ReviewSpecial Issue

Kantha as a Tool for Women Empowerment

Ananya Bhattacharya

Director,, 188/89 Prince Anwar Shah Road, Kolkata 700045, India.


Kantha quintessentially represents the love and care of women for their family. Bengali women traditionally layered together old clothes and sewed them using simple run stitch weaving patterns and stories. Over the past decades, Kantha embroidery has emerged as a livelihood for thousands of rural women. The women make intricate embroideries on cotton and silk. A wide range of products from apparel to home furnishing, wall hanging to utility items is made. It is a ground reality that commercialization of Kantha has had pitfalls like loss of vocabulary, layered texture and individuality, but its contribution to socio-economic empowerment of women cannot be belittled. This article outlines how a cluster of women living in Nano or block of Birbhum district of West Bengal leveraged their embroidery skills to create a better life for themselves and their families. 

1. Situation at Baseline

In 2013, the Department of Micro, Small, Medium Enterprise & Textiles, Government of West Bengal and UNESCO mobilized 600 women at Nanoor in Birbhum to form a Rural Craft Hub as part of an initiative. 

During the baseline study, it was found that the women earn a pittance. Kantha was a secondary livelihood for 85% of the women. 90% earned less than Rs. 1000 per month and only around 15 women had more than Rs. 3000 income per month. The women did not have any money to procure raw material. Average income for embroidering a saree was Rs. 1000 and usually women took 45-60 days to complete a saree. The wage was thus very low compared to the labor and time involved in kantha making. 

It was also found that the women had no idea on design and quality aspects. They could not draw or even trace designs. The women were unaware of making finished products. They could not discern quality of silk or cotton fabric nor were aware of where to source them.

Intermediaries monopolized all market linkages. The women had no idea of where their products were sold. The more enterprising women had established contacts with retailers in Kolkata and Bolpur from whom they procure orders. They were provided raw material with design and color specifications. There was hardly any stock of products available with the women. 

Access to entitlements under various Government schemes was also low. Only one third had bank account. Hardly 1 % had artisan card. 18% had health insurance. Quality of life was poor. Majority of women live in mud houses with thatched, tin, or asbestos roof and only few had toilet at home. 

70% of the women are from minority community. While the older women are illiterate, the younger women (around 60%) have school level education. The transformation was not easy. 

Gender norms perpetrating low social status and restricted mobility of women, illiteracy, poverty all added to the vicious cycle of disempowerment. Family members objected when the women had to travel to attend training programmes or exhibitions. Only a handful had ventured to handicraft fairs in major Indian cities and family and neighbors often stigmatized them. 

2. The Transformation

Today the wielding of the needle symbolizes independence, financial security and self-fulfillment for many women at Nanoor. The women of Nanoor have won acclaim, recognition and respect. They have transitioned from wage based embroidery worker to rural micro entrepreneur.  The women have formed small collectives. The leaders procure orders, distribute work and deliver finished products to leading retailers. The women have their own stock of products. They source raw material, draw designs and price aptly as per quality of raw material and intensity of work. The women have learned to design for making diversified products. They work together and competition is healthy.  

Income has increased. The women have come out of abject poverty. Income of leading artists has increased to about Rs. 6000 per month while the wageworkers earn around Rs. 2000 per month. With the change in income, their life style including food consumption, clothing and access to amenities are improving. Women now have a better say in their family and community. Destitute women who had lost their husband or whose husbands were crippled or unable to work owing to health issues had to suffer much misbehavior and violence. These women now stand strong and negotiate their own entitlements. 

Embargo on mobility has reduced. Women, who had never left their home, have travelled all across the country to attend fairs, festivals and exhibitions. Their increased self-awareness and self-confidence have inspired others.

Education is more valued. Young girls are using their earned money to continue education. Young women like Lutfa are pursuing college education. They are dreaming of having Master level education, getting a job to earn money to fund business in kantha. Today Lutfa’s enterprising effort economically strengthens 40 women in her locality. The women now identify their own capacity building needs. They seek training in English and use of internet for the younger generation.  Women are bank linked. Nearly half of the women operate their own bank accounts and avail of online bank transfer facilities.

The women organize kantha mela celebrating their heritage. The collectives have organized two annual fairs in their village. They say that the festival has given them identity as handicraft artist. They enjoy the publicity and recognition from local administration and visitors. 

3. Developing a Replicable Model for Empowerment

Kantha embroiders of Nanoor thus manifest how art can lead to women empowerment and gender equality. A number of agencies have been involved for decades in skill development and market promotion programs on kantha. However, hundreds of women embroidering kantha remain underpaid. It is not enough to develop new designs or innovate new applications of kantha. Skill empowerment initiatives can really succeed if the women are assisted to learn and manage the entire value chain involved. The path is not easy owing to social factors as explained above, but the immense talent and skill passed down through generations have enough latent potential to overcome all odds. The women of Nanoor exemplify this. Some of the key steps were as follows: 

  1. Training in various aspects of design, quality assurance and finishing
  2. Life skill development to address factors like low self-esteem, gender inequality, unhealthy competition etc.
  3. Building understanding on production process and value chain
  4. Revival of traditional vocabulary and Sujni style of work
  5. Exposure to market trends and products
  6. Exposure to local, regional, national and international markets
  7. Building understanding on nuances of business from accounting, banking, product pricing to risk management and workplace management
  8. Training on language and computer
  9. Creating awareness through brochures, website, annual village festival, heritage education programs etc.

As the women lack formal education, innovative Theatre in Development methodology was used for experiential learning. The women role-played situations like going to the bank or participating in a fair. They learned time management by reflecting on how they allocated time in day-to-day life and how they can improve on time given for working on kantha. The skill development programs involved women who have already evolved as entrepreneurs and had hands on experience. Older women passed on their traditional motifs and patterns to the young. Interaction with young people was facilitated using diverse channels. The women did workshops on kantha embroidery in Kolkata, Delhi and Goa. The process led them to realize their own talent and artistry and they never looked back.

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