THE SEVERAL LAYERS OF KAANTHA: The sociological context of Bengal Kaantha
|Padmaja, K, has studied at NIFT, New Delhi and her work now ranges from research, documentation and design development to fashion and textiles. Her last assignment included showcasing a range of clothes for women created out of MUGA and Eri silks of Assam at a special Assam textiles evening held at and organized by Taj Mahal Mumbai. She ahs participated in many international symposia such as " International Symposium on Natural Dyes" under the aegis of UNESCO and the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) and "Sui Dhaga: Crossing Borders through Needle and Thread" in collaboration with the India International Centre and Crafts Council of India. Currently, she resides in Kolkata, where she has her own studio and works closely with crafts people.
International fairs, symposiums, exhibitions, films, design stores, fashion
journals to the rocking ramps; Kaantha, the poor mans blanket from Bengal
has really come a long way from where it began. This needle and thread
wonder of Bengal is extraordinary not only because of its stunning texture,
rhythm of colors and curious motifs but also because it represents one of
the earliest and the most extraordinary means of recycling old and discarded
fragments of cloth through embroidery. It is an art, indeed, the art of
frugality, of saving and sewing together every little bit, big or small,
worn, torn or stained to create a stronger, warmer whole that lasts for
many of us living in urban cities and exposed to what the popular craft
market has to offer, Kaantha would perhaps bring to mind a sequined
georgette sari adorned with run stitches or a silk dupatta with Warli like
motifs. Ask the development organizations, Government bodies, or the
beautiful people of the crafts movement and they would like to impress upon
the Kaantha as a symbol of our glorious past, a beholder of our rich
cultural heritage and most importantly ‘their’ magnificent contributions to
women’s empowerment in Bengal.
the real hands that painstakingly stitch the Kaantha, and the answers would
be as unscrupulous, intense, real, practical and simple as their creations
are. Industry, craft, exports, culture, development, heritage; these are big
words and rarely ever figure in the ordinary dictionary of the rural women
them, Kaantha is just what they do. It’s what they have seen their mothers
and grandmothers doing. It is a part of their inheritance; it is their
hobby; it is a way of life for them. The most endearing gift exchanged at
birth, death or marriage, the seat of honour offered to welcome guests, the
mark of respect for the dead, the wandering fakirs drape, the personal
wallet for carrying little valuables or a wrap for any other precious
possession, Kaantha in Bengal is not any frozen art stored behind museum
glass, it is an integral part of the lives of the country folk.
To quote the late Gurusaday
“The kaantha art represents the serene and joyous self expression
of a race of creative women artists whose watchwords are thrift, beauty and
sound craftsmanship. In their creations we find a combination of a keen
power of observation and a profound feeling of sympathy with the movements
of the joyous teeming life of nature – a combination of an intense sense of
beauty and a scrupulous avoidance of luxuriance, sophistication and over
A Kaantha piece that often
takes many years and sometimes more than a generation to create is precious
family heirloom. Unlike gold or diamonds, it is an inheritance of boundless
love, of inexhaustible patience, of care, concern and affection. It is an
heirloom made from old/used fabric and sewn together with discarded textile
border threads and embedded with memories of times that have gone by.
