In 2015, Burberry used Kantha in a collection titled ‘Patchwork, Pattern and Prints’. Thanks to revivalists like Shamlu Dudeja, kantha – over the years – has found immense global recognition, and designers have started using the technique for their collections. Designers Anavila Mishra, Sharbari Dutta, Tarun Tahiliani, Abraham & Thakore and many others have, over the years, used kantha in their collections and they credit the versatility of the technique for its widespread use. But kantha work is very time-consuming owing to its intricacies, which adds to its cost which, to a greater extent, still keeps the technique a niche. From sarees, clothing, jackets, to home décor – kantha has multiple possibilities which is why the London-based Indian design studio Tiipoi, just a few years back, launched an exclusive kantha collection seeing the viability of the technique.
Reluctance to experiment
Deepshika Ghosh, a young entrepreneur running Hijibiji, her own handicrafts and handloom manufacturing and retail set-up in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, informs that kantha today is no more just a boutique concept, but many brands are exploring this technique too. Having said that, the market is still pocketed and unorganized, she says.
“Kantha work takes days and months depending on the length of the fabric or the intricacies and colours we want to bring to life. Majorly, there are agents who service an area and distribute a certain amount of kantha work to say 100-200 ladies of that area. For us, to circulate our work through these clusters independently is a humongous task and we have to depend on the agents. Given the pandemic, cash flow on our business side got stopped, which in turn restricted us from paying the agents and much of the work went on hold. Kantha industry is by itself very cash intensive and we make profit on volumes. So, on the other hand, we could rely on export or domestic bulk demands and our stocks also get piled. We always keep extra stock keeping the delayed timeline of making a product in mind. So all in all, it was a vicious loop of negligible orders and lower payments,” Deepshika informs.
She also mentions that even though she or many like her and the designers recently are trying to bring about a change in the avatar of kantha with new designs or apparel styles, the artisans on their own are not too keen on experimentations. Again, money plays a big role here and only when sale is a surety or advance payment is assured, do they try to do something new.
Market on hold
For the kantha artisans who are now retailing on their own apart from supplying to retailers, tourist influx to Bengal, especially Shantiniketan is their best source of income. The local ‘Haats’ in Shantiniketan is a big tourist attraction and then there are Holi and winter melas, which are a grand celebration of sorts. “This year, there was no Holi utsav the way it has been celebrated for decades since Rabindranath Tagore’s initiation of the festival. This stopped tourists from flocking into Shantiniketan. Then owing to the rising number of COVID-19 cases, our ‘Haats’ were put to a halt. We were hopeful that Durga Puja will be a good time for business, but unfortunately, High Court had put a directive stopping all gatherings for the 5 days of Puja. The roads have been blocked and we did not see any sale happening. This has been a big loss for us and we have lost out completely on the seasonal market,” Tumpa Khatun, Owner, Tumpa Handicrafts, informs.
To survive amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Tumpa has been reaching out to her patrons through social media and selling her stock to the interested parties virtually. Fighting many technological challenges, she knows that this is the only way to keep the business running.
“Right from the beginning, I have always worked with extended deadlines, as I know it is very impractical to rely on these womenfolk when it comes to delivering work within stringent time; they have to manage their homes and get the stitching done. An elaborate kantha work requires almost 7 months to a year to get completed. And then owing to the conditions that these people dwell in, I had always taken their social situations in mind when assigning work. Practicing kantha takes up a few hours of their day and most of them also work with their men folk on the farms,” mentions Kantha revivalist Shamlu Dudeja.
Over 30 years ago, Shamlu’s daughter, Malika (now Malika Varma) and she started Malika’s Kantha Collection and Self Help Enterprise. Malika introduced tailored garments from kantha textiles when she was in college and worked to spread this work with her mother for nearly 15 years. After a period away, she has now fully taken over the kantha activities of both the enterprises. Malika’s Kantha Collection has nearly 1,000 artisans working with the mother-daughter duo.
Malika had three exhibitions planned out when this pandemic hit the world. Huge stocks of kantha had been set aside for these exhibitions. Then suddenly, a full stop… no exhibitions and no sales from our studio! When after a couple of months, there were still no signs of activities returning to normal, she decided to take this head on. The work of the rural artisans was largely at stake. We had all been constantly in touch with the team leaders, assuring them that we were doing our best to keep the wheel turning. Malika started an online store on 18 May 2020. This has worked like a magic wand! People from all over the world, (who may not have been familiar with kantha) have appreciated our work and supported us through this tough period. Many a time, the beautiful pieces had been photographed at home using a simple phone. People have appreciated the simplicity and the home-grown look and have gone out of their way to lend support. From day one, due to the working courier services, we have been able to deliver the hand work of the artisans all over. Within a short period of time, the stocks started easing out giving us scope to continue work.
We have been able to reach clients all over India, as well as in different parts of the world. The festivities have led to a considerable amount of sales and orders. Our clients have been patient and very supportive of our simple (and sometimes not so efficient) online sites! Our partners, SHE France, in Paris have fortunately been able to hold smaller sales during this pandemic and have also helped us greatly. Hopefully, 2021 will allow regular exhibitions and sales all over the world,” Shamlu further gives us a glimpse into the state of kantha.
Kantha is a part of the rich, cultural heritage of Bengal and people are making an effort to keep this alive. Shamlu is certain that Kantha markets will expand internationally and the future of Kantha will be bright. As time goes by, more and more people will come to know about the significance of our kantha project: empowerment of rural artisans and the revival of this art form.