Kantha embroidery is a popular handicraft from Bolpur, a region in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. It is a traditional art form practised by the rural women in this region. Over the years, these hand-embroidered patterns have gained wide popularity in adorning sarees, kurtas, dupattas and even furnishings such as bedcovers, quilts and cushions.
Entire villages of women, mostly illiterate and without any formal training are involved in stitching the embroidered patterns. They usually work under the supervision of entrepreneurs -- educated women who oversee the entire production and liaise with the various stakeholders in the supply chain. Here we list the series of steps involved in the creation of a lovely kantha-embroidered saree.
- Raw materials: Sarees with kantha embroidery are typically made of pure silk, tussar silk or cotton. Sometimes, to bring costs down, synthetic fabrics are also used. The fabric and the threads for embroidery are procured in bulk by the entrepreneurs from wholesale markets.
- Designing: Traditional, commonly used patterns are usually designed by the rural craftswomen themselves. Skilled designers, trained at the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan come with a deeper understanding of fabrics, textures and market trends and can create innovative patterns involving fusion of the modern with the traditional.
- Embroidery: Kantha embroidery is done at home by the craftswomen of the villages, usually in the afternoons, after completing other domestic chores. It is a skill that they learn from the older women in the family, just like any other household task. The entire saree is embroidered by a single woman, to avoid any differences in individual stitching styles to creep into the pattern. Each saree can take weeks, or even months to finish, depending on the intricacy of the pattern and the time that she is able to devote to it.
- Sample making: Fashion designers and saree emporium owners encourage innovation in designs to keep up with market needs. Before any new design is finalized, the craftswomen need to demonstrate their skills by making a small sample of the design to gain approval from the entrepreneurs and designers.
- Quality control: Periodic visits by the entrepreneur are made to the craftswomen’s homes to check the progress, both for quality and timeliness. Once finished, the saree is checked thoroughly to identify and rectify areas where the stitches may be unfinished or defective. Poor living conditions in these houses often cause stains and damages by pests that need to be checked for. If a saree is found to be unusable, it is often cut up into various shapes and made into smaller items such as bags, blouses, etc.
- Finishing: After the final check in the completeness and quality of the embroidery, the saree is washed, ironed and polished. It is now ready to be sold to saree emporiums, boutiques or sometimes, directly to customers.
- Merchandizing: Merchandizing involves identification of potential buyers, both domestic and foreign, establishing business networks and acquiring export licenses for the products. The entrepreneurs, facilitated by government agencies undertake this activity.
- Marketing: Marketing of the kantha embroidered sarees on a small scale is done directly by the craftswomen and entrepreneurs to local shops in Santiniketan, which is a popular tourist destination. Poush Mela, the famous annual fair and festival of Santiniketan attracts tens of thousands of tourists to these markets every year during the month of January. Large scale selling is done through business networks established by the entrepreneurs with wholesale retailers, saree emporiums and fashion boutiques located in the large metros across India.
The hand-embroidered kantha sarees of Bolpur are regarded as high-valued, prized possessions, yet the craftswomen who make these sarees are very poor and often exploited in the process. Efforts by the state government and NGOs have created self-help-groups that provide training, credit and support to these craftswomen. It is hoped that these efforts will enhance the creativity and production efficiency of the craftswomen and enable them to move up the economic ladder.
Roy, Paramita and Sattwick Dey Biswas (2011). Opportunities and Constraints of the Kantha-stitch craftswomen in Santiniketan: a value chain analysis. Journal of Social Work and Social Development (ISSN 2229-6468). pp. 5-9.