ReviewSpecial Issue

Kantha: A Self-realization

Raj Gope

Entrepreneur Designer, Rashdanga, Sumathpally, Asansol, 713301, WB


In this article, I shall discuss my work on kantha, my approach to design and the different realisations I have had whilst working on this wonderful craft both in the capacity of an empanelled designer for DC Handicrafts and NIFT and as a craftepreneur.

1. Introduction

Often, I hear my fellow designers say that they have “created” something with kantha. I would like to delve into the idea: is this really “my creation”? Am I the only owner and creator of “this, my latest creation?” Is this really my individual creation and property?

As a designer and entrepreneur, I am constantly exploring ways for product diversification. In the process, I seek new ways to present my craft as well as the kantha, which is also a craft.

This raises a host of dilemmas in my mind, on the relationship of kantha as a classic example of outstanding reuse to its transformation as a contemporary design form; of kantha as an independent craft and its utilization by people like mw; of who does the kantha belong to; who is the creator?

In the original, women in their homes recycled old and worn cloth, benefit and made the kantha a unique upcycled product. In my zeal to discover new avenues for this craft, am I diluting the craft in any way?

My craft is modern and it is urban. My clientele are urban, cosmopolitan and sophisticated. However, the kantha is not modern. Its origins are not urban or cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Does translocating the kantha from the interior world of the domestic to an urban space dislocate the original form? How am I affecting it?

As an entrepreneur, I am faced with the question, are the kantha artisans really my concern or is the craft my concern or should my concern be limited to myself, as a designer and the business of designing?

It raises other questions too: what should my responsibility be to take this craft – this kantha – forward? How can we sustain the craft? What is the impact of fast fashion on this slowly stitched craft? Has empowering and involving women in scaling up the production of the craft worked positively to elevate their standard of living and simultaneously nurtured and protected the craft from decline and inevitable death?

2. Is this really “my creation”?

For me, all designers and makers are Catalysts or Modifiers in the truest sense. We are not creating anything new out of thin air. We work with ideas and concepts, in the process often modify an existing product, and so create something new out of it.

As a designer, my role is to use the age old kantha embroideries by working with the artisans and the shoemakers and bag makers, who adapt their skills to fulfill my creative or business needs and so modify and change the product by giving it a new look. The kantha existed before, so did the shoes and bags and the material that has been used. There has been no new creation. Only some modifications were made. In addition, there were lot of individuals who were directly involved in the processes of making kantha, bags, and shoes; more, in fact, than I was. So, is this product, embellished with kantha embroidery designed by me, truly my individual property? No. While I may have bought the fabric, the leather and created the designs, the idea of kantha was not my own. Hence, I think we should not get too proprietary or pompous and start declare ourselves as the new God, the “new” creator in town.

3. Is it ok to place a folk art like kantha in an urban space? How am I affecting it?

Traditionally kantha has been a folk art form, a product of daily utility; it was never meant for elite consumption as an exclusive product. A sujni kantha was a gift given by the mother to her newlywed daughter and that is how the tradition has passed on. It is still prevalent in certain sections of society and with some of the artisans I have had the privilege of working with. While seeing some of their work and enquiring how some of them started working on kantha, a few revealed that they have been working on it since their childhood, that they had seen their mother work on sujni kantha covers during her leisure moments and that it was a gift included in her wedding trousseau. Once I wanted to buy one of those exquisite pieces but the artisan would not part with it even though I was prepared to pay her a hefty amount. For her it had immeasurable emotional value; it was her labor of years, of love and devotion that she would gift her little daughter.

The tradition of gifting it on weddings is fast disappearing and commercialization has come on to the fore. The art form, specifically meant as a light cloth blanket, has slowly migrated into different products like sarees, tunics, and dupattas and also into home-ware products like cushion covers, lampshades, and curtains to name a few. The art form is being continuously modified to fit the nature of the product it is meant for. For example, in case of tunics, kantha work would be more around the neckline or the front bodice of the garment. For bags, the kantha work needs to be very dense or else the empty area of the fabric will pucker once the fabric is pasted on a layer of rubber or canvas. So naturally, the demands of the stitches will be different for the different products one intends to produce.

The product compels the interpretation to change. Sometimes the demand of the target market influences the choice of the colours of the embroidery threads. For a western market, the motif and the color palate tends to be more subdued. So placing this folk art in a different context might necessitate a change in the motif and the color combination.

In my pursuit for new and innovative designs for a different market, I had to make some compromises, without really disturbing the essence of the craft. In addition, as they say, change is the new constant; certain incremental changes, if not radical changes, have to be implemented so that it fits in well with the current needs and desires of man and the changing society.

4. Are the artisans really my concern?

Once, I was working with a group of artisans in kantha from the Sriniketan area, which is part of Visva Bharati, in Santiniketan. I paid them higher wages because the work was more complex and time consuming. One day the lady through whom I was distributing the work to the women who were executing my designs, came up to me and said that I was spoiling them; their attitude had changed as they were not willing to do work for other suppliers. They were demanding higher payment from other vendors. She asked me if I would be giving them work on a regular basis. I told her I can only give them as and when I have an order. To which she said that I should then pay them the market rates. I also realized the products that I do, I can afford to sell them at a higher price but those suppliers who are giving them regular works sell through outlets that serve the lower end of the market or through the local stores and Saturday haats. They can only sell at a standard price with very little room to hike up the rate. I realized then that my concerns and my conscience could make their lives uncertain because the rates at which I was willing to get the work done to my specifications was higher than the rest of the market; their lives and their work would become unsustainable if I were to continue to pay them at higher rates. Then, indirectly, I would be harming the sustainability of the craft in that cluster.

