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Counted Stitches - In Search of Kasuti

Tyabji, Laila, is a designer, writer and founder member and Chairperson of DASTKAR, a Society for Crafts & Craftspeople. She has worked in the craft and development sector for over 3 decades. In 2003 she was awarded the AID TO ARTISANS Preservation of Craft Award in New York – the 2nd-ever recipient.

Laila's work with artisans includes the Chikan workers of SEWA Lucknow, Kasuti embroiderers in Karnataka, Mahubani painters and sujni quilters in Bihar, regurs in Rajasthan, and Banjara and Rabari mirror work craftswomen in Kutch and Maharashtra. One of her most rewarding projects has been the creation of new employment avenues through craft for pastoral communities displaced by the Tiger Reserve in Ranthambhore. A recent intervention has been in Kashmir, working with women victims of terrorist insurgency, using embroidery as a catalyst for social and emotional recovery.

Previous to DASTKAR, Laila Tyabji studied art in India and Japan and worked as a free-lance designer in textiles, graphics and theatre. She writes and speaks regularly on craft, design and social issues.

April 2010, Craft Revival Trust
I first saw kasuti embroidery on one of Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya’s saree blouses. My father and she enjoyed a gently flirtatious relationship. By then most people treated her with the affectionate deference due to the grandmother of Indian craft, and she rather relished being reminded that he had first seen her wrapped in gold tissue and jewels on a tiger skin, acting in a verse drama of the 30’s.

Kamladevi’s knowledge of Indian craft techniques was encyclopedic though not at all academic. For most people – even lovers of craft – the word kasuti, although it is one of India’s oldest embroideries, raises an enquiring eyebrow. Partly because it has never been commercially exploited, partly due to the rather stepmotherly treatment the crafts of North Karnataka (once part of Bombay State) are given by the Karnataka State Government. You are unlikely to find kasuti in CAUVERY, the Karnataka State Handicrafts Emporium, overflowing with the more opulent silks, ivories and marquetry of the southern Mysore State. But kasuti’s low profile image is also due to the gentle, reclusive nature of the women who craft it. Quite unlike the exuberantly entrepreneurial Gujeratis and Rajasthanis whose mirrorwork and satin floss embroideries floods the Janpath pavements and Surajkund Mela.

Once seen, I was haunted by kasuti. It was such an elegant, subtle embroidery - the stitches geometric and delicate, but creating elaborate, dramatic images. Kasuti is a combination of four different stitches, all based on the counted thread principle: gavanti and murgi: diagonal zig-zag running stitches similar to the Holbein stitch in Elizabethan blackwork; menthi: a minute cross-stitch, and negi: pattern darning creating a woven effect with extra weft threads. Traditionally, kasuti was only done on the borders, pallav and khand blouse of the blue-black, indigo dyed Chandrakala saree that was an essential part of the trousseau of brides in the Dharwad-Hubli belt of north Karnataka. All four stitches are used together in each saree, but each motif is done only in one stitch, using a single embroidery thread. The larger motifs are near the pallav border, tapering off gradually till the body of the sari has only a tiny, all-over, floral buta or star.

The motifs, done in flaming pinks, yellows, greens, purples, reds and whites, are pictorial -ritual and votive in character: the Tulsi plant and temple chariots - 8-pointed stars, parrots, paisleys and peacocks - howdah-ed elephants, the Nandi sacred bull - bridal palanquins, cradles, and flowering trees. The symbolic, not particularly politically correct message is that the wearer should be fertile and welcoming and worship her husband as God! Not a women’s lib saree, perhaps, but still a stunningly beautiful one…

Mukund Maigur, a quiet, gangling young man working in a printing press in Hubli, seemed an unlikely crusader for craft. However, stemming from a chance encounter with an unemployed indigo dyer-weaver some years before, his concern had become an obsession. It had led him into forays into villages in search of dyers, durrie-makers, weavers and embroiderers, and into battles with bureaucrats and bank managers to secure them support, finance and orders. Eventually it led him to our DASTKAR office. His attempt to get a bank loan of 25,000 rupees to start a cooperative was in its third unsuccessful year. A senior bank official had told him, “This craft is bound to die; why are you bothering?”

