ReviewSpecial Issue

Through the Eye of a Needle

Shamlu Dudej1

Kantha Revivalist and Founder of SHE (Self Help Enterprise) Foundation, 4/1, Alipore Park Road, Kolkata 700 027, India.


Kantha revival has been the harbinger of the resurgence of ‘Shakti’: the empowerment of rural women in Bengal. Many centuries ago, predominantly, Kanthar kaaj was the most popular form of ‘stitchery’ practised by the rural women in Bengal. The traditional form of Kanthar kaaj, then, was worked on layers of fabric from old cotton dhotis and saris. The thread for this craft was drawn out from the borders of the used fabrics. In 1986, Shamlu Dudeja pumped fresh blood into the dying quilting tradition of Bengal by converting the Kanthar kaaj – the poor man’s quilting stitch – into a decorative stitch, for single-layered luxury fabrics, such as tussars and silks. Very soon, SHE Foundation was set up as an outlet for corporate social responsibility of Malika’s Kantha Collection. In addition to the payment received for their labour, SHE Foundation gives these Stitch Artists and their families extra benefits such as medical camps and eye camps, nutritional drinks, vitamin supplements, educational support, goods of daily use, solar lights and support during the wedding of a daughter in the family. As the global appreciation of the rustic beauty of kantha grew, the number of artisans in rural Bengal has increased a hundredfold. The sense of self-worth amongst these artisans grew, too. If a woman is empowered, the home is empowered; if rural homes are empowered, the villages are empowered and generally, the village homes are more empowered today. The paper further explored how Shamlu Dudeja and SHE Foundation help Revive kantha and give it a new niche market.