It is sometimes more practical and better in the long term, to direct concern for the crafts persons through some socially responsible or service-oriented design like acting as a trainer or community builder, rather than simply paying higher wages.

Concern and love for the craft is there that is why we are pursuing it. However, if it is not economically viable we may not be in a position to pursue it at all.

Personally, I am doing it out of love for the craft form and because I am equipped with certain skill sets, through which I can make it economically viable. However, for others, organizing supplies of kantha at competitive rates was a business; some of my own suppliers, who contracted to deliver kantha work, have moved on to greener pastures, like computer machine embroidery, which can replicate the stitch and can produce faster. For suppliers, it is faster, he has greater control over the production, and he does not need to travel from village to village to oversee the work. The machines are slowly killing the work around the Barasat region in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, where the women who once hand stitched the kantha designs are now without regular orders from suppliers. For some of us, the concern for convenience and business efficiency is overshadowing the concern for the craft and the artisans.

5. How empowering women will not only elevate the standard of living but also nurture and preserve the craft.

Man, by nature, is very fickle. If he has the means, he is likely to migrate to another area for better prospects and more money. Women by nature are more stable. They are not easily lured and do not enjoy the means to move out freely, especially in and around rural areas and within certain communities. Hence, the women should be encouraged to shoulder the wider responsibilities of selflessly nurturing the craft of kantha like a mother. They are by nature more suitable for this job. Men lack the patience. Moreover, unlike Zari embroidery, men do not produce kantha at all. Traditionally it was always under the domain of the womankind.

In addition, in order to preserve the craft, there has to be respect for the producer and pride in the tradition of the work they do. The artisans should not be used as a mere tool. In addition, that will come only if we see Work as an act of devotion. I can give a classic example of how during a DC Handicrafts project, an NGO based in Orissa without any proper office and labor managed to get a project. On being contacted, I went for an initial diagnostic study to this village close to Raghurajpur. The artisans are into terracotta work and I was informed by the NGO that I would have to work with them for a 15-day Design Development project. To my dismay, I realized that they are not very keen in design development as they are never short of any work and they consider themselves as extremely lucky to be able to serve Lord Jagannath and make the customary earthen pots for offering Prashadam. They were a happy bunch and told me that they are not short of any work and in fact struggling to finish their existing orders. They make the cooking pots for the Jagannath Temple in Puri. For them, the pride comes from the work they do and unless we can cultivate that feeling of devotion towards our work or see it as an offering to the Supreme, we cannot derive that sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and pride.

6. Finally, the way forward; how can we sustain the craft? How is fast fashion having an impact on this slowly produced craft?

I strongly feel the kind of work that I am doing in using kantha for making bags and shoes; I am not providing the artisans with a sustainable design solution. I am going there explaining my work to my supervisor who is then distributing the work to the women in different villages. Then I am collecting the finished work through my supervisor and assembling the product in Kolkata. I am making them more dependent, on me, for designs rather than empowering them so that they become independent. If the entire assembling and realization of the products, in this case, the bags and the shoes, were done around the local area itself then it would make more sense. Then the local area does not have the skill set to finish those products. The question is would it be a good idea to introduce them to a new skill set? What if they then give up working on kantha, altogether? The key would be to design something, which can be easily assembled and sold by them in the local markets and in city markets. They should not depend on designers to give them new design ideas but they should be trained to explore on their own as well.

Fast fashion is taking a heavy toll on this slow nature of the craft. One of my suppliers from Barasat area, who was earlier working on kantha and other hand embroideries only, supplying to big retail chains like Pantaloons and Shoppers Stop has moved on to greener pastures. When he started working on kantha, the order quantities were initially small, easy for him to manage. He would get the kantha work done by distributing it in different villages around Barasat. He told me he has around 250-300 women artisans with whom he works on piece rate basis. Now the problem with these big retail chains is that they do not understand the constraints of the slow nature of this craft. They want the products fast at their doorstep. The supplier also wanted to chew more than he can digest. After failing to deliver a big shipment on time, he made some huge losses. Meanwhile, I gave him some small orders to keep him afloat but his greed for more saw him buying on loan a computerized embroidery machine, which can replicate some of the kantha stitches quicker. Now the demands of fast fashion has completely decimated the slower speed of hand stitched kantha production around this area. He is unwilling to do my small orders as well as he does not have the time to move around from village to village distributing the work. The 250-300 odd workers who could work from home have been rendered jobless.

Sometimes I feel both industrialization and technology have done more harm to people than good. Earlier around 300 people were reaping the monetary benefits from this craft and now with modernization, a single person is reaping the monetary benefits. I am not sure whether we should adopt efficiency at the cost of mass unemployment. There should be ways to protect the intrinsic nature of these crafts. Unless we have legislation and policies in place to protect these crafts, we will soon have to say goodbye to these skills and practices. If Ikat weave has a certain look, that look should not be allowed to be replicated through prints. It should be allowed to expand through weaving only. Then only we can preserve these traditional crafts and practices. Or else there will be mass machine made replication and duplication of these crafts.

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