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 generations.

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.

Ask 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 of Bengal. 

For 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 Dutt:
“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 refinement.”

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.

“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”- Dashrath Patel


The 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 play.

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 every soul.

So 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.

It’s 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 occurs:

Rup haitey bahir hoiya rupey dharita chhaya’[The form tries to come out of the forms and assume its own form]

Thus 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.

In 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 individuality.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

Freely 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 world.

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 fruit form.

Gurusaday Dutt maybe quoted as saying:
‘Popular 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:
The 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.

All 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 women.

In 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.

The 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 weaving.

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.


Both Hindus and Muslim women make use of Kaantha in a variety of ways:

LEP KAANTHAS 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 sparingly.

SUJNI KAANTHAS are embroidered ceremonial wraps offered as a seat to honored guests and at weddings. These are thin and represent the highest culmination of the embroidery artwork.

BAYTON KAANTHAS are essentially wraps for tying books, cover for old trunks, table cloth etc.

DURJANI KAANTHA 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 needlework articles.

ARSHILATA KAANTHA used as wraps for mirrors or combs

OAR KAANTHA is used as a pillow cover and usually employs longitudinal border patterns running across the body.

RUMAL KAANTHA 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 edges.

When 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.

Thus 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 poor.

Art 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.

As 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 urban population.

Although 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.

It was 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.

The 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.

This 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:

  • From being a pleasure activity Kaantha became a means of livelihood.

  • Through agents the craft was organized as team work in the rural areas.

  • Instead 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.

  • Random and spontaneous design has gradually given way to calculated and contrived placement of motifs

  • Tracing 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.

And 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.

Such is the perception that is shared and projected by a large group of people: the NGO’s, development organizations, craft revivalists, policy makers and the State.

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.

True 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.

This is how one manufactures tradition.

It 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 labourer.

Can 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

  1. cultural empowerment and

How much control do the craftswomen have on the fruits of their own labor, in terms of design?

  1. material empowerment

How much has the revival of this craft contributed in terms of health, education, sanitation and basic needs of the craftswomen?

In the course of my interviews, one successful revivalist from Kolkata who employs close to 10000 women describes Kaantha as the splendid story of rags to riches.

A 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.

The 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 keeper.

  • One 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 the same.

In effect, this kind of craft development and empowerment has merely dehumanized and demeaned a proud and self respecting villager.

While 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.

 Against 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.

Trade 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

It’s 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’.

 In 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.

While 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 far 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.

Do 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? 

I do 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.

This 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...

I 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 generations.


First presented at Sui-Dhaga - Crossing Boundaries through Needle and Thread, world embroidery conference, September 2005, India International Centre, New Delhi, India. 


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