INTERVIEW From humble to haute, Shamlu Dudeja has not only re-energised kantha but also supported hundreds of women in the process. On the eve of her show in Chennai, the craft enthusiast talks to T. KRITHIKA REDDY about how kantha kept her passion for life alive despite tribulations on the personal front

As she displays panels of intricately crafted kantha with unique narratives in a palette that ranges from subtle to spectacular, Shamlu Dudeja switches to rewind mode. “I had undergone a major surgery for abdominal cancer in 1986 that left me extremely depressed. One day, while waiting for my daughter outside her tennis class, I saw the Shantiniketan Craft Mela across the road. When I strolled in, what instantly caught my attention were beautifully layered mats with simple running stitches. I had learnt kantha and perked up my mom’s plain blouses with pretty paisleys as a teenager. I asked the three girls at the counter if they would come home and do some work for me. But these young artisans were only used to the original quilted layers. I convinced them to try out kantha on single-fabric wall panels and saris. The result was sheer magic!”

Interestingly, it was this little group of 18-year-olds that first entered the rolls of Dudeja’s Kolkata-based SHE (Self Help Enterprise), an NGO that aims at empowering women by channelling their creativity and offering them avenues of employment.

In 1987, there was another crisis. The Math teacher-turned-craft enthusiast had to undergo a mastectomy and it looked like this fledgling group of artisans would be left directionless. But her 19-year-old daughter Malika pitched in and supported her through difficult times in hospital and creative spells back home where kantha continued to flourish. Soon, the mother-daughter duo launched Malika Kantha Collection, the marketing arm of SHE, where traditional artisans experimented with embellishing salwar suits, jackets and stoles using the stitch. “Kantha helped me overcome pain and enjoy life. I focussed on the centuries-old craft and saw a revival happening. The SHE women gradually elevated the humble stitch to a wow-worthy decorative art form. Now, we have more than 1,300 women on our rolls. ‘Kantha as StitchArt’, a travelling exhibition, is our initiative to popularise it here and abroad. We encourage women to work only during their spare time to avoid problems at home. They are happy as they are able to support their families and exude a confident air of self-worth.”

Dudeja believes art is about expression and that any piece of work must be open to interpretation. So from static images of Nature, SHE pushed creative boundaries to focus on unique narratives with the needle and thread. “Reinvention is imperative to sustain any art form. Over the years, we have experimented with the palette, motifs, narratives and styles. Today, we have narratives portraying scenes from urban life too.” Think computer motifs with kantha! Episodes from the epics, Tagore’s short stories and scenes from villages and jungles on wall panels, Jamini Roy-inspired sari pallus, concentric circles on stoles and geometric patterns on dupattas… SHE’s works are intricate. Some of them use extremely close stitches to portray stories. It’s time-consuming and creatively challenging to get the anatomy and expressions right with straight stitches!

But the fatigue of work fades because of like-minded people who have come forward to support SHE in its onward journey. “For the past few years, we have been taking kantha to discerning markets abroad. With the help of Annette Alvarez and Srirupa Sen, we have had shows at Santa Fe in the U.S. Now, Dominique and Hubert Boukris have launched SHE France to raise funds for the craft community,” beams the 75-year-old Dudeja. “Hillary Clinton was floored by kantha during her visit to India; she purchased one of our famed Tagore portraits and presented it to our Chief Minister.”

The signature stitch of Bengal, according to Dudeja, can be traced back to the Buddhist era when the bhikshus often took old fabrics and layered them to create sturdy, warm wraps. The rural women of Bengal followed suit by creating quilts for use during nippy evenings. The tiny running stitches were an ingenious way of trapping air between layers. Gradually, the art was perfected and it has now evolved to make haute statements in the fashion circuit. “Rohit Khosla was a pioneer in using kantha on chic styles. Though we haven’t worked with top-notch designers, we are trying to make kantha appealing to young people. I hope they appreciate our crafts not just for their intrinsic beauty and value but also with a view to sustaining the disappearing craft communities.”

(SHE’s Kantha as StitchArt will be inaugurated by M. K. Narayanan, Governor of West Bengal, and Padmini Narayanan, at Lotus Lounge, ITC Grand Chola, tomorrow at 6.30 p.m. The exhibition will be on till October 1)

Reinvention is imperative to sustain any art form. Over the years, we have experimented with the palette, motifs, narratives and styles