Listen to this music
and visualize a mild winter afternoon in the rural outskirts of Kolkata, the humble turf of Bangabhoomi’s signature craft Kantha: a few birds are moving around happily in a bush; a koel’s solo refrain kuhu-kuhu-kuhu beckons its elusive partner. Sparrows are chirping in the background and a few seven-sisters are tweeting in unison. Timid pigeons are hobbling on the ground, pecking for worms and jerking their tiny heads right and left to catch the sound of any approaching footsteps. Four or five women are sitting in the backyard of a mud hut, under a Krishnachura tree, 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 stitches so fine and so precise that the reverse of their Kanthar kaaj is as neat as is the obverse.
Interestingly,the kantha stitch is the fundamental form of sewing used by the tailor bird to put together its nest of leaves and twigs
“Kantha is perhaps the most creative of all embroidery styles in Eastern India, and is an indigenous household craft practised by rural women in Bengal. The origin of Kantha can be traced back to more than 1000 years, and some of its images go back to the pre and post Vedic periods. Some motifs such as the ‘tree of life’, the ‘swirling cosmos’, and the ‘sun’ are taken from primitive art. Kantha is used for religious ceremonies and pujas and this has invested Kantha with additional significance. Kantha patterns are simple, but can be very intricate as well. The real value of Kantha embroidery, however, lies in its fine craftsmanship. Over the years, Kantha lost much of its sheen and almost became a dying art. It is only towards the end of the 20th Century that an attempt at revival of Kantha art was seen. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Kantha revivalists, many of whom devoted their entire life to keeping it alive.” M K Naraynan the governor of West Bengal
Global appreciation for the rustic beauty of Kantha grew, which encouraged the rural women to retain the Kantha culture, which has been there for centuries. This revival has helped empower the rural artisans, and their sense of self-worth and pride has grown. The dedication and devotion of rural women gives Kantha a 4th dimension, which attract buyers to look for more.
A great deal of the credit for breathing life into this signature craft goes to SHE (Self Help Enterprise) – a Non-Profit Foundation launched by the most dynamic and indefatigable patron of Kantha art, Smit. Shamlu Dudeja. SHE has been in existence for more than 25 years, but within this short period has succeeded in giving a tremendous
impetus to this craft form. The result of its efforts has been to make many rural Kantha craftswomen worthy successors of an ancient tradition.SHE has succeeded in not only helping to revive the glory of this ancient craft, but has in the process empowered many women in rural areas of Bengal by providing them with succor of every kind. SHE has worked with many rural artisans, trained them, encouraged them to develop their creativity, and provided them with a new dimension so as to make their products more attractive, thus leading to much wider clientele.
The process of producing exquisite Kantha involves few steps: the first is the selection of fabric and dyeing of this fabric by a dyer, these are handled by the SHE office team.Several different designs are collected by the team leader from the rural artist. A design, the placement of the motifs on the textile, and the colours of skeins for Kanthaarkaaj (which go well with the dyed fabric) are selected by the SHE office team (in the SHE studio), in conjunction with the team leader. The team leader goes back to her village, transfers the design on to the textile, and gives it to a Kantha artisan, with the selected colours of skeins. The fabric is ready for the artisan to begin her work. Sometimes, 2 or 3 artisans work on the same textile, together.The fabrics, when complete, are checked by the Team Leader for any loose threads.Transfer (or free hand drawing) of the selected design on to the fabric is done by an artist from each group. The ready pieces are then brought to the SHE studio, and the SHE team goes through quality check and finishing, before putting it on the shelf, for selling.
The reformation and newness in design is the constant effort to create a sustainable fashion. The upcoming designers are inspired by aesthetic aspect of Kantha and are working towards creating a socially responsible fashion.
Self Help Enterprise (SHE) was launched, with the intention of bringing more and more rural women into the (reinvented) kantha fold. What was a chat hour activity, soon became ‘dwar pe rozi’ … an income generating opportunity for women with a little free-time, sitting right at their door steps. This organisation launched team leaders into Bengali villages, to train women in the finer points of kantha embroidery. At first, SHE was an informal initiative; it was later formalized and registered with the West-Bengal Government as the Self Help Enterprise Trust.
Shamlu, a name now synonymous with Kantha, a beloved traditional craft, a tangible cultural heritage of Bengal.
