Sujni Kantha Embroidery of Bihar

Sujni Kantha Embroidery of Bihar

Rural women in the Muzaffarpur district of north Bihar now continue to embroider in the sujni kantha tradition, using a combination of a fine running stitch with the chain stitch. They produce furnishings such as bedspreads, wall hangings, cushion and bolster covers, as well as clothing items like saris, dupattas and kurtas.

Initially their designs depicted the daily rhythms of their own lives and their surroundings: trees, animals and birds. Increasingly, sujni designs are beginning to express social and political themes.

Marketing, quality control, distribution of materials and design are all concentrated in the hands of the craftswomen. They also take orders from boutiques in Delhi and Mumbai, in which case the design and materials are delineated by the buyer. Most buyers and consumers prefer the large sujni sheet; although this is often the most cumbersome to embroider, it allows the women to work side by side on a single piece, sharing ideas and each other's problems.

Most of the furnishing items are produced on a thick, cream-coloured markeen fabric. Occasionally brown or black casement is used. Coloured mull or handloom is used for saris, kurtas and dupattas, and tussar silk for stoles and jackets. The objective is to use locally available raw material as the base for any products developed.

The outline of the design is traced or drawn directly onto the cloth. Stories, compositions, and colour combinations are worked out by the women on their own. Sujni is very labour intensive in spite of being a simple form of embroidery with a limited stitch repertoire. A fine running stitch all over the sheet in the same colour as the base cloth prepares the background. Chain stitch (usually black, brown or red) is used for the main outlines of the motifs and the design is then filled in with tiny running stitches in coloured threads.

ADITHI, a voluntary agency based in Patna, the capital of Bihar, has done path-breaking work in the revival of sujni, and in providing a marketing conduit for the products. Adithi works through the Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti (MVSS), a small, autonomous society, based in Bhusura.

Many instances of craft revival stem from nostalgia for earlier aesthetics and lost skills. The Adithi projects are distinctive for their transformation of traditional crafts into a vehicle for expressing contemporary social and political concerns.

The stories depicted range from details of village life and the Hindu epics, to issues like female infanticide, election violence, and the education of girls. Scenes of domestic abuse are unprecedented in Indian embroidery as are lessons in health care, parables about the environment, and images of women struggling for their rights. This is especially interesting because it comes from Bihar, which has a large number of dowry cases and instances of female infanticide.

The sujni project was started as a means for assisting the many Rajput women who were living in poverty yet were prevented from working by social custom. Women could earn money while practising a craft that their fathers, husbands and in-laws would deem appropriate. Initially the project was greeted by scorn and scepticism from the villagers. Nirmala was one of the first women to join. She recalls: 'It began with five of us working. To keep it in good condition, we would plaster it with cow dung once a week. Our neighbours mocked us: "Is that the work you've found? Pays well, does it ?" Then when a little money began coming in (Rs 10 a day) people took notice...word spread...'

Today the number has grown to 600, drawing women from approximately 22 villages around Bhusura. Several make as much as a thousand rupees a month, while others embroider when they find the time, making Rs 300-400 a month. The project is no more restricted to Rajput women. The possibility of earning money and working flexible hours has attracted women from other communities as well. A few voices echo the changes caused by sujni work in the lives of women.

Before, women rarely left their homes, men and women did not interact at all. Now, because we work we move around much more. Women speak to men and nobody thinks ill of us...

How the men used to drink! And none of us could speak out about it. It's different now my husband listens to me. He actually started drinking less because I reasoned with him and made him see how it was harming all of us...

I have my own money. I can buy what I want without asking his permission...

Who cared about us village women in the old days? But now that we make these embroideries, people come all the way from America to see our work and speak with us...

Women usually prefer to take the cloth and threads from the MVSS centre to their homes and work as and how they get time from their domestic responsibilities. The smaller items are worked on individually. To make large bedspreads or quilts, three or four women work together on the piece, starting from different ends and moving towards the centre.

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