ResearchSpecial Issue

A Socio-Economic Study of Kantha-Stitch Craftswomen of Santiniketan

Dibyendu Bikash Datta

Associate Professor, Department of Fashion Management Studies, National Institute of Fashion Technology (Ministry of Textiles, Govt. of India), Plot-3B, Block-LA, Sector III, Salt Lake City, Kolkata – 700 098


Handicraft industries is an important role in the livelihood and economy of rural people in developing countries like India. The Kantha craft of Santiniketan is not an exception to this concept. Most of the Indian traditional industries are suffering from stagnation or decline and they survive even with the onslaught in the era of globalization. Production organization plays a vital role not only in economic activity but also in the distribution of benefits of economic activity among the participants. The productivity of workers and earnings share vary substantially across different production organization, namely independent, intermediaries (under mahajan) and cooperative, and potentiality of growth varies across the trade. The present note seeks to analyse the above-noted issues with reference to Kantha crafts of Santiniketan of West Bengal. The study reveals that production organization tied to mahajans is proliferating in the era of liberalization, privatization, and globalization of the economy while independent and cooperative organizations rather stagnate or even suffer decline. Rural artisans mostly belonging to the weaker section of the society are hardly capable of coming out of the clutches of mahajans who exploit them using their merchant capital. Productivity, earnings, and potential of growth of the rural artisans thus remain at a low level not substantially contributing to the rural development of the districts. This paper analyses the economics of Kantha industry in relation to its production organization.

Keywords: Women, competition, hindrances, challenges, artisans, embroidery, Kantha.

1. Introduction

Kantha embroidery is an indigenous household craft that continues to be a dominant textile art and craft form due to its uniqueness for traditional and folk designs, ability to tell a story and as a form of personal and artistic expression. A quilted embroidery based craft form predominantly practiced by rural women as it originated as a household craft amongst rural families, with techniques passed down from mother to daughter and are popular dowry traditions. Kantha embroidery originated as a way of recycling old or unused cotton sarees and dhotis, in order to create household items such as quilts, comforters, shawls, home linen and more, using a simple running stitch (Dhamija, 2004). It involves stitching of the layers of old cloth together with needle and colored thread. The original kantha is double-faced where the design appeared identical on either side of the quilt (Naik, 1996). The craft is widely practiced in the dwellings of millions of rural women residing in districts of Hooghly, Purba Burdwan, Paschim Burdwan, Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Birbhum of West Bengal. 

The kantha artisans from Birbhum district of West Bengal has gained immense popularity and are mostly practiced in the nearby villages surrounding Bolpur, also simply known as BolpurSantiniketan, the cultural tourism destination of West Bengal. Bolpur is the main business center of it because of the presence of Tagore’s Santiniketan and is the most prominent location for the purchase of kantha embroidery, particularly the kantha saree and nakshi kantha quilt. Initially, this art was taught in Santiniketan. From there onwards, this art got recognition and spread outside.  Contemporary forms of kantha craft find expression in sarees, stoles, apparel, home linen and accessories using cotton and silk as a base fabric.

Rural women of all classes practice this art. An entire piece of fabric may be covered with running kantha stitch and in different shapes – creating beautiful motifs of flowers, animals, birds, geometrical shapes as well as themes from everyday activities. A finished piece of kantha embroidery has multiple lines of running stitch all over it and hence a slightly wrinkled appearance. Motifs found in kantha display the identities of its wearers in terms of caste, village, and status. In early kantha embroidery, motifs were influenced by primitive art. With time, Hindu kantha embroiderers created motifs of gods, peacocks, tigers and auspicious colorful motifs. The Muslim population of West Bengal chiefly resides in Murshidabad district, which is the central location for Muslim kantha embroidery that features geometric and floral designs.

Kantha embroidery has been considered as inextricable part of the life of West Bengal, India, even when it was undivided and known only as Bengal and still maintains a strong cultural and social significance in Bengali society. It has become a means of livelihood and yet remains a household craft. The kantha of decorative types was a later development (Das, 1992). However, changing taste and modernization has made this traditional art dim and gradually this form of activity has been losing its identity. On the economic side of the kantha stitch, individual creativity is commercially colored up, kantha has now become identified with a new look and variety (Condra, 2013). As women of poorer classes did it, its production develops economic wellbeing of womenfolk. This kind of economic development affects the women, their families, and society. Thus, the economic development of society also helps to improve their socio-economic status. 

