Stitch By Stitch
The efforts of the women associated with the nakshi kantha industry have broughtht aboutb a revolution in rural Bangladesh.
The nakshi kantha industry has brought about a quiet revolution in the lives of women in rural Bangladesh.
Kantha stitching is an age-old traditional craft which originated in rural Bengal and developed as a cottage industry over the decades. The possibilities of value addition in stitched and unstitched apparel through kantha embroidery are very high. The rich and exquisite kantha hand embroidery is highly appreciated in international markets. The popularity of kantha across Bangladesh, and now abroad too, as a fashion statement has a very humble beginning, like many other Bengali crafts. In Bengali, kantha literally means a quilt. Bengali women made quilts from old saris, folding them into layers and using itinerant running stitches with threads picked from the sari’s borders.
It is warm as a wrap and soft for babies too. In the past, women made kantha quilts by recycling old saris and dhotis (men’s wraparounds) and stitching several layers of cloth together with a running stitch to make a simple throw or quilt. Modern-day
kantha embroidery is done mostly on new pieces of cotton and silk cloth and threads. Rural women give free rein to their imagination and come up with colorful designs. It can be the flowers they see, the pond they go to bathe in or the conch shell they blow in the evening. From an ordinary stitch, kantha has morphed into the beautiful
nakshi kantha, a connoisseur’s delight. But there is a lot more to nakshi
kantha than mere aesthetic appeal. Over the past few decades, there has been a quiet revolution afoot in Bangladesh – a women's revolution. While in many corners of the world traditional crafts like nakshi kantha are becoming rare, women in Bangladesh have taken a lead. With nimble fingers and with needles and threads, they have utilized their craft to benefit their household and, ultimately, their communities.
These women are entrepreneurs with enough financial stability to sustain their handicraft businesses. They meet every day, chat and sew – some of them have been doing it for almost twenty years, may be more. Women like Halima from Jamaplur – the center of nakshi kantha in the country – work at a small-scale homeoperated kantha factory, and have paid for their children’s education. Halima has two sons and a daughter, both of them university-educated. It's not a minor achievement given that her father was an impoverished farmer and her mother a housewife who, like many in Jamalpur, knew the ancient art of the stitch. That was a time when sewing was used only for making small objects for the house – to decorate a cushion or a picture frame.
Halima and the other women speak their own language: of pata kati, anas and seem, borat and sheer – some of the many styles of stitching that go into a blanket or a bed sheet. The designs are first imagined and drawn, then marked upon the cloth with powder. Sometimes, the women receive design requests. According to Halima, an embroidered bed sheet might take two women a month to complete if they work eight hours a day. Her endeavors have taken her as far as Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi. She was chosen to participate in a SAARC Business Association of Home-Based Workers’ Idea-Sharing tour as one of the 130 Bangladeshi workers. It was an experience she never expected and one she will never forget.
One of the largest embroidery showrooms in Jamalpur is known as Karu Polli Handicrafts, the brainchild of Nazma Rashid. From being a housewife prior to 1995, Nazma has become one of the pioneers of the nakshi kantha industry. Her husband, Mohammad Harun-ur-Rashid, a government employee, was initially skeptical of his wife's success. He thought that with his steady income there was no need for her to take on extra duties and that she would hardly have the time to do it since she had the responsibility of running the household. Besides, Jamalpur is a traditional district, one of the poorest in Bangladesh, and working was simply not the sort of thing Muslim women did. Such views were common at the time.
Nonetheless, Nazma participated in the training courses offered by several NGOs, most notably by the Ayesha Abed Foundation and the Small and Medium Enterprise Foundation, covering different aspects of the business from fine sewing skills to marketing to accounts and quality control. By 1998, she had registered Karu Polli with the Department of Women Affairs and in 2002 a second registration with the Department of Social Welfare was achieved. She mentions the efforts of the governor of Bangladesh Bank, the Jamalpurborn Atiqur Rahman, in liaising with local banks to free up loan availability needed for expansion of the kantha industry.
From an initial 'showroom' that consisted of a room in her small house featuring a sofa and sewing products,
Nazma's business has never looked back. In 2003 Karu Polli moved into its current custom-built showroom where a range of products beyond
nakshi kanthas including bed covers, saris, three and one piece suits, tops, dresses, Punjabis, fotu as, bags and wall mats are sold. Karu Polli features the work of 1900 artisans from at least five villages, employs a staff of six in addition to those involved in tracing and printing, which these days is done both by hand and using the more exact computerized 'skin print.'
Now Nazma spends most of her time in helping other women, particularly with the administrative skills she has acquired, such as how to apply for a bank loan or how to register a business. Nazma says she has enjoyed witnessing the changes in her area. She said that when she first went to the Defulibari village nearby, the women used to say they needed sugar or flour. Now they speak of needing new furniture or jewellery. Most mud thatch houses have been replaced by tin and they have sanitary latrines.
Nazma believes that when a woman can earn money and help her family, she gains confidence. This is why she says there isn't a village without sewing businesses run by women. Their husbands, she adds, are extremely proud of them. The women have their sights set on exports. There is currently no easy way to market products or develop export sales, and middlemen from Sylhet or Dhaka with better access to the capital, often buy in bulk both for the broader domestic market and for exports. One facility that could be of benefit, especially for larger businesses, would bbe the training of how to organize and manage internet sales; another would be to establish a
nakshi polli or a nakshi 'village' as a centralized space where all women entrepreneurs, large and small, could showcase their products. It is thought that the convenience of a nakshi polli would be attractive to international buyers.
It is the efforts of these women that have brought about a quiet revolution in rural Bangladesh. Indeed, the nakshi kantha industry has put many Bengali women at the forefront of household and community development.