are women.

“There is a big demand as well as value for handmade Indian products in the global markets,” he says.

Nitesh now works with 2000 women artisans and 50 tailors to create the products. “They work for me as I pay them 50 percent more than the market rate. I am a firm believer in women's empowerment and fair rates. The payment can range from Rs200 to Rs8000 per piece depending on the intricacy of the embroidery and motifs,” he says.

women embroiderers
About 90 percent of the Chikankari artisans are women. Pic: Triveni Chikan Arts

The other factor behind his success is quality. “I have never compromised on the quality of the products,” he says. Triveni Chikan Arts makes handcrafted sarees, stoles, kurtis, kurtas, shawls and even handcrafted shoes with Chikankari embroidery for exports. “We work with cotton, silk, and synthetic fibres depending on the market demand,” he says.

Today, Nitesh sells Chikankari products in 40 countries across Europe, Latin America, Australia, and Africa; the US, Canada and many other countries.

“The annual revenues are around Rs 7 crore and my margin is 10 percent. But what gives me the biggest satisfaction is the consistent livelihood I can provide to artisans and the increasing popularity of an Indian craft in the global market,” he says.

Having carved a niche for himself in global markets, Nitesh is now planning to set up franchisee stores overseas. “We are finalizing the brand name and will soon be available in stores overseas,” he says.

(Riya Singh is a Ranchi-based journalist who writes on environment, sustainability, education & women empowerment)

Also See: With Rs 2 lakh investment, Jaipur woman handcrafts Rs 1.2 crore saree business in 2 years

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