THE SOCIO-CULTURAL CONTEXT OF DESIGN AND FORM IN KAANTHA:
“Craft is not a faceless boutique product. It is the identity of a
particular group of people. It was created in an agrarian ‘time-rich’
society between sowing the first seed and waiting for the harvest. Its
quality was high because it was meant for self-use and self-identity”-
art in Bengal has always had a distinct folk flavor to it. Kaantha too is a
people’s art that is synonymous with their lives – their religion, their
daily activities, their seasonal and social festivities, their work and
Perception of design, form and composition in Kaantha are not a matter of
dry geometry or pretty ornamentation but has its root ideologies based on
the wholeness of life. This means that religion, morality, art, craft,
mathematics, politics, all the joys and sorrows of life are unified and
fused in one single whole. No human activity is considered as exclusive or
complimentary to others. All activities are part of a larger whole and this
philosophy thereby recognized an artist in every man, found a craftsman in
while modern schools of design, design professionals, artists, art critics
and art writers have a tendency to demarcate ‘design’ and ‘art’ as elitist,
unapproachable and extremely limiting, Kaantha liberates ‘art’ from the
limitations of being defined thereby making it extra-ordinary, democratic,
personal, available and tangible as any art truly should be. Unlike the
cultivated arts of an over sophisticated urban society which is often marred
by a complicated formality and artificiality, an excessive elegance and an
over refinement of mannerism bordering on effeminacy, folk art has a
primitive purity, directness, vitality and robustness which is truly
rejuvenating and refreshing. Free of all inhibitions on symmetry, color
form, composition and methodology of design the craft is guided by the free,
inexhaustible spirit of the human mind alone. This makes the craft and its
makers unusually liberal and truly post modern.
really a matter of little/no consequence for the Kaantha artist if an
elephant and a rat or peacock made on a piece were proportionately sized,
whether the human forms looked real or whether right and left, top and
bottom of their canvas are symmetrical. An artist is free to choose from her
environment: creepers, wines, leaves, flowers, dogs, cats, peacocks, frogs,
insects, elephants, horses, birds, tigers, bulls, crocodiles, men, women,
sepoys, Durga, Ravan, Krishna, moon, stars, umbrellas, knives, combs, pots,
lamps, nut cutter, mirrors or whatever it is that may have caught her
imagination. And she could place all or any of these anywhere on her canvas.
The centre could be symmetrical while the surrounding ground could be
random. While in some cases the kaantha pieces may have no central motif at
all and the whole piece may provide a free ground for spontaneous
interaction between a plethora of motifs and forms drawn from the local
environment. This is well expressed in a song composed by a Bengali Muslim
village poet, known as Pagla Karim, in which the following striking line
haitey bahir hoiya rupey dharita chhaya’[The
form tries to come out of the forms and assume its own form]
the inner form of the flowing urge of the spirit which is known as the ‘rasa’
form is the form that matters to the Kaantha maker. There is a certain
impatience with the outer form of the body with its sensuous features as
either irrelevant or unreal and as a hindrance to the true realization of
life, nature and of the spirit.
Kaantha one often comes across distinct personal signatures expressed
through names of the creator, popular mythologies, village tales, religious
symbols, family names and sacred numbers. It is true that traditionally no
two Kaanthas were ever identical; however there were definitely certain
identifiable characteristics peculiar to communities or regions. This kind
of personalized work is rare in the present day mass manufactured industrial
society. In fact any fear of machine embroidery taking over the hand becomes
real only if we let commerce and trade interests kill spontaneity and
Usually a piece made by a Muslim family devoid of animal or human forms
would employ floral wines and sometimes carry religious numbers and symbols
of the moon, star etc., and the Hindu ones would be replete with
mythological stories, depicting people, animals and birds. Even in all this
randomness, there are some timeless motifs that have become one with the
regional sentiments that finds recurrence.
most orthodox and traditional motif employed was the ‘mandala’ design
in the centre of a Kaantha. The wide open, many petalled lotus, an ancient
Indian symbol of universal manifestation would usually occupy the centre of
the square or rectangular Kaantha with the four corners marked by the ‘kalpavriksha’
or the tree of life.
centre of the ‘mandala’ was almost invariably occupied by the
‘satadala or sahasradala padma’ or hundred or thousand petalled
lotus. And that was surrounded by several concentric rings of knitted
designs which were always different from one another. The whole was then
surrounded by a circle of radiating ‘kalasas’ or water pitchers and
sometimes of ‘shankhas’ or conch shells.
associated figures and symbols born out of both ocular experiences and the
imagination of the artist were rhythmically assembled on the entire ground
of the quilted cloth between the lotus and the trees. It is interesting to
note that this traditional design, perhaps pre-Harappan, owed its origin to
the widespread Indian philosophic perception of the intimate
inter-connection and indefensible unity between the animal and the spiritual
Another favourite motif used in the kaanthas has been the multiple ‘swastika’
with curving arms. This may have been derived from the original four
armed ‘swastika’ or from the ‘dharma charka’ employed in
Buddhist art. This motif may also be a cross section of a flower bud.
