As a girl of nine, Shamlu Dudeja remembers embroidering paisleys on tea pot covers under the tutelage of a Bengali crafts teacher in Delhi. Little did she realise then that this running-stitch needlework, or kantha as it is popularly known in West Bengal, would become her weapon for empowering women.
Women in Bengal have been running stitches along layers of old clothes to churn out 'leps' or quilts and duvets for use during winters for almost six decades now. This traditional household chore has always adhered to what has now become the modern mantra of "recycle and reuse". Unfortunately, kantha remained confined within rural households until Dudeja brought about its revival in the 1980s, providing gainful employment to over 800 women in four districts of West Bengal. "I moved to Kolkata as a young bride in 1962, but it was only in the 1980s that I got interested in kantha. My career as a Mathematics teacher came to an end when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While recovering from my operation, I developed an interest in kantha, having seen some old work at the Crafts Council showroom on Theatre Road in Kolkata," explains Dudeja.
The traditional kantha was always done on two to four layers of mostly old cotton cloth and the designs were rural and folksy, usually depicting the lives of the villagers, village women at work, ducks and ponds, palm trees and fields, cattle, harvesting, and so on. Scenes from epics such as the 'Mahabharata' and 'Ramayana' also figured prominently in the work.
However, Dudeja, along with artist Sreelata Sarkar, decided to introduce the stitch on saris, salwar suits and even western wear. Dudeja's first team of workers comprised four women from Shantiniketan in Birbhum district. These women were already doing kantha on small pieces of layered cloth as decorative items and selling them to tourists and visitors. "They had been doing kantha at home for almost 25 years. They had the...