Art Revival Brings Profit
A thread. A needle. Some cloth. A bit of organization. That's all it really takes.
In the northern Bihar villages of Bhusura, India, more than 600 rural
impoverished women now earn as much as 1,000 rupees (about $23)
monthly, having mastered the traditional craft of embroidering quilts or kanthas.
In the 18th Century colorful kanthas were often used as gifts for festive occasions,
but the craft of making them died out until it was revived by Adithi, a nonprofit
group seeking to help poverty-stricken women.
Working with a local group organized by a social worker, Adithi runs a training
program to teach local women how to make the kanthas and helps them market
them in Delhi and Mumbai boutiques.
These kanthas quilts serve a purpose beyond providing a source of income. They
also serve as a medium through which women can express their social and political
concerns. In a culture that often the contribution that women can make, this
opportunity to have some independence and create what they call "art of the mind"
is much appreciated by these formerly sheltered women.
After a 15-day training session with the group's designers, three experienced
craftswomen from the Bhusura villages, the women are ready to go into production.
After the designers explain the stories to be illustrated on the quilts--which
sometimes look like giant comic strips--the workers then choose the colors they
wish to work with and, in groups of three or four, concentrate on embroidering
small areas of the quilt.
The quilt designs deal with a range of issues reflecting social change struggle, from
dowries to female infanticide, local elections to the spread of AIDS. Despite the
serious nature of some of the designs, the large quilts themselves are vibrant with
color and meticulously embroidered.
Adithi says such employment is considered "appropriate" by fathers, husbands and
in-laws because it does not take their women outside the private, domestic sphere.
And, according to one woman, "There is now less fighting between husband and
wife." She explained that previously women rarely left their homes and "men and
women didn't interact at all." Now, she said, because of the work they do, women,
have to move around more. "Women speak to men, and nobody thinks ill of this."
Another young woman stressed the independence she has achieved because of the
quilt project. "I have my own money," she said. "I can buy what I want without
asking anyone's permission."
One of the group's first members, Nirmala Devi, remembers the early stages more
than 10 years ago, when this project was hardly taken seriously. "Our neighbors
mocked us, and then when little money began coming in, people took notice. . . .
Then word spread."
Despite the apparent success of the project for these rural women, on both an
economic and social level, there is no regular or fixed income given to them. Adithi
is able to give the women disposable income only after it has sold their products for
profit. Because of the sometimes political nature of the quilts, there is no guarantee
The women do, however, receive orders for scarves and cushion covers from big
city boutiques, but they scoff at requests for "ethnic" designs because they regard
such work as dull.
Other activities sponsored by Adithi and the local group in Bihar include a dairy
cooperative and a fishery where women of low caste are now able to work.
"The Narrative Thread: Contemporary Women's Embroidery from Rural India," a
display of quilts from the project promoting women's employment and sustainable
development, is at the Asia Society, Park Avenue at 70th St., through August 9.