Another motif popular in this craft is the ‘kalka’ motif that
is said to be a stylized form of the leaf of a holy tree, or a decorative
Gurusaday Dutt maybe quoted as saying:
art in this region is not crude art of humble peasants but the expression by
every individual, according to his or her level of education and station in
the social scale in a common national morphology, of a common ideology
inspiring the whole community. In this common culture there was really
nothing corresponding to a distinction between mass culture and class
culture. The craftsmen and their patrons belonged not to different but to
one and the same cultural stream.’
The socio-cultural context fabric and color in Kaantha:
motivating force for making a Kaantha was not conspicuous consumption or
ostentation but to recycle and reuse the used, and to find beauty in the
ordinary, to create art out of constraints. Therefore the choice of fabric
and thread color most of the times guided by immediate availability has also
been spontaneous. It would usually be an old worn out Bengal tant
saree or dhoti in off-white or white colour. Layers of such old
fabric were cut up, patched, layered and stitched together with fine
stitches so that all tears and holes were safely secured. The threads used
for embroidery were extracted from discarded sari borders. So much so that
there would be many a piece in which a flower with 4 red petals would
suddenly have a fifth petal in a blue or an orange. This is not some form of
sophisticated grunge, deconstruction or asymmetry design theory taught in
our modern design schools. Quite likely that the red thread got over and
blue was the one available.
this does not mean that the craft is shallow and directionless. On the other
hand the skill shown in the variety of stitches, in the forms and colors of
the figures portrayed and particularly in integrating a bewildering
multiplicity of figures scattered about the ground of the Kaantha without
any apparent arrangement or logic of deign into a synthetic unity, is of a
very high order showing a remarkable talent for design possessed by Bengali
style, form, fabric or technique, through sheer skill and patience the
Bengali women have been able to create stunning patterns by employing the
most simple and frugal methods.
Kaantha is really a play of the ordinary running stitch used in its myriad
variations. Through variation in its length and spacing, a surface composed
of multitudes of squares and triangles is created that has a marvelous
speckled texture. These closely placed stitches gave a quality of swiftness
and rhythm to the ground. The chief stitches used were the darning stitch,
the satin stitch, the loop stitch, the stem stitch and the split stitch.
Sometimes the darning stitch is used to create an effect similar to that of
The women of Bengal
layer rags together and make utilitarian and functional items for use in
their day to day lives. Unlike the plight of a lot of crafts where with
commercialization, the crafts communities themselves have discontinued
personal usage, Kaantha continues to be a living craft in rural Bengal.
During my field trips in some of the villages, the poorest houses to this
day own at least one piece of Kaantha. They take pride in it and offer it as
a seat of honour to guests. In the lack of great riches, these rural folk
have created the most splendid substitutes to expensive sofas or blankets.
Hindus and Muslim women make use of Kaantha in a variety of ways:
are used as a cover in winters. Measuring 61/4’ x 41/2’ these are heavily
padded, thick and are embroidered with colored threads although somewhat
are embroidered ceremonial wraps offered as a seat to honored guests and at
weddings. These are thin and represent the highest culmination of the
are essentially wraps for tying books, cover for old trunks, table cloth
is a square piece of wrap with an embroidered border all around and a lotus
in the middle. The three corners are folded and stitched at the centre to
make a wallet out of it. It is used to hold betel nuts, rosary, and money or
used as wraps for mirrors or combs
KAANTHA is used
as a pillow cover and usually employs longitudinal border patterns running
across the body.
