Distance from Kolkata: 158 km
Driving Time: 4 hours
Road Trip: 1 day
Weaving the tales most commonly heard in regular Bengali households, Nanoor, a Community Development Block in Bolpur subdivision of Birbhum, portrays where hard work and dedication can lead us. Kantha stitch, one of the oldest forms of embroidery, has found a new lease of life and a spike in demand on a national level – thanks to the talented and industrious women of Nanoor. For a rendezvous with the artists themselves, Team WHEELS drove down to Nanoor, around 158 km from Kolkata where the revival of the traditional art presents a unique success story of its own.
The art of the Kantha stitch has been passed down from mothers to daughters in Bengali households for centuries. In recent times, the realisation of this cultural heritage intertwined with entrepreneurship skills has brought a new dawn to the village of Nanoor. Even though Bolpur, Ilambazar, Labhpur and Mangalkot are also renowned for their traditional Kantha, it is Nanoor that is leading the way. Nearly 1365 all-women self-help groups, comprising of 13,120 members under the National Rural Livelihood Mission launched as Anandadhara in May 2012 are involved in the art of the Kantha stitch today. This has not only revived the art form but has also presented the artists with an alternate source of livelihood. It is important to note that Kantha embroidery is not the primary source of income for these women. Like most places in rural Bengal, the primary source of income for these women and their household is agriculture but they devote a significant amount of time daily to Kantha embroidery.
The most significant aspect of Kantha embroidery is the running stitch pattern that accentuates the various motifs. Earlier, layers of cloth were embroidered together to form the quilt which is still a common sight in Bengali households. Thread from old and discarded sarees and dhotis were used in the Kantha stitch. Today, Kantha stitch is done on everything from sarees, dupattas and ghagra-cholis to shirts, bedsheets and so on. A historical reference to Kantha can be found in a 500-year-old book called Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita written by Krishnadas Kaviraj. However, it was poet Jasimuddin’s Nakshi Kanthar Math (The Field of the Embroidered Quilt) published in the year 1928 that brought Kantha into the mainstream and made the term ‘Nakshi Katha’ famous.
Due to their aesthetic appeal, the embroidery products of Nanoor are a rage in markets across India. In the last four years artisans from Nanoor have represented their work all over India in various handicraft fairs and have won plaudits too. They are even planning to apply for a GI tag for Nanoor Kantha stitch.
To safeguard the art form and the artisans, and to bring in an entrepreneurial spirit, various workshops are conducted by Visva Bharati University, Khadi Gram Udyog and various non-governmental organisations on emerging design and marketing techniques. A two-storey building was constructed by the Nanoor Block Developmental Office a couple of years back where the self-help group ‘Kuliya Tantabay Samabaye Mahila Samiti’ led by Affunessa Begum works on Kantha stitch. Presently 650 artisans work under Affunessa Begum whose embroidery products fetch high values in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Lucknow and Bangalore markets.
The villages of Chandidas Nanoor, Kirnahar 1, Kirnahar 2, Daskalgram Kareya 1, Daskalgram Kareya 2, Garsaota, Jalundi, Thupsara, Noanagar Kodda, Uchkaran and Charkolgram in the Nanoor block are where Kantha stitch artisans and self-help groups are mostly concentrated. A self-help group consists of minimum ten members out of whom 70% of the artisans, as well as the president, secretary and treasurer, are from ‘below poverty line’ and 30% of the artisans are from ‘above poverty line’ background.
To survey how a self-help group works, Team WHEELS visited the ‘Motipur Colony Srishti Mahila Swanirvar Dal’ led by Saptami Mondal in Kirnahar, 9 km from the BDO Office in Nanoor. On our way to Kirnahar 1, we were guided by Keka Nayek, Woman Development Officer of Nanoor. The road connectivity between the villages in Nanoor is exquisite. Passing between paddy fields, the roadway presents an immaculate view of the horizon. Nanoor is quite a sizeable block with villages a few kilometres apart from each other and good road conditions help in improved access.
At Saptami Mondal’s residence, we were showcased a large portion of their embroidery work. The business runs by supplying to boutiques and retailers in Kolkata. Saptami Mondal has been in the business for close to 14 years now and has won accolades from Kolkata to Kashmir. She visits Kolkata once a month and works in close proximity with the boutiques and retailers of the city to bring in business on a monthly basis.
The Kantha embroidery process starts with the artisan making designs and printing them out on tracing paper. These tracing paper sheets are then perforated along the design lines with a needle and are kept on the dress materials which are to be embroidered. A small piece of cloth soaked in a powdered ink and kerosene is then run over the tracing paper which helps in imprinting the design from it on the fabric. Thread work is then carried out on these design lines. Later, the dress is drywashed to remove all design marks before being sold to the retailers.