In the work of kantha stitch, the entrepreneurs plan the idea, motifs and select the color combination of this work. The intermediaries take this work from entrepreneurs and distribute among the females of different villages. For this work, they get a commission from the entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs provide finished products to the market for sale and earn a profit. This profit is distributed among the intermediaries and the female workers according to their skills. Thus, there is a chain system at work.

2. Present status of the women artisans

Handicrafts have their importance as not only a source of employment to craftsman but also perhaps much more due to their capacity to reflect the culture of a civilization, hopes, and fear of a generation through artistic expressions. The nimble fingers of the craftsman turn every article they touched in to a thing of joy. In the field of kantha embroidery, the women artisans had reached the peak of quality and beauty in producing articles of utility and of decorative values and have claimed International fame. One can learn this art just by imitating others and most of the artisans learned this art by themselves from their mother and grandmother. Many of them have undergone formal training provided by NIFT, Visva-Bharati University, other government, and non-government organization. Most of the females are influenced by their neighborhoods. Some of them travel and collect job work for more females in the village. A number of women acknowledge that they have been able to overcome poverty and girls can pursue education. Many of the women artisans are maintaining their family from the earning of kantha craft as a source of income and occupation. Young girls are very interested in learning and pursuing kantha stitching as a livelihood. While the older women lack literacy, many young girls and women are continuing their study and pursuing kantha as a livelihood. 

3. Literature review

Kantha evolved out of necessity to drape or protect against cold. Kantha on Sanskrit means rags. It can rightly be called the recycling art. The precious silks and muslins when became worn-out. Women instead of throwing them away piled them in layers and stitched. Another legend relates kantha origin to Lord Buddha and his disciples. It is said that they used to cover themselves with the thrown away rags patched and stitched together. The term nakshi kantha, popularly used in West Bengal, is found even in medieval literature. The name nakshi kantha became particularly popular among literate people after the publication of dramatized Bengali verse narrative written by poet Jasīmauddīna entitled “Nakshi Kanthar Math (The Field of the Embroidered Quilt)” (Jasīmauddīna, 1929). The verse is considered a masterpiece in Bengali language and has been translated into many different languages. Kantha was said to be a woman’s self-expression. The real kantha narrates a story, the emotions and the life of the artist.

The revival of the cottage industries and crafts of the area was a major objective of Sriniketan through the Silpa Bhavana. Income from agriculture especially in a one-crop area (there was practically no irrigation other than the monsoon), like Birbhum, was understandably poor, and experts had felt that other means of income or livelihood were necessary. In addition, the machine was overtaking handcrafted items and artisans were forced to abandon their crafts and migrate to urban centres as labor. The challenge was to reinvigorate the crafts and small industries and to design objects that would compete with to machine-made items in terms of design and novelty— this was the first expressions of ‘be utility’. Along with the old crafts, some new ones were introduced. The crafts that were brought under the ambit of Sriniketan at one time or the other were weaving, tannery, leather-craft, carpentry, lacquer work, pottery, tile-making, cane-work, bookbinding, tailoring, and embroidery called kantha usually executed with running stitch). Apprentices were trained here who later were able to earn their livelihood from their crafts with the training they had received in Sriniketan (Bhattacharya, 2013).

Handicrafts and women both the terms are having their individual identity and if women are producing the handicrafts then their identity becomes more meaningful. In the ancient era of civilization, women were involved in specific works out of which handicrafts making is one among them. That time it was not being considered as an occupation of the women. Indian women were doing handicrafts only to fulfill their personal needs. In addition, some are continuing this handicraft making, as they love to do stitching and embroidery. However, gradually it becomes a very eye-catching work for women. They could visualize that their products are saleable in the market and they can earn some money in return. That moment was a turning point in their life.

On another side, the government was focused to raise the status of women in rural areas. Women empowerment has become a burning issue for national development. The government has introduced many fields to improve the standard of women. Such fields raise the educational level among rural women, provide them with minimum health care facilities, make them self-reliant, and increase their participation in nation building. The contribution of women to national economic development is very necessary and has a great impact on women’s development. Hence, the government has to give special attention to the women development and for their economic establishment in the society. To achieve the above goal the minimum facilities has to be provided to the women in mass. Women need courage, confidence, support, and assistance from their family members to come out from the four walls of the house to prove her identity and capability. In the modern era, women have provided many amenities to prove their capability in various fields. Women empowerment is the all-round development of the women including education, health, occupation, income, decision-making power and participation in all works of family. Women empowerment will make them more strong and prepared for taking up new challenges in the making of an ideal family, society and the nation. A woman is an architect of society and women empowerment itself is human empowerment. As stated by Shiva (2016) women empowerment is a development process helping women to change the consciousness of others through creating awareness. Despite all developmental rights, laws and facilities still women are suffering from various problems, and atrocities in the present situation (Ahmed, 2016). The present study reflected the status of women in the handicrafts sector but it also assessed their position in family, community and at the societal level.