The Kantha Kantha is a type of traditional embroidery popular in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, which has recently been fine-tuned into designer apparel wear. Created amongst humble surroundings, the kantha or the poor man’s quilting stitch travels right across the socio-economic spectrum from idyllic rural settings to the ramps of glamorous fashion shows and to the drawing rooms or workspaces of the rich and famous. Modern-day kantha has been unshackled from its traditional confines of being a strictly utilitarian domestic product and has successfully become a meaningful part of the crafts and textiles tradition of India and a compelling brand around the world. Stitching, actually, has been around for generations, from the time when the stone-age man learnt to join pieces of animal hide to cover himself. The kantha stitch, interestingly, is the fundamental form of sewing used by the tailorbird to put together its nest of leaves and twigs. This form of running stitch originated with Bengali homemakers mending and reinforcing old clothes with strands of thread drawn from the colorful borders of old, sarees and creating at the same time simple designs with them. In keeping with the dictates of Buddhism, the Bhikshus drew sustenance from the charity of householders who sometimes gave them old, frayed garments and fabrics as well. Drawing inspiration from the frugal village women adept in making a little go far and beyond, the Bhikshus layered the frayed fabrics and tacked them together with the simplest of all stitches, the humble running stitch. The kantha quilt, thus fashioned, shielded them from harsh elements. Here are the rural women of Bengal sitting in the backyard of their modest dwellings, chatting and working on a group project. Their chatter is idle but their fingers are not as they hold tiny tools, simple sewing needles, which dart backwards and forwards on the fabric they hold, picking tiny stitches so fine and so precise that the reverse of their Kanthar kaaj is as neat as is the obverse. Historically, Kanthas were made by all rural women – the rich property owner’s wife would use her leisure time to make an elaborately embroidered quilt and the poor farmer’s wife would sew together discarded sarees to make quilts. The craft is a priceless legacy that has been handed down from generation to generation. The kantha work routine of its rural artisans was more or less the same centuries ago. The rural panorama has not changed much either. Actually, the only change today could be that the culture of kantha is no longer frozen in time. Today’s artisans have no inhibitions about handling a single layer of new fabric and embellishing it with exquisite needlework, mostly traditional but also with a certain newness incorporated into old patterns. The kantha embroidery artistes work from home, thereby enjoying the luxury of flexi-time and not inconveniencing their families. Sometimes they sit by themselves, but more often as a group, usually in the afternoons after completing their household chores, filling in stitch after stitch, putting in captivating visuals that range from the mythological to the contemporary. The craft may have graduated successfully from the humble old cotton fabric to the more sophisticated crepes and chiffons, but the essence of the art preserves its traditional flavor, much of which is influenced by the traditional artisans who create it. The different ways in which the stitch is used makes it extraordinary, forms the complex vocabulary of kantha, and adds to its rhythmic vitality. The threads have whispered, have created stories, and have weaved their way through the lives of village folk, for centuries. What used to be the rural woman’s tradition of recycling and reusing old worn out fabrics by embellishing it with embroidery to make utility products for their loved ones is today helping these women to take care of their home and hearth. Shamlu Dudeja has over the last 25 years dedicated herself to the revitalization of Kantha. While retaining the spontaneity, ethnicity, and magic of the earlier quilt, new designs have been introduced for decorating fashion textiles. As the popularity of kantha spread, Shamlu Dudeja set up NGOs to train women in making a living from this. Self Help Enterprise was set up under the chairmanship of Shamlu Dudeja as an informal enterprise in 1998 to give shape to the scattered kantha community. It was formally registered under the Societies Act of the Government of West Bengal in 2004 to work for the upliftment of the kantha artisans. Most of the women artisans who were already working with Shamlu joined SHE, as this was a great opportunity for them to formalize the arrangement to earn money doing something they did anyway every day. SHE artisans have successfully recast Jamini Roy’s paintings and Warli patterns in the ubiquitous running stitch on silk textiles. Soon after SHE was incorporated informally, it held its first exhibition at the Park Hotel, Kolkata. The strict quality control that has now become synonymous with SHE ensured that every item on display was unique. This was followed by several exhibitions in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore. In 1990, SHE organized their first overseas exhibition in London. Colorful kantha saris draped on the seventeen-feet-high windows of the venue drew passersby to the display. People found it hard to believe that all the embroidery was done by hand and not on machines. In 1991, a similar exhibition was held at the Commonwealth Institute in London. A smaller exhibition was organized at Cambridge, which was also a huge success. Several more exhibitions over the years ensured that kantha bedcovers adorned the intricately carved four-poster beds of expensive manors. In addition, kantha scarves became a fashion statement with English women. SHE’s foray into the U.S. market began with an exhibition of kantha fashion wear and home décor items at the Gandhi Centre in the U.S. capital. Exhibitions in New York, San Francisco, Colorado Springs, Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Chicago followed. Visitors to the exhibitions were awestruck by the exquisite craftsmanship on view. SHE has taken kantha to three exhibitions in Japan, the most important of them being the one organized by the World Quilters’ Magazine. At this highly sought-after exhibition, there were quilters from America, Australia, New Zealand, England, Korea and Japan. All quilts, other than the kantha ones from India, were created from computerized designs, with patches machined on the textiles. Kantha has the unique distinction of being the only hand embroidered quilting tradition in the world today. This is a matter of great pride for India. Exhibitions in Australia have also been highly appreciated. Participation in the Annual Market organized by the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 2005 has ensured that the kantha work done by SHE artisans gets wide exposure to tourists from various parts of the world holidaying in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

On an invitation from the U.S. Consul General in Kolkata, in 2012, SHE set up a special kantha stall for the visiting U.S. Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton, and her team at the Hotel Taj Bengal, Kolkata. In 2011, Shamlu Dudeja conceptualized an ingenious way to celebrate the 150th Birth Anniversary of the Bard of Bengal, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. She challenged the village women tom embroider motifs from Tagore’s short stories, poems, and dramas using their creative imagination.