The Kantha embroidery process utilised by the artisans at Nanoor are a revelation in itself. The emergence of the industry and the increase in demand of this product has rendered the embroidery process a robust touch. Variations of silk fabric are taken as the base cloth for Kantha embroidery: Tussar Silk, Bangalore Silk, Art Silk, Pure Silk and Murshidabad Silk are mostly chosen while Khadi and cotton cloths are also used at times. For the stitching process, Dolly, Rose and Anchor threads are utilised which renders a high quality finish to the products.
The stylistic features of a particular stitch pattern separate it from the others and give it its unique name. Madhubani, a famous stitch pattern, is easily recognised with its small intricate motifs that run the length of the cloth. The patterns include small animal, floral and folklore motifs that are designed aesthetically with a prominent border which is its characteristic feature.
The Jeeri Run stitch is famous for its floral motifs which are filled with thread work. The specialty of this pattern is its use of extensive thread work while leaving out white spaces in-between the motifs. Jeeri Run combines contrasting colours to great effect that adds depth to the design. Another famous stitch pattern, Nakshi Kantha, derives its name from the embroidered quilt. The Nakshi Kantha stitch is a continuous stitch work with mostly golden coloured thread that can be used along with other stitch patterns or on its own. When used with other stitch patterns, Nakshi Kantha is utilised as a space-filler between motifs.
Products and Prices
Sarees, stoles, kurtas, T-shirts, wrap-arounds, kurtis, dupattas shawls, and bed covers are some of the products that these artisans make.
An artisan works between 4-7 hours a day depending on the volume of household chores to be taken care of. It takes an artisan around 20-30 days on an average to stitch a saree or a shawl with heavy Kantha work.
The business part of a self-help group consists of making business connections with clients for a prolonged working relationship. This is usually handled by the group leader who is also responsible for the initial designs. The members, who are paid on a job basis, are responsible for the execution of those designs on a number of dresses, as per the deal.
The price depends on the fabric used, the threads and the time taken for the hand stitch. The prices for kurtas, T-shirts, kurtis and wrap-arounds range from Rs 400 to Rs 1000 whereas sarees and shawls start from Rs 900 and can go anywhere up to Rs 35,000. The artisans, however, receive only a small fraction of this amount.
Beyond Traditional Measures
Due to the support by the Block Development Office and the Anandadhara scheme, new life has been breathed into the artisans of Nanoor. From contemporary designs to marketing techniques, the artisans are learning how to adapt to the emerging trends of the world. Kantha stitch artisans are learning to use the internet to maximise their potential. Business deals are conducted over popular social networking forums and new-age designing softwares are utilised to etch out new designs before printing them on tracing paper. The rarity of this form of embroidery has brought numerous accolades to Nanoor Block. An impressive number of handicraft competitions in Kolkata and other parts of India are won by artisans from Nanoor. The increased interaction with the outside world has brought in a multitude of social changes and entrepreneurship is primary amongst them. Mrinal Kanti Biswas, BDO Nanoor, says, “It is the hard work of Alima Bibi who brought Nanoor and its artisans into the limelight. Alima Bibi is a Rashtrapati Award winning artisan who has helped other artisans from Nanoor get the recognition they deserve. The National Rural Livelihood Mission has also vastly helped the artisans. The Block Development Office is also continuously working for Nanoor’s progress and we hope the combined efforts result in the overall development of the block.”
Nanoor is famed in history for being the birthplace of the Vaisnava poet, Chandidas. A day-trip to Nanoor cannot be completed without visiting the famous Chandidas Dhipi and the terracotta work that surrounds it. The Chandidas Dhipi (mound) is an ASI-protected site under which the residence of Chandidas is believed to exist. A part of the mound was excavated by Calcutta University and the Archaeological Survey of India in the years 1945-46 and 1963-64 respectively. Medieval-era Chalcolithic relics were found during the excavations that now reside in different museums in West Bengal.
Adjacent to the Chandidas Dhipi, one can find Basuli, Shiva and Kali temples. Built around the 17th-18th centuries, these temples belong to the Char Chala and Aat Chala architectural styles. There are a total of 15 Shiva temples. Two of them bear intricate terracotta work detailing Krishna’s life story and are about 500 years old. Some of the temples also have stucco ornamentation and pankha art which were constructed 350 years ago.
Chandidas Nanoor Kirnahar Road, Birbhum
Nanoor artisan contacts
Tajkera Begum – 9474413141
Saptami Mondal – 9153327186
Radha Mondal – 9734777589
Santana Sarkar – 9800405873