Anju and Raju (2014) in their study have discussed the need for women entrepreneurship through self-help groups and their functions, the factors influencing them and the problems faced by them. They argued for the establishment of separate industrial estates, an industrial development bank exclusively for women entrepreneurs and for imparting management training to them.

Revathi and Krishnan (2012) in their study explains about the emergence of a woman in small business and the significant contribution to the Indian economy. Increased awareness and spread of education are helping women of spreading their wings into areas, which are hitherto the monopoly of men. The majority of the educated woman artisans are having qualities of accepting the challenges, very ambitious, enthusiastic, hard working and skillful. 

Ghouse (2012) in her article brought to light certain problems faced by the women artisans like marketing problems, financial problems, raw material problem, labor problems, and power supply. The researcher also provides helpful suggestions to overcome such difficulties.

Raveendran (2010) in a study brings to light some important aspects of women’s location in the labor market and their contribution to the national economy. It also illustrates, through data, that the majority of women are concentrated in sectors with low productivity. 

Jamali (2009) discussed the constraints and opportunities that affect the women entrepreneurial activities in the developing nations. The research consolidates significant micro and macro level approaches and identifies opportunities and constraints as part of a comprehensive mutually dependent system.

Dasgupta (2003) states that globalization has thrown many challenges for the women. To succeed, the women had to develop their commercial and technical knowledge and information. Formation of a small group will help women to discuss their problems, share information and promote entrepreneurial culture in their society.  

Liebl and Roy (2004) have found that the word handicraft is more precisely expressed as a handmade craft. Apparently, it creates confusion among the policy-makers and economists, as it is difficult to recognize handicraft as an autonomous, economic sector in its own right. This resulted in handicraft sector being labeled diversely as small-scale industries or household trade and at times, even as women-focused activity offering incentives to rural women to turn into economically independent by capitalizing on their craft skills.

4. Objectives of the study

The study presents an overview of the socio-economic profile of trained artisans engaged in kantha crafts. The paper also attempts to look into the hindrances and challenges faced by these women artisans of the kantha cluster.

5. Methodology and sampling

A sample of 100 women respondents involved in kantha crafts was selected for the study based on their cooperation and willingness to respond. The sampling technique used in this study is purposive sampling for selection of cluster and blocks. All the participants had undergone skill development training on kantha embroidery. The interview schedule was formulated based on the pre-existing conceptual literature relating to the subject of craft entrepreneurship. The questionnaire dealt with general background, socio-economic status, hindrances and challenges faced by the female artisans practicing the kantha crafts.

5.1 Study area

The study is confined to women artisans from different blocks of Bolpur-Santiniketan, located at 23.68° N, 87.68° E and 145 km north of Kolkata. It is best known for its proximity to Visva Bharati, the university set up by the Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore. Bolpur is one of the most important cultural regions of West Bengal and is the main business center for the handicraft products of the district. 

5.2 Data collection method

To examine the objectives of this study, relevant data were collected from both primary and secondary data. Observations, structured questionnaire and interview schedule are used as primary sources of data. The secondary data consists of information collected from articles, journals, books and reports from government records.

5.3 Summary of findings

Table 1 Socio-economic profile of women artisans (n=120)
  Particulars No. of respondents Percentage
Age (years) 18-21 8 6.7 %
21-30 22 18.3 %
31-40 58 48.3 %
41-50 26 21.7 %
51-60 6 5.0 %
Education qualification Illiterate
Less than Class 10th pass 20 16.7 %
Class 10th pass 62 51.7 %
Class 12th pass 25 20.8 %
Graduation 13 10.8 %
Marital status Married 82 68.30 %
Unmarried 26 21.70 %
Widow 8 6.70 %
Divorce 4 3.30 %
Assets owned by
the Craftsman
Land 10 8.3 %
Cattle 5 4.2 %
Gold ornament 40 33.3 %
Ownership of house 56 46.7 %
Ownership of multiple houses 4 3.3 %
Combination of the above 5 4.2 %
No. of family members Nuclear family 38 31.7 %
Extended family 82 68.3 %
Role in this zari cluster Designer 12 10.0 %
Embroider 88 73.3 %
Supervisor 6 5.0 %
Combination of designer and embroider 5 4.2 %
Combination of designer and middleman 3 2.5 %
Combination of designer and supervisor 6 5.0 %
Years of association
with the craft
Less than 5 years 20 16.7 %
5-7 Years 33 27.5 %
8-10 Years 25 20.8 %
10 Years and above 42 35.0 %
Generation associated
with craft
0-1 Generation 28 23.3 %
1-2 Generations 72 60.0 %
3 Generations and above 20 16.7 %
Earning members
in family
Self only
2-3 members 72 60.0 %
3-5 members 48 40.0 %
Family income (Rs.) 2000-5000 32 26.7 %
5000-10000 57 47.5 %
Above 10000 31 25.8 %
Source: Primary data

