Rhythm divine : Little stitches tell amazing stories

Rhythm divine : Little stitches tell amazing stories

Kantha embroidery on layered tussar silk and cotton, recreating themes from Hindu mythology, village scenes and even portraits mark septuagenarian...


Kantha embroidery on layered tussar silk and cotton, recreating themes from Hindu mythology, village scenes and even portraits mark septuagenarian Shamlu Dudeja's exhibitions

lit2Sudhamahi Regunathan

Women in Bengal and some adjoining states like Tripura wore mainly cotton saris. As they became worn out through daily wear, the homemakers or their domestic help would fold them into three layers and fuse the layers together with a running stitch that would be done in different colours. It would run across the cloth, along its borders or in a zigzag pattern across its breadth. They would then be used as refurbished material for domestic purposes � baby wraps, pillow covers, shawls or even dusters.

Nearly every woman in Bengal knew the craft of 'kantha', using the simplest of stitches, the running stitch. Their beauty lies in making them even and of equal length. It is a craft that does not require any investment because the basic material is soft muslin saris, old and comforting to the touch. Sometimes the women would even tear away the borders of the saris, extract the coloured thread from them to use for embroidery.

It is said that Pratima Devi, the daughter-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, was the first to bring this domestic craft into polite society when she trained girls in Santiniketan to make small decorative items such as handkerchiefs, napkins or table cloths. Sreelata Sirkar, another notable pioneer in the 'kantha' movement, took the initiative forward.

Shamlu Dudeja been taught this very same stitch when she was young although her teacher had not referred to it as 'kantha'. "It was in the mid-80s when I met these two girls by chance as I was waiting for my daughter to finish her game of tennis! The girls were selling small handkerchiefs with a line of colour running across them in the form of a running stitch. I gave them two of my saris and some money for thread," she recalls. Three months later the girls came back. The embroidery on the saris, worked in blacks, reds and off-whites, was breathtaking.

She went on to set up Self Help Enterprise, or 'SHE', which grew from a handful of women working from their homes to 1,000 women spread across villages near Kolkata today. Designated team leaders of the organisation, of which Dudeja is the chairperson, compile a list of the names of those working with them. These women are registered with 'SHE' and are entitled to amenities like basic healthcare and support in times of need. An average worker earns about Rs 500-Rs 2,000 a month, depending on the number of hours they can spare to embroider.

Says Dudeja: "At times the craftswomen would use a local village artist to create designs. We have team leaders who come to me with patterns. Each team leader has some assistants and they are the ones in direct contact with the embroiderers in the villages who do the actual work. Once they take on a design, we pay them when they bring the finished product to us. We also support them with cloth and embroidery skeins."

lit3'SHE' organises exhibitions that travel extensively both within the country and outside. The running stitch is used ingenuously at these exhibitions. Sometimes it appears as a satin stitch, a buttonhole stitch or a blanket stitch. The cross stitch is also used in these wall hangings that capture the resonance of the faraway and the long ago.

There is innocence about them - many are evocative depictions of rural life in Bengal, with an occasional circus or mela scene thrown in. The mythological depictions express the enduring lure of faith and the viewer's heart cannot but be touched by these portrayals in thread. Of these, 'The Tree of Life', is particularly breathtaking. The portraits are less evocative for they are not naturally endowed with the element of 'rasa', or emotional hues. Yet, in terms of skill, each and every piece is remarkable.

Dudeja finds a dimension of emancipation in this activity. The craftswomen, who are anyway skilled, get more confident of their craft and, in the process, are also able to negotiate gendered family politics more effectively.

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