Hello again! This week we welcome Gopika Nath, a textile artist and writer living and working in Gurgaon, who shares our passion for kantha embroidery in both its traditional and contemporary forms. Read on for a blog post you can almost touch…
There is a nip in the air and it’s time to take out the silk sarees from their summer-long cupboard-hibernation. For a dinner party last week, I decided to wear an embroidered Kantha saree, from Malllika’s Kantha of Kolkata. The natural colour of tussar has been partially tie-dyed [wrap-resist]. The body of the saree in undyed, soft gold of natural tussar, is embellished with white, off-white and green thread. At a distance it looks as though the main body of the saree has been embroidered using the running stitch or the traditional Kantha phor, but a back-stitch outlines the creeper that covers the entire length of the saree – white thread stitched through the natural tussar, with delicate lines akin to feint quasi-quilting marks.
Kantha, or the running stitch is a favourite of mine. The next evening as I worked, pulling needle and thread through a cotton voile fabric, created by tearing, layering, stitching, and dyed with tea leaves, circling a motif in the manner of the traditional Kantha, I thought about the Kantha saree I had worn and how much had changed, and yet not. Even though the Sujani from Bihar essentially uses the same running stitch, I relate to its Bengali lineage because of the texture that the quilted layers create when the fabric puckers, lending a sculptural effect to the motif, around which the women stitch. It is the texture of quilting marks indenting the layers of fabric that inspire me. The resultant surface is evocative of the warm comfort of quilts. And, drawing from a traditional lineage, dating back to Krishnadas Kaviraji’s Sri Sri Chaitanya Charanamrita, written 500 years ago, allows for a sense of belonging which is reassuring, as much as it leads to concern regarding the fate of hand-crafting in a milieu seduced by machines and technology.
The embroidered Kantha saree is itself a twentieth century invention, or rather re-invention of the Kantha. Traditionally, ‘Kanthar kaaj’ or Kantha embroidery was done on two to three layers of recycled material, usually old and worn out sarees, dhotis or lungis. While today they use myriad shades of embroidery floss, traditionally, the embroidery threads were drawn from the border of the saree and the quilted fabric was usually in muted shades as the sarees or dhotis had been washed numerous times. As soon as there was news of a pregnancy or wedding engagement, the women of the village would get busy with making a Kantha. After completing their household chores, they would sit in groups for an afternoon chat near a pond or under the shade of Ashoka trees, Kathal [jackfruit] or perhaps a Mango tree. This scenario hasn’t changed much; they can still be seen seated this way in villages on the outskirts of Kolkata, surrounded by twittering birds and the chatter of their children, as they deftly sew one stitch after another – as the Sanskrit saying goes:
Sanaih parvata langhanam
Slowly stitch layers together, fabric old
Slowly tread the path, step by step
Steadily scale the mountain, slow
Sanskrit [oral tradition]
Stitching by hand in our fast-paced digitized lives is a labour of love. Sujani or Kantha quilts have always been a labour of love, but not in the manner in which a contemporary artist embroiders by hand because of love of the process, its ideals and more. Earlier, it was about making something beautiful for a loved one, which imbued the fabric with love and outstanding workmanship. The hours spent painstakingly tacking the layers, then drawing the motifs by hand, and working around them to quilt the fabric, thinking of the elder who would be kept warm or the new-born child that would soon grace their home, brought a whole different dimension to the finished cloth. There is no value that can be attributed to this kind of work; it is priceless. And, as Kamladevi Chattopadhya noted, the traditional Kantha was an example of bewildering contradictions whose impetus of thrift, using worn-out textiles that would otherwise be thrown away, were transformed by embroidery into something of exceptional beauty.
Durga Puja, is an important festive time in Bengal. A couple of weeks prior to ‘Pujo’, Shamlu Dudeja, posted on Facebook the picture of a recently completed canopy, by ‘SHE’, Kolkata. Richly embroidered, depicting the goddess Durga in her many forms, it was vibrant and exuded a passion that Kantha sarees, beautiful and elegant as they are, don’t have. The elaborate canopy took seven women six to eight months to complete. And the intricacy of stitch and vibrant hues speak of fervour that transcends the mundane dimensions of fashion to embody a divine passion. Though guided in respect of urban preferences, and assisted in the designing process, these women were invested in the visual creation, more so than in the sarees, made by women of the same NGO. And the difference is evident.
The repetitive movements employed in working a basic running stitch are meditative. My textile work embodies self-expression as is the practice of contemporary art, and the folk traditions of both Kantha and Sujani also speak of women embroidering pictorial narratives from their personal lives interspersed with figures from the myths and epics they were familiar with. When I think of them doing work on the saree such as I wore the other day, without much freedom of expression in this regard, I wonder if they draw the same solace from the practice as their grandmothers and great-grandmothers did. The Durga canopy does lend a glimpse, but because it is another generation, one that didn’t work within the mode of thrift transformed into a blessed gift, this aspect is difficult to gauge. This work has uplifted their lives in many ways, and a once dying craft has also been given new lease of life.