In this study, age has been categorized into five groups. Majority of the respondents consisting of 48.3 % women belonged to the age group of 31-40 years, 18.3 % of the women were of 21-30 years, 21.7 % were found to be in the 41-50 years range, and 5% in the category of 51 years and above and 7 % belongs in 18-21 years section. 

No women were found illiterate. 16.7 % of the women had studied less than class 10th standard. 51.7% women had studied up to class 10th and 10.8 % of women had passed Class 12th. 10.8 % of women were found to be graduated. Out of total respondents, 68.3 % of respondents are married, 21.7 % are single, 6.7 % is the widow and 3.3 % are divorced. 

In the selected area, 68.3 % of the respondents were belonging to extended family and 31.7 % were having a nuclear family. 47.5 % of women artisans were getting their monthly family income as Rs. 5,000-10000 and 25.8 % were getting above Rs. 10,000 and the rest were earning between Rs. 2000 to 5000 per month.

Table 2: Hindrances faced by women artisans (n=120)

Hindrances No. of respondents Percentage
Dual role of women 54 45%
Insufficient own capital 62 52%
Competition 36 30%
Lack of self-confidence 29 24%
Lack of family encouragement 42 35%
Source: Primary data

It is clear from Table 2 that, chief hindrances faced by women artisans was insufficient own capital (52 %), the dual role of women (45 %), lack of family encouragement (35 %), competition (30 %), lack of self-confidence (24 %).

Women artisans work hard to keep their families afloat. They face different practical challenges while keeping a balance between their business as well as home-centered responsibilities. Usually, women balance both businesses as well as the family also. 

Table 3 Level of Support from the families of the Respondents (n=120)

Level of Support No. of respondents Percentage
Strongly supporting 36 30.0%
Supporting 53 4.2%
Neither supporting nor opposing 24 20.0%
Opposing 7 5.8%

The Table 3 depicts that 30 % of the women artisans are strongly supported by their family members mostly by bringing raw materials from the entrepreneurs or intermediaries and the delivery of the finished products. 44.2 % of the artisans are also supported by their family members. 20 % of the women artisans are neither supported nor opposed. However, 5.8 % of them expressed their difficulty to remain engaged in this craft. The family members oppose their association with the entrepreneurs or intermediaries for collecting raw material and delivery of finished goods.

Table No. 4 Challenges faced by women artisans (n=120)

Challenges 1 2 3 4 5 Weight Ranks
Work-family interface 12 18 21 24 45 432 II
Need for awareness about governmental programs 15 21 26 34 24 391 III
Marketing activities and access to information 7 10 41 24 38 436 I
Legal barriers and procedures 61 43 10 4 2 203 IV
Women’s safety and gender problem 63 42 11 2 2 198 V
Source: Primary data

Table 4 highlights that among the various challenges faced by women entrepreneurs marketing activities and access to information is ranked first (436) followed by the work-family interface (432), need of awareness about governmental programs (391), legal barriers and procedures (203) and women’s safety and gender-based problems (198). It is depicted that proper training and special awareness about government programs are necessary for women artisans.

Suggestions and Conclusion

The study sought to give an insight into the socio-economic status and the hindrances faced by women artisans practicing the kantha craft in Bolpur and its surrounding areas. The intent was to understand the potential of kantha embroidery as a profession to enhance the income and develop a sustainable livelihood. This art has given an economic freedom to the female folk and they have gladly accepted this work as a parallel economy to earn money, without hampering their family responsibilities. Women are also aware of their self-respect and their position in the society and community. Apart from their traditional role of a homemaker, many of them have taken this art as a profession and the kantha craft acts as a tool for women empowerment.


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