How one woman single-handedly runs a school and a women’s collective in West Bengal

When she was 16, Shabnam Ramaswamy had an arranged marriage to a 32-year-old man. After a harrowing eight years of abuse, Shabnam, at 23, was thrown out of her house by her husband. For two months she lived in a shanty at Sealdah station in Kolkata. “That night I realised that streets were better than what I had endured,” says the elegant and dignified Shabnam, when we meet her at Ambara in Ulsoor.

How one woman single-handedly runs a school and a women’s collective in West Bengal

She won custody of her children, rebuilt and started life afresh from there and got a job as an interior designer. Shabnam later shifted to Delhi and worked at Mira Nair’s Salaam Balak and engaged with children at Delhi station. “I wrote six chits with different city names and my daughter picked Delhi. That is when I decided to go there.” Senior journalist Jugnu Ramaswamy met Shabnam to make a film on her work, and eventually they married. “My husband and I decided that we will go and share our skills in some part of India. We had targeted a piece of land in Madhya Pradesh. A government notification, came for a reserved forest there, so our plan there didn’t work out.” It was to Katna that Shabnam returned to start her lifelong dream in 2000.

However, life took a tragic turn. “My husband passed away just 13 days before the inauguration of the rural school we founded.” Yet again, Shabnam single-handedly ran the school. Her endeavour led to the establishment of Jagriti School. “We started a secondary senior school affiliated to CBSE board. Then we started a school affiliated to West Bengal board, and now we have started two more schools.” She then decided to start a women’s cooperative, which today has close to 1,400 women employees. The idea to start Katna’s Kantha came to her when she paid a condolence visit. “One of my childhood friends passed away and her daughter had buried her face in a kantha cloth, crying for her mother. It then struck me that kantha is warm and cosy and offers comfort.”

With this idea in mind, Shabnam invested 2 lakhs of her personal money to start Kanta’s Kantha. “I began working with 12 women. It took me some years to set it up.”

Shabnam says she doesn’t miss city life. “I wouldn’t trade living in Katna for anything. I was quite clear that I wouldn’t be a madam who would visit Katna once a month. I live with my people.” And that explains her in-depth knowledge of Murshidabad’s kantha tradition. She displays stunning embroidery work on stoles, saris, bags, purses, cushion covers and kurti pieces. “Kantha is actually a light coverlet and the running stitch, which sews together the layers, is known as the kantha stitch.”

The Shantiniketan style of kantha is widely known. The Murshidabad style, though, is completely different. “This kind of kantha making has a geometric style, whereas the Shantiniketan style is drawing based. The stitches are counted and then the design is formed,” says Shabnam, and while she outlines an intricate design, she explains: “This design is known as the aayna khopa (mirror bun). There are 150 such designs handed down from mother to daughter. There are flies, fan, waves, and taraa chutkis (little stars). They dip a bamboo chip into haldi (turmeric) and water and then draw.”

She adds: “Kantha takes centre stage in Murshidabad because it is used on cloth that is gifted to a newborn or at the time of marriage. When a person passes away, the body is wrapped in the most elaborate kantha.” Shabnam says it sometimes takes years to make kantha. Displaying one such gorgeous piece, she says: The stitch in-between is not bigger than a fish egg. This intricate stitching lends texture to the cloth. It takes 60 days to two months to make double bed sheets and 25 days to a month for single bed sheets.” There are even traditional towels called gamchas and dohars (blankets) available. “For the gamchas, we have put two back-to-back in running stitch. For the dohars, we have put the mulmul on top and at the back and you have the print inside.”

How one woman single-handedly runs a school and a women’s collective in West Bengal

At the entrance of Ambara, a unique black-and-white book is displayed. “The script of Rabindranath Tagore’s Sahaj Path (Easy Lessons) has been stitched along with illustrations by Nandalal Bose.”

Creations of Katna’s Kantha is on sale at Ambara, Ulsoor till August 12

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 1:04:21 AM |

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