“Running Stitch” is an undergraduate research project funded by the Richter Research Abroad program at Occidental College.
In the photo essay, “Running Stitch,” I am seeking to create and proliferate discussion about ideologies that motivate and dictate women empowerment organizations in West Bengal, India. With a focus on the embroidery of Kantha, the audiovisual essay analyzes the craft’s core elements, the NGOs that have begun to revive them, and the effects of their practices.
Once created in the privacy of Bengali homes, traditional Kantha quilts represent a history of gift giving, personal expression, and religious interpretation. Traditionally, they are multilayered quilts in which old saris, rags, and clothes are used to sew designs and pictures in various forms of stitches. After the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971), the quilts were commodified by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) to provide women with a means of supporting themselves. So in this transformation to a commodity, much has been changed about what defines a Kantha. Depending on one’s source, it could be strictly a three layered Bengali quilt or a type of stitch used to embroider any form of textile imaginable.[i]
Much of the scholarly research on Kantha is linked to its traditional identity and less on an analytical correlation between the NGO and craft. The two leading texts on the subject of Kantha are Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal (2009) by Darielle Mason and The Art of Kantha Embroidery (1993) by Niaz Zaman. Zaman’s work is by far the most detailed about the role of NGOs, however, the book is now over twenty-five years old and much has changed in the role Kantha as illustrated by essays in Mason’s book.
Pika Ghosh, a scholar of Bengali craftwork and art, stated that “an ethnographic quest for traces of [kantha practices and use], as well as the significant changes arising from the newer initiatives spearheaded primarily by [NGOs] would certainly inflect and enrich this discussion, if not take it in entirely different directions.”[ii] Here in lies the core focus of “Running Stitch” as a photo essay and interactive database. In an effort to “enrich this discussion,” the photo essay examines the Kantha and its relation to the objectives of the NGO. We are presented with images and statements that express the ideologies and emotions tied with the craft. The viewer is then allowed to explore the database and eventually see how different each NGO is on their approach to empower women.
The database is made up of photo essays, pages on the each NGO, captions of images, and references for further information. The webpage begins with the assessment that the NGOs are incredibly different, yet they are tied together by this embroidery and the goal to empower women. This correlation between a specific craft and goal, amplifies the concept of Kantha being a symbol for rural development.
At its core the photo essays are broken into five parts. These essays represent what the NGOs have in common. The subjects’ statements seem to blur together and create a definition of Kantha, Bengali women, empowerment, and the NGO model. However, in reality, many of these organizations have different concepts of what makes a Kantha, and different ideas of how to make change in their state. The interactivity of the webpage, allows a viewer to see for his or herself the variation among the NGOs. For instance, the members of Jeevika Development Society firmly believe in bringing impoverished women out of their home for work, while the Self-Help Enterprise focuses strongly on the homeworker model for their embroiders. We also hear Ruby Palchoudhuri declare that Kantha can only be a multi-layered quilt, while many other organizations promote a Kantha as the running stitch design.
To enrich the discussion, it is necessary to garner attention to these concepts. It will be a crucial component of the “Running Stitch,” to allow comments and forum on these issues of impoverished women’s needs and possible solutions for their situations. One method of enacting this would be to link to a social media page of the same name, such as facebook, in which it could virtually interact and link with the NGOs’ mediated pages. Also, once the NGOs view and care to essay, the webpage can host their responses and points of view.
There is the possibility for the photo essays to take on new meaning once the NGOs are explored. I try to highlight the passion with which many of these NGOs and embroiders express when talking about their work and the Kantha. Each subject is trying to understand the situation of impoverished India themselves. They are exploring their options with both confidence and uncertainty. They are trying to unite their women and break oppressive societal norms. In all, they are all participating in the on-going conversation, linking a love for a craft with a new identity, and trying to revive the spirit of Kantha, one stitch at a time.
[i] Ruby Palchoudhuri, Interviewed by Author, Kolkata, India, August 10, 2012.
[ii] Ghosh, Pika. “From Rags to Riches: Valuing Kanthas in Bengali Households” In Kantha: the
Embroidered Quilts of Bengal, edited by Darielle Mason, 31-57. Philadelphia: Philadelphia
Museum of Art, in association with Yale University Press, 2009.