Shamlu Dudeja SHE’s founder is a multi-faceted personality – a mother, a Maths teacher and author of books, a revivalist, a revolutionary in the field of ‘good for others’. Shamlu’s most significant contributions to society have been from the revival of Kantha, with the support of her daughter, Malika to publication of several series of Maths text books for India and Pakistan and of course her welfare work, in many fields, as Chairperson of Calcutta Foundation has also been highly appreciated.
Smt. Shamlu Dudeja’s efforts have come in for a great deal of praise from several quarters, including former President of India, Smt. Pratibha Patil, and former US Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton. Successive Governors of West Bengal have admired and commended Shamlu Dudeja’s creativity and dynamism.
Fiercely loyal to the region’s iconic motifs, ‘jobas’ (hibiscus), deities like Durga, Kali, Saraswati or Laxmi and their
‘vahanas’ or scenes from the epics such as ‘Nauka Vihar’ and ‘Sita Haran’, Shamlu has initiated her artisans into
including geometrical patterns into the Kantha repertoire.
Kantha runs in every young girl’s blood in rural Bengal. She has instinctive quilting talent and artistry, inherited from her mother or grandmother. ’s focus was to nurture this talent and revive the Kantha culture in every home.SHE has also enabled many Kantha artists to visit different parts of the country, as also other countries, thus widening their horizons as also popularizing Kantha. Self Help Enterprise gave shape to the scattered Kantha community. SHE’s object was to train women in making a living from this and to support them in any manner that was required. Generally, the object was to work for the upliftment of Kantha artisans.
Efficient and hardworking team leaders, who have now been elevated to a middle class standard of living, have been able to educate their children well. A few women have been taken to Santa Fe, to demonstrate the stitch-painting of Bengal, at the annual Market organised by the Museum of International Folk Art.
They do not need to be ‘led’ any more. It is hoped, that with passing of time, each of these groups “led by a team leader from their own society”, will be able to reach national and international markets themselves, and grow every day, spreading the message of women’s empowerment.
Our motto: Each one reach one” every purchase of Kantha empowers a women of rural Bengal. Saree, Dupatta, Stole, Jacket, Tunic.
In 2011, Shamlu conceptualized an ingenious way to celebrate 150th birth anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. With the help of a few illustrations from Tagore’s books for children, stunning panels with scenes from his writings (such as Sahaj Paath, Chitrangada and Kabuliwallah) were crafted by a group of SHE worker. A very special piece was the bust of Gurudev in a double bed-cover sized panel. The look in his eyes was stunning. Shri M.K. Narayanan (SHE’s Chief Patron), Governor of West Bengal supported this project, and SHE had a very elaborate show in the grounds of the Raj Bhavan.
The women are happy to utilize their spare time to craft Kantha textiles, without wasting time and money on commuting to work. Members of their families and neighbors started respecting them, and supported their efforts. As the global appreciation of the rustic beauty of Kantha grew, the sense of self worth and pride amongst these artisans grew, too, as the decorative stitch was elevated to the level of StitchArt. The dedication and devotion of artisans gives a fourth dimension to the kantha textiles which is often felt by the buyers. They realized the significance of Kantha panels hanging in the Raj Bhavan, Kolkata. Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the then First Lady of White House, appreciated their handwork, and this was a major feather in their caps.
The goods produced by SHE artisans were marketed in India and abroad, by: “Malika’s Kantha Collection and Trading Private Limited”. After paying for the daily expenses, the surplus moneys is transferred to “SHE Foundation”
SHE is gradually spreading it wings to other parts of the world too. Dominique and Hubert Boukris have been instrumental in organizing exhibitions every year in Montmorency, Paris, Gordes in the south of France and Marseilles, since 2005. They have formed SHE France to extend their support to the Kantha artisans of West Bengal.
SHE recently celebrated their 30th anniversary, Peacocks in the Rain wishes them more more years of success and creating beautifully handcrafted textiles and art.
You can also reach them at :
Malika’s Kantha Collection
4/1, Alipore Park Road
Kolkata 700 027
Tel: +91 033 24797852 /24799002
And as they say “BUY A KANTHA TEXTILE AND EMPOWER A DAUGHTER OF BENGAL”