used as a handkerchief, this consists of a lotus at the centre around which
other motifs are drawn. All this enclosed within a square sewn along the
did this art begin? That has been a debatable question. Some experts are of
the opinion that its origin dates back to ancient India and that the Kaantha
has references in the Rig Veda, Upanishads, and in Panini’s texts. In
support of the existence of folk arts and crafts of Bengal from ancient
times the renowned scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy says that the folk arts
that survive in Bengal are directly descended from pre Harappan- Indus
Saraswati civilization which is at least 5000 years before present. Lord
Buddha, Mahavira or Chaitanya, Jain saints or Sufi poets, the warm Kaantha
blanket is said to have been the garb of ascetics through the ages. The
earliest surviving record of Bengal Kaantha is found in the book, "Sri Sri
Chaitanya Charitamrita" by Krishnadas Kaviraj which was written some five
hundred years back. Though sample collections cover only a few hundred years
back, it is quite likely that the craft in fact dates back to ancient times.
This form of textile for ordinary folk has perhaps been raised to the level
of art objects in the medieval period in Bengal. Although it was practiced
by women of all classes amongst Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, it flourished
more in East Bengal [now Bangladesh] than in West Bengal. Outstanding
Kaantha samples of the 19th century have been found in the
districts of Jessore, Khulna, Barisal, and Faridpur areas of present
Bangladesh and also from the districts of Hugli and 24 Parganas of West
Bengal. Through the ages the two main communities; Hindus and Muslims have
contributed significantly towards motifs and forms used in the craft.
Kaantha craft in certain pockets of Hugli district of Bengal has also had
one of the earliest influences of globalization on it. What we now refer to
as Indo – Portuguese Kaantha style, originated under the influence of the
Portuguese in the 15-16th century. During this period wild silk
muga thread was used to embroider ornate European motifs on an off white
cotton base. These Kaanthas were exported to Portugal and used as gowns,
wall hangings, bed covers etc.
for many centuries, Kaantha continued as an integral part of the social life
of rural Bengal, be it Muslim or Hindu, Kayastha or Brahmin, rich or the
here was in its simplest and highest form, free from stereo types and
obvious sophistication. Personal aspirations and emotions, fears, shock,
awe, devotion, love, passion, Kaantha was the canvas for all human emotions.
objects of endearment that were essentially folk in nature, it continued in
its pure and innocent form as an integral part of rural societies. And to
this day it continues to hold the same importance and relevance in rural
Bengal. I would like to mention here that unlike the plight of many crafts
that today hold only a commercial relevance, Kaantha is very much a living
art. Whether it was Alima or Rahima or Ranjana, they all delightfully
brought out their kaantha pieces to offer as a seat, to place their tea etc.
Be it a Hindu or Muslim home in rural Bengal, Kaantha is still the most
honorable and valued gift that is exchanged at marriage, birth or death.
Kaantha born from frugality and an avoidance of ostentation really belonged
to the folk, the rural and the ordinary. Sociological changes in the early
20th century, accompanied with the Indian independence brought
with it industrialization and development of urban cities and towns.
Thereafter the growth of a hyper-material, hyper-industrial and hyper
commercial outlook and the increasing sophistication of life, which are the
results of modern civilization, was accompanied by a loss of simplicity and
freshness of outlook, aims, ideals and aspirations, and of the directness,
vigor, sincerity and spontaneity of life which marked the pre-industrial
age. Economic prosperity brought more money but robbed us of time. With such
structural changes in attitude and society it was rather natural that this
craft lost its relevance as a living tradition amongst the educated, elite
developed societies often tend to use terms like dying craft rather
casually, I do feel that so far as the rural agrarian societies were
concerned Kaantha has always been a living tradition.
around the late 60’s when freedom fighter Phulrenu Guha, Rabindranath
Tagore’s daughter-in-law Pratima Devi, and her students like Sreelata Sircar
for the first time put this folk needle craft to contemporary urban usage
and put it on sari borders and shawls. For the first time a craft for
personal use made for loved ones alone was used for making saleable items.
