Feature: a Kantha Entrepreneur

Tanuja Somani
Tanuja Somani

 Give us a brief introduction to your background and how you got involved with the kantha industry.

I am an Economics graduate from Gauhati University, being topper in the subject in 1978. Was doing my MA but could not complete it as exams were not held due to Assam agitation. Meanwhile got married in 1981 in a business family and was a complete home maker. With my husband's support in 1993, I undertook a six weeks Entrepreneurs Development Programme (EDP), a training programme for women, sponsored by the government. It was there that I came to know about Kantha work and also about a national award winner from Nanoor village whose daughter was doing the EDP course with me. Then I knew how work can be done from home without disturbing the family. This is how it all started.

What role do you play in this industry?

In 1993 after completing the EDP course I started my business in Bolpur. Since then till 2007 I played a major role as I used to give raw material, thread, design and colour combination to girls mainly in Nanoor village where most of my work was done. I also marketed the finished goods in cities. I maintained a good stock in season time, that is winter. Giving job opportunity to village girls gave me great satisfaction. Moreover I paid the girls properly and timely so they liked to work for me.

We often hear that the kantha work is mostly done by women. Is this true? Why so?

Kantha work, that is the embroidery part is mainly done by women. When I started business there were a few manufacturers who used to give work to village women. But soon it was seen that as business grew men in the family joined the women. They started doing tracing and designing part. Soon some enterprising ones started raw material and thread business. Some started doing fairs in cities and thus did the direct selling. Men were indirectly associated in business. So gradually, there was progress in the entire village due to Kantha business.

What is the background and training of these women?

These women have not taken any formal training. They mostly learn the work from seniors within the house and continue it.

What are the key challenges you face in your work? How do you address them?

I faced one major challenge and it was in 1993 when I just started business. I visited the village and gave four sarees for embroidery to four girls. Unfortunately three of my sarees were damaged. One was stained, one eaten by a rat and in one there were innumerable holes perhaps insects had made it. I was sad and thought what to do, did not want to give up but how to continue? Then I chose an honest, hardworking girl named Tajkira Begum in Nanoor village. I asked her not to do stitching herself but to manage my sarees for which I would pay Rs.100/- per saree. She did the work well and was happy having a centre every Sunday and Wednesday in her house. I too was glad that we together could manufacture good quality goods and within time also. I could rely on her and within two years we had from 4 to 380 girls working in Nanoor and nearby villages. There were some other minor challenges from time to time which made business interesting and were overcome easily. 

How is the market for kantha embroidered products? Where do you see the future of this industry?

The market for good embroidery work on good quality raw material was always there and shall always remain as people are ready to pay for quality. The last two years of this industry was excellent. Any type of material and all kind of work was sold. The manufactures thought everything will be sold but it was not so in 2015. Customers have started looking for something new and different and they give priority to quality. Kantha is a cottage industry and it should not be made large scale by ignoring quality and increasing quantity. If this is done the industry will suffer.

Any advice you want to give women who wish to be entrepreneurs in this industry?

I would simply advice women to go slow ... do neat work on good material. This is the only way to have good market of their work. Besides, they should personally visit fairs in cities to get good price. Government is greatly helping girls by giving subsidised loans and opportunities to visit fairs.
Since 2007, I am not a manufacturer as the villagers have enough to produce goods. I just do trading and help them in selling their products. This has reduced botheration and risk and am thus continuing business and still have link with the villagers.
Today Tajkira Begum is a manufacturer and does large business. She has lots of land in the village, her daughter is MA in English and son-in-law an engineer earning 10 lakhs annually. She does fairs, people visit her house for goods and she has received many awards. She says I never thought I would earn so much. The best part is that she still has great respect for me and is more than a sister to me.

Tanuja Somani is based in Bolpur, West Bengal and can be reached at  tanuja.somani59@gmail.com

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