More than three decades ago, Shamlu Dudeja came across a few Kantha artisans from Santiniketan selling 3-layered Kantha panels which could be used as mats, baby wraps or shawls. Here she shares her journey as she took upon herself to work with the task of reviving and revising Kantha as it became her raison d’être.
For centuries, Kantha sewing in Bengal has been an invaluable form of woman’s creative self-expression, an outlet for her artistic impulses, an inherent sense of conservation and a social bonding exercise as the women of the household sat together holding a large Kantha spread, between them, as a canvas. While there chatter was idle, their fingers were not. While they spoke of this and that, the needle, their only tool, darted up and down creating the most elaborate, sometimes real-life village vignettes, sometimes fanciful images, drawing on the very rich Indian religious heritage. An hour of break from household chores became an hour of creativity and bonhomie, where neither caste nor religion played any dividing part. This break has now become an income generating opportunity for these women, in the last three decades.
Kantha would have been lost to the world, had it not been for the random, sometimes unintentional, revival attempts which have been made. First, it was the Portuguese sailors who landed in Bengal 400 years ago; they established the first “Kantha village industry” where, for the first time, women were paid for making Kanthas. The bedspreads featuring Portuguese seafarers’ designs, and motifs were taken back as gifts for the family. Some of them still hang in the Museu de’Arte Antiga, Lisbon and Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It was not as if the Bengalis in the 18th and 19th centuries were not aware of Kantha, but they treated Kanthas as “poor man’s quilts.” Thankfully, Kantha stitching did not elude the one unparalleled visionary, Rabindranath Tagore, who set up Sriniketan, as an extension of his University, for rural reconstruction. Tagore, and his motivated daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi, were extremely aware of the potential of Kantha not only as a rural art form, but also as an income generating opportunity for the poor village women.
When Shamlu Dudeja, came on to the scene in 1986, she could not but imagine the immense possibilities for it. She gave them a few silk saris, and asked them to embellish each one, using the Kantha stitch. Three months later, they brought these saris back, each with a different pattern. Encouraged by their exquisite work, she put her heart and soul into popularizing Kantha amongst urban clients in India and abroad.
She immediately set up SHE (Self Help Enterprises), and undertook training of seamstresses to go the villages and look for women with sewing skills, and a little time to spare everyday. Armed with inherent needlework skill, their talent is honed to help them achieve breathtaking results with the simple running stitch. Since then, Shamlu Dudeja has dedicated herself to the revitalization of Kantha to make it popular globally.
In the heart of this revival of Kantha, there has been the harbinger of resurgence of ‘shakti’, the empowerment of women leading to the enhancement of their status in the family and within their community. And it has reawakened their inner sense of self worth, as astutely as the eye of needle that moves nimbly in their fingers.
Made primarily by rural poor women, from tatters of old dhotis and saris, layered and then stitched together in a running stitch, to make utility household items like baby wraps and coverlets, spreads and kerchiefs. Detailed motifs and designs, many inspired by alpana patterns, are meticulously worked into this basic format, turning them into exquisitely intricate and aesthetically attractive stitch paintings.
Kantha is universally respected and admired today by connoisseurs as a highly evolved artistic form of hand embroidery, with its own rich heritage and culture, as a part of the humble Bengali household, for centuries. The story of the Kantha runs parallel to the story of these women’s lives. Today, the women hold their heads high with dignity, as Kanthas created by those very same hands, are displayed in halls of grandeur and significance, and they are taken to new lands, across the seas. The Kantha stitch which was a poor man’s prerogative, neither used as a decorative stitch for any shawl for the royal shoulders, as been reinvented to make a high-fashion statement. Today, many Kanthas have found their way into crafts museums, around the world, while others are treasured as heirlooms or lovingly used as baby wraps even today.
Soon, various styles of Kantha apparel were tailored, in addition to saris, dupattas and scarves. They travel globally, across the socio-economic spectrum from idyllic rural settings to the ramps of glamorous fashion shows, and found its way into the drawing rooms or work spaces of the rich and the famous. It often goes even beyond, and adorns the walls of famous museums and prestigious art galleries of the world as Stitched Art.
Kantha is now recognized as a top fashion statement with a social cause – the empowerment of women and providing them with Stree Shakti (woman power) to fight against the obstacles in their lives. The most significant contribution of Shamlu Dudeja to society has been revival and revision of Kantha, and the resurgence of this “poor man’s quilting stitch” as a form of ethnic embellishments for international city dwellers and more importantly empowering women.
Kantha is not about holding together layers of fine muslin cottons, and sewing them meticulously, with fine running stitches, neither about women, with very little skill, time or money, sitting together in the backyards of their mud-huts during an afternoon break with their chatter idle, nor about reuse and recycle centuries before the rest of the world had heard about it. Kantha is about passion, about the power of nimble fingers over a humble tool, the needle. It is about dedication to produce something, unique and universal. Kantha, above all is about accepting and celebrating life.