This was a significant turn in the story of this folk art. This triggered
off a chain of activities and events through enterprising development
organizations, NGO’s, revivalists and Government bodies that were aimed at
the revival of this so called dying folk craft. This marked the beginning
of its transformation from art/craft to marketable product. This marked the
shift of the craft from reuse to use, from frugality to consumption, from
natural spontaneity to synthetic manufacture.
tireless efforts of organizations that claim to be committed to social
upliftment translated itself in the form of significant sales figures and
rising demand for the craft both in the domestic as well as the export
market. Such demand peaked in the late 80’s and has been fairly steady since
then. Now you can see film divas and socialites donning stylized forms of
the poor mans blanket. From Hillary Clinton to Shabana Azmi, Rohit Khosla to
Tarun Tahiliani, this rag has mesmerized them all.
is the rag in its new avatar. Today Kaantha products as shawls, sarees,
stoles, scarves and a variety of made-ups are exported in large numbers and
earn impressive foreign exchange. Increased sales with an international
market lead to the engagement of a large number of clueless, hapless,
illiterate Kaantha makers in this craft. Such is the success of the Kaantha
revivalist movement that today in Bengal a single such NGO claims to be able
to employ more than 7000 Kaantha laborers. All this however is accompanied
with some structural changes to the craft:
being a pleasure activity Kaantha became a means of livelihood.
agents the craft was organized as team work in the rural areas.
of used/discarded fabric Kaanthas began to be made out of new materials.
Geometric and floral motifs embroidered on single layer of fabric as
saris, stoles and bed covers began to replace the earlier multi-layered
heavier lep or sujni Kaantha.
and spontaneous design has gradually given way to calculated and contrived
placement of motifs
sheets/khakas with color schemes from cities have gradually
replaced local drawings and color palettes.
Compelled by market pressures and lured by the prospect of better earnings
women spend several hours working on these pieces. Many of them work after
sunset under poor [candle/hurricane] lighting conditions that eventually
lead to poor eyesight.
one assumes that good business and large employment translates itself as
empowerment and development for those engaged. And by that one assumes that
Kaantha provides a viable means of livelihood to millions of rural women who
are able to earn even while staying at home.
is the perception that is shared and projected by a large group of people:
the NGO’s, development organizations, craft revivalists, policy makers and
However, such an oversimplified generalization does not allow a real
examination of the issues of craft revival or of women’s empowerment. This
assumption needs to be questioned and evaluated.
that today large numbers of rural women are engaged by design houses/NGO’s
who operate through agents allocated for each region/district. Such agents
in turn could have more sub agents scattered in little village pockets. The
complete design package with design sheets, motifs and placement, fabric,
threads and colors is sent to and procured by the agents. This package is
usually created by people living in urban cities, educated in design schools
with a cultured sense of aesthetics, form and composition. These are people
who understand the craft only as it is seen in museums or books and hence
are completely alien to its environment and context. The local agent acts as
a facilitator in translating these design sheets to the Kaantha makers. The
women collect raw materials with complete design specifications and
embroider them in their homes. There are no fixed hours of work, no factory
sheds and all payments are piece rate. On completion of the piece it is
delivered to the agent/s again, who in turn
send them to the main office in Kolkata or any other metro. They are labeled
and packaged marketed and sold.
is how one manufactures tradition.
pains me to say this, however I must. Kaantha, a gift of love, a canvas for
self expression, is now an industry, and the artist is now a piece rate
this kind of commercialization be translated as and equivalent to
resurrection of a dying craft and the empowerment of women. The idea is not
to point fingers at or criticize anybody. But rather assess things in the
real perspective …and if one has to improve…there must be some introspection
and reflection. There are certainly some questions that we the privileged,
educated, cultured must face.
Empowerment through the needle and thread could be largely classified as
How much control do the
craftswomen have on the fruits of their own labor, in terms of design?