Panels of tussar silk lined with old cotton muslin became their canvases, their needles were their brushes and the skeins of thread became the color palette. Their stitch portraitures of Tagore’s classics were reinforced with a cotton layer for added strength. The result was an innovative, colorful and unique exposition of creative talent. The finished panels of “Tagore in Kantha” blazed a new trail and took their pride of place in the highest echelons of Stitch Art. The panels were again exhibited at the Centenary Celebrations of Gurudev receiving the telegram informing him about the Nobel Prize, organized by Visva Bharati University. The panels are now part of a permanent exhibition at the University.

In 2012, the kantha artisans of SHE celebrated Durga Utsav in the most elegant manner. The goddess, in her various forms, was portrayed through exquisite Kanthar kaaj. During the 150th Birth Anniversary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda in 2013, SHE artisans crafted panels with Swamiji’s life as the theme, once again under Shamlu Dudeja’s guidance. Kantha portraiture of Vivekananda, the journey of his life from Narendranath to Vivekananda his pilgrimages and his interactions with Thakur Ramakrishna have been skillfully executed in kantha stitch work. A brilliant stitch portrait of Kanyakumari and a double bedcover-sized panel with scenes from Vivekananda’s life in Kanthar kaaj have heirloom quality. The Ramakrishna Mission for their celebrations of the event also used a large stitch portrait.

In 2014, Shamlu Dudeja displayed “Kantha as Stitch Art” at the Art Gallery of the Indian International Centre Annexe, New Delhi. The themes of the panels were varied and included village scenes including a Biye Bari (a traditional Bengali wedding), tribal dances and a village mela (fair). Jungle scenes with the shikari (hunter) and a variety of animals and episodes from the Indian epics and mythological tales were also a part of the panels on display. The Chief Guest, Mrs. Gursharan Kaur, wife of the then Indian Prime Minister, who inaugurated the exhibition, congratulated Shamlu Dudeja for encouraging SHE artisans to produce such wonderful work. Dominique and Hubert Boukris have been instrumental in organizing exhibitions every year in Montmorency, Paris, and Gordes in the south of France and Marseilles, since 2005. French aficionados actually feel the fourth dimension of Kantha.

SHE regularly organizes Health Camps and Eye Camps for the women artisans and their families. Nutritional drinks, vitamin supplements, and medicines are provided regularly to the SHE community members. Spectacles and crutches have been provided and surgical procedures like hernia and hysterectomy operations are organized for in city hospitals. Distribution of basic requirements like clothes, blankets, steel utensils, pressure cookers and solar lights are done regularly. SHE also provides loans for home extensions and for the higher education and vocational training of the children of the artisans. Most of the homes have been provided with water purifiers and many children have received basic computers from the Foundation. Kantha is now recognized as a top fashion statement with a social cause: the empowerment of women and providing them with womanpower or Stree Shakti to fight against the many obstacles in their lives. Economic independence leads to empowerment and the women can now raise their voices against wife abuse, prevent child marriages and ensure their children’s education.


Kantha to-date remains priceless as much in its ethnicity and traditional appeal as in its contemporary allure. Wherever in the world, kantha has been, the admiration for the Stitch Art has been overwhelming and unanimous. Commemorating the 30 years of kantha revival, SHE organized a spectacular event at the ITC Sonar, on 3rd October 2016. Shamlu’s daughter, Malika Varma, organized the evening, full of glitz and glamour – with eminent personalities from the city, applauding every sequence –. Chief Patron of SHE, the former Governor of West Bengal, Shri M K Narayanan, was the Chief Guest. Mrs. Padmini Narayanan, Mr. Atul Bhalla, and several other eminent personalities were invited as Special Guests. The event started with Mrs. Padmini Narayanan felicitating the eight Kantha Team Leaders of Malika’s Kantha Collection, who have been associated with the organization for more than a couple of decades. This was followed by the most enticing fashion show. The models walked the ramp in fashionable kantha creations: Western style outfits, stunning sequences with black, cream and brightly colored outfits. The show ended with Friends of kantha walking the ramp and extending their support to Shamlu Dudeja in her revival journey of Kantha.

As always, the message to the audiences was “Each One, Reach One”, to promote this beautiful rural Stitch Art and make it popular with the younger generation.

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