Going with Mukund to Dharwad-Hubli to work with indigo dying and the Irikil saree weavers, I was also intent on kasuti. I felt if we revived and combined the three traditions it would be crafting a solution that was both aesthetic and economic - generating employment and earning in an area suffering from drought and neglect. The death of local craft traditions was a loss not only of cultural heritage and creativity, but of daily bread. Ekbote, a dyer in Gadagbetigiri with eight dependents, had recently been forced to close his indigo vat for lack of orders. Despite the skills of an 800 year old family tradition in dying, he was now earning two rupees a day as casual labour.

We decided to do kasuti on a range of sarees dyed and woven by local weavers in traditional colours and designs - Irikil and Chandrakala sarees with the typical garhidhari, paraspeti and nagmuri borders and toptheni pallavs. We also introduced more vivid colours and combinations: emerald and purple, rani pink and navy, saffron and terracotta, (traditionally the Irikil saree borders are always a dark maroon.) as well as dupattas - for younger customers with limited budgets. A few sarees were ordered in silk.

Our first problem was identifying and forming a group of women. The women who embroidered the kasuti sarees and khands lived in villages and small towns, isolated from each other, uneducated, unorganised, desperately poor. They learned stitches and motifs from their mothers, occasionally embroidering a saree for a richer neighbor, with no idea that their skill could have long-term material returns. We plodded from village to village, talking to women and listing their names. By then the monsoon rains had started. It meant we had to abandon our three-wheeler and squelch through the flooded fields; but it also meant we got a very warm welcome! The local manager of CAUVERY happened to be at one of the villages where I was ordering sarees, “These are Granny’s sarees! Who will buy them?” was his amazed response.

The word soon spread that the skill the women had taken for granted was worth something to this funny stranger from Delhi. By my next visit, Kasuti embroiderers began to descend on my room at the Nataraj Boarding Lodge in Dharwad. So poor they could not afford the 2 rupees bus fare, they walked two or three hours in the burning summer heat from their villages. But proud of their heritage and its symbolism, they firmly stated their terms: they would work their fingers to the bone for fair wages, but they would not alter their designs or put ritual motifs where people might sit on them. When they heard that what I wanted was their traditional saree, done in the traditional way, they were relieved and delighted. A woman from Bangalore had come recently, wanting kasuti on cushions, and she was a Hindu at that… How different their creative integrity was from the canny Kutchi women who’d happily embroider Mickey Mouse as long as someone paid them!

Designs were a problem. Women in one village knew one motif, those in a village a few miles away another. How to combine them and teach the women more designs? Kasuti is done by counting threads, not by transfers or stamping out motifs onto the cloth. I decided to document the various patterns. Finding graph paper and a un-smudgy photostat machine in Dharwad in the early 80’s wasn’t easy! The women were generous and trusting, lending me their various precious bits - some done by their grandmothers and falling to pieces - often so stained and faded it was difficult to decipher the design. One had been done as a present for Indira Gandhi, but in the end she’d never come to that village.

Eventually, working through several sleepless nights, I had over a hundred different negi, gavanti, murgi and methi border, pallav, buti and all over motifs, numbered, photostatted and coded. Colourways were similarly codified. The women loved having their own little design manuals and discovering new combinations of stitches. They were surprised by and not at all admiring of my colour sense - they couldn’t understand my aversion to the peacock blue, acid yellow and florescent pink chemical colours they adored. But they were thrilled to see their familiar red bordered Irikil sarees re-coloured and eventually began to quite like the embroidery shades too.

15 years later, the story of kasuti is both a success and a failure. The kasuti sarees and dupattas came to DASTKAR in Delhi and were an instant sellout. But their supply is a trickle not a flood. Kasuti is a slow, labour-intensive embroidery and the women remain retiring perfectionists; reluctant to commercialise their craft into a regular production system - whatever the earnings it might bring them. I respect them for that and try not to push them. Sadly, Mukund Maigur, the earnest young crusader who first introduced me to the kasuti and Irikil craftspeople, has succumbed to the Indian system. The pressures of marriage and a family led him into debt and corruption. He owes us money too, and we don’t speak now, but occasionally we pass each other on the Dharwad streets - it brings back our journeys, our dreams and our adventures.

This article was originally written for the Diplomatic Corps in July 1997



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