How much has the revival of
this craft contributed in terms of health, education, sanitation and basic
needs of the craftswomen?
course of my interviews, one successful revivalist from Kolkata who employs
close to 10000 women describes Kaantha as the splendid story of rags to
visit to villages in rural Bengal makes one wonder if she forgot to mention
that the riches remained in the cities with the revivalists and the
development professionals and the crafts folk remained in their rags.
kaantha labor force [if I may chose to now address them as] is largely
unorganized and illiterate and earns a piece rate which translates on an
average of Rs. 200-800 (approx. 4 to 16 US dollars) per sari, which takes no
less than 21/2-3 months for a single person to make by employing 6-8 hours
of work a day. The pay varies depending on how far one is from main
city/town Kolkata or Shanitiniketan. The more remote the village, the lesser
the pay. It is indeed an irony that the beholders of our cultural heritage,
the most skilled women of our country earn far less than a house maid in
cities rendering ordinary unskilled domestic chores who earn more by
employing as less as 2 hours a day. For lack of any other viable means of
livelihood, for want of education and social restraints that is not
conducive to women working out of homes, the ‘empowered Kaantha labourer’
sells her sweat for an average of Rs.300 [approx. 6$] a month. The new
avatar of the poor man’s blanket has brought in sales but really that has
not translated into any meaningful livelihood or development for its makers.
At best this has corrupted the simple rural people as well:
Betrayed, the rural folk have learnt to betray. The craftswomen engage in
petty thefts of cheating agents on number of thread spools used. Only to
sell a sewing thread spool at 25% of the market price to the local shop
agent did mention that these days the ‘Kaantha labourer’ cannot be
depended upon. There have been instances when having taken a saree for
embroidering, they have sold it off and refused to take responsibility for
effect, this kind of craft development and empowerment has merely
dehumanized and demeaned a proud and self respecting villager.
the Indian government in the year 2005, passed a bill to provide minimum
wages of INR 60/day for minimum 100 days a year to at least one member of
every poor rural family in 200 villages of the country to start with
initially and to extend this to the entire country as a whole within next
five years. An educated elite Kaantha revivalist did not hesitate to
reiterate that INR 200, i.e. approximately 4 dollars a month for 6-8 hours
of work per day for a craftsperson is more than sufficient for a dignified
living in rural areas.
such wages, trade and its representatives have increased the sales in the
short term of various products and in the long term robbed the artist of her
ability to respond to change and innovate. It disturbs me to say that except
for the fact that she works from home and gets paid far less I do not see
how a Kaantha labourer is any different from a semi skilled hand embroiderer
employed in a garment export house in Gurgaon or Bangalore. If at all it
saves the trade of a huge amount of overheads which would have otherwise
been incurred in a factory setup.
today has over powered and eclipsed all finer aspects of art/craft. It has
blurred the soul characteristics of the craft by inculcating a stereo typed
mentality of the machine on one hand, and humanity has taken a back seat.
horror and shock on the sight of the first railway engines or the fierce
sepoy mutiny, Radha and Krishna clad in European clothes or the Bengali babu
with his hookah and palki, humdrum everyday articles like the nut cracker,
umbrella, knives or sickles, temples or chariots, there was a time when
every Kaantha was unique and carried a curious blend of humor and
simplicity. Each one had a story to say.
Somehow all this seems to have frozen in time some 8 to 10 decades back.
Such reflection of social, cultural changes is completely absent, inspite of
the widespread rhetoric of a successful revival of a dying craft.
superficial culture of markets has erased the notion of individual style and
the notion of the craft as evolutionary. From Warli to William Morris,
French laces to Australian aboriginal art, international trend forecasts to
style magazines, the market mindlessly incorporates and accepts any or all
into Kaantha. I am in no ways opposed to development and exchange in design.
Change is necessary and vital for evolution and continuity of any activity.
However meaningful adaptations and changes are born out of natural responses
of its makers to their surrounding environment. They are gradual and slow.
Market driven changes on the other hand are external, rapid, surgical,
random, governed almost always by profit maximization motives alone, and
have little or often adverse consequences on subtler issues like art, craft
or development. Such frivolous adaptations have only stunted the craft and
left it barren. A craft that was living, evolving and essentially functional
has been forcibly subjected to discursive heterogeneity and is best
represented as blank parody or pastiche.
almost 20 years since the kaantha revivalist efforts had sprung in Bengal.