The running stitch is used by many designers and embroidery practitioners, in new and innovative ways. But in terms of re-invention of the running stitch, I think of the contemporary, Sujani inspired, embroidered garments designed by Swati Kalsi, more so than any other. It is possible that immortalized by Bengali poet Jasimuddin’s poem ‘Nakshar Kanthar Maath’ , and interventions by Rabindranath Tagore and his family, Kantha has transcended the simplicity of the recycled quilt to embody much more, while the Sujani which hasn’t been quite so glorified, has retained its more ascetic character and style – that is until Kalsi transformed it.
While there have been other interventions, it is Swati Kalsi who has virtually re-invented the way embroidery with running stitch Sujani now looks. Moving away from the traditional practice of this region, she uses the running stitch most innovatively in high fashion garments. The Sujani has similar origins as that of the Kantha in that, traditionally, both regions used old cloth recycled as quilts and covers, tacking the layers of fabric using the ubiquitous running-stitch. Both embroidery styles employed a rich pictorial narrative drawn in a naive-folksy style, disregarding perspective and realistic physical attributes. Kantha has included complex stitch formations of the running stitch in addition to other stitches. Forty-three stitches, and counting, are documented as used in ‘Kanthar kaaj’. The latest addition to this repertoire is cross-stitch which they call ‘tin phor’ because you need three steps to complete one stitch. Some of these can be seen on the canopy, but the Sujani quilts are much simpler in their visual narrative and restrained repertoire of stitches – dominated by the basic running stitch, which unlike the Kantha is always in straight lines, a chain-stitch for outlining the figure and a filler stitch.
Draped on a model’s back, a dark navy blue-black jacket is densely covered with straight stitches. It’s the running stitch in another avatar, designed by Kalsi in collaboration with the Sujani embroiderers of Bihar. They’ve invoked the age-old ritual of chatting, singing and sewing. However, their embroidered narrative is not quite as personal or spontaneous as the way the quilts of yore would have been.
Swati Kalsi’s practice, involves workshops and dialogues with the artisans to create a stitch that, at first glance you may step back from, as I did, and dismiss as being Sujani. Her lines of running stitch don’t form a pattern or motif, but are more like an abstract painting which determines what form the garment will eventually take. Most are fluid and organic, their shape evolving through the embroidered marks. There is no deliberate integrity towards tradition per se, but the stitch is used, primarily, with the rather ascetic markings of the basic running stitch. Kalsi’s process is intuitive rather than structured. It is revolutionary and effortlessly contemporary.
The sophistication of the resultant fabric and its usage in garments cannot be compared with rustic Bengali Kantha canopy. The designer’s creative input elevates the running stitch to another level. It takes vision and courage to break the traditional mould and to use Sujani in the way that Kalsi does. Equally, it takes courage and vision to keep a craft alive, as the NGO ‘SHE’ in Bengal does, keeping close to traditional values and practices.
Fingers touching thread, feeling the fabric; evolving textures and narratives through this tactile process is fundamental to any embroidery practice. Merely conceptualizing the pattern and relegating the process to another’s hand, for me, is akin to separation and fragmentation of hand-crafting process, as practiced in ancient India. Although I’m a reasonably skilled embroiderer, I choose to deconstruct fabric and stitching styles to bring another kind of attention to embroidery, devising a contemporary language, harking back to the Vedic concept of thread as a metaphor for life.
I relate to these women and the age-old ritual they incarnate as they work, singing and sewing. The rhythm of embroidery lends itself well to song. Thinking about the differing fabrics made using the running stitch, I realise that, not unlike the quilts that inspired them, these varied practices are akin to stitching together layers of history; crafting their own unique narrative.
These differing practices exist concurrent to each other in the same millennium, each drawing from history and traditions that have been through their own amalgam of influences, as traditions often are. They off-set each other and the contrasts provide insights and curiosity about the differences, adding elements and insights to the very ordinary running-stitch. It is said that the Tailor-bird uses a stalk and a running stitch to sew together its nest and that cavemen used it to sew pieces of animal skin to cover their nakedness. Buddha and his Bhikshus didn’t wear new clothes, but sewed together old fabrics they were given, with the same running stitch, to patch and wear.
All these facets add richness to the continuance and evolution of an otherwise humble stitch – whose origins arose from thrift to evolve into the extravagant Durga canopy – with vibrant colour, religiosity and passion on the one hand, and on the other, subsumed through the laborious process of constructing and deconstructing utilised by Kalsi, myself and other contemporary artists and designers – a trail of running stitch formations, from the time the needle was invented and perhaps even before. But, given the complexity of the trail, it may well be the Tailor-bird that will have the final word, as the keeper of its tradition.
- – Gopika Nath