An Italian ethnologist, Paola Manfredi is most notable for her work on chikankari, the intricate form of embroidery commonly associated with the city of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. She is the author of Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition (2017), which documents the history of the craft, its contemporary practices and techniques, as well as its social context.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Manfredi studied ethnology at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France. She became interested in Asian textiles while working at Musée de l’Homme —an anthropology museum, also in Paris — where she helped write descriptions for textile exhibits from Central Asia. After returning to Italy and briefly working in marketing, she enrolled in a design school to gain the technical knowledge that would supplement her interest in textiles. At the end of the course, she was offered the job of a consultant by a branch of the institute that worked with textile companies.
As a part of the consultancy, Manfredi came to India for the first time in 1978, followed by a longer visit in 1981 – a time when the Indian handcrafted-textile sector was attracting widespread attention thanks to high-profile events such as the Vishwakarma exhibitions and The Festival of India.
At the end of the project, Manfredi decided to stay back and work in India. She first became acquainted with chikankari through the work of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, Lucknow (SEWA). While in Lucknow, she collaborated with a local craftsman, Salim Khan, to design and produce pieces with white-on-white embroidery and ari work. In 1991, she was commissioned by Laila Tyabji, the founder of Dastkar, to document chikan embroidery at SEWA Lucknow as part of a project to create handbooks for embroidery artisans.
In 2012, Manfredi began work on her book on chikankari, researching the origins of the technique as well as documenting historical pieces in museums and private collections. Apart from chronicling information on the embroidery for her book, her aim was also to help create a visual archive that could be referenced by contemporary chikankari artisans.
Alongside her research, Manfredi continues to work with Indian craftspeople to create chikankari textiles for special projects such as exhibitions or events. She also studied kantha embroidery while living in Bangladesh for a few years. She is a member of the World Crafts Council and has worked as a consultant for development organisations in the Indian subcontinent and in Africa.
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