In these 20 years the sales of Kaantha have multiplied, the demand has
increased, it has gone international. But how much of all this has made any
real difference to these craft villages? How much has all this contributed
anything significant towards their education, health, sanitation and other
basic needs? As one Kaantha craft revivalist in Kolkata likes to proudly
describe it, this is empowerment with a capital ‘M’.
the light of the above I am left wondering as to who has empowered whom? Who
has enhanced whom? And who needs whom? Do these rural people need
development bodies for their survival or is it the other way round. Isn’t it
the trading bodies in the garb of revivalism that have been empowered and
warmed by this poor man’s blanket? In the pretext of development of Kaantha,
pure business entities now declare and register themselves as NGO’s.
the lights in craft showrooms and revivalists boutiques get brighter, while
fairs, conferences and films keep ranting about the glory of Kaantha,
continuous supply of electricity, sanitation and other basic needs are yet
to come in most of these villages. Foreign invasions, new settlements, war,
more than 1000 years of Mughal and British rule, Kaantha has been able to
withstand all that and has successfully survived for more than 5000 years.
What is it that suddenly threatens their existence in the last 50 odd years?
as Kaantha goes, to this day it is coextensive with the rural Bengal life.
It is an art that is so deeply rooted in its own environment, climate,
geography, culture and psychology that it is unlikely that it would ever
face the danger of extinction. The only real threat to its existence is its
‘synthetic revival’ and ‘forcible mutation’ with industrial methodologies.
For the poor man in the villages it still is the only gift that has
negligible or no costs but is enriched with the labor of love and of time.
It still is the most sincere and spontaneous collective expression of the
essential philosophy of the rural society.
frugality, simplicity and innocence require a revivalist movement? Are
crafts really dying or is it that in the name of revival we have been
committing cold blooded murder of our own living traditions? In the name of
empowerment are we really robbing people of their dignity and in the name of
social upliftment are we only widening economic disparities?
not wish to be cynical or critical; I am not against craft development
however I do feel that development has to be more real. It’s not enough to
nurture a huge labor force at wages that can barely provide for rice and
salt and proudly claim that as empowerment.
Kaantha was born amidst and is representative of the agricultural first
wave, perhaps 10000 years long and was crested on recycling and reusing
renewable sources of energy. We, as urban society unfortunately represent
the industrial second wave, about 400 years long, that exploded upon
non-renewable energy sources and raged through mass slavery, colonial
plunder, exterminations, world wars and genocides that brought enormous
material wealth to a few and a good deal of desecration and death to the
rest of it. This second wave modern world arises only by exploiting and
exhausting the first wave traditional world. Since we in India today are
witnessing all the three waves simultaneously we as responsible and educated
citizen’s still have a chance to help the craftsperson float and glide on
directly to the third informational wave.
cannot be done by patronizing her; true development will be when the
craftswomen can decide what development means to them, true empowerment will
be when they can define it in their own terms...
would like to conclude by saying that we all have much to learn from these
simple unlettered women of Bengal. We may be the privileged lot who avail
the benefits of development, advancement, technological booms and
communication revolutions, but we have spent too many years making money,
piling up debt, buying stuff we didn’t need and tossing it in the trash when
we got tired of it. Its time we look upon the Kaantha as more than a
mere tradeable item. The next time we see, buy or wear Kaantha we should
pause and try listen to what it has to tell to us as well. The craft is made
of rags but it leaves behind an inheritance of endearment, compassion and
contentment. Whether Rahima or Ranjana, these Kaantha craftswomen, are the
unseen, unknown faces who would perhaps never make it to the glitzy page
3’s; they are not savvy marketing gurus or glamorous design professionals.
But at least they are the real men and women of the world who haven’t sold
themselves to laziness, apathy and greed. They are people who live in
balance, not taking more than necessary, not hoarding, not wasting, but
sharing the little they have with those in need. If each of us listened to
the language of their needles and found even one way to change our behavior,
perhaps we could make a difference in the world we leave for future
- Crossing Boundaries through Needle and Thread,
world embroidery conference, September 2005, India International Centre, New
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