Watching Tajgada Khatun and Sharifa Khatun weave elements out of their sensorial experience of nature onto pieces of cotton leaves one awestruck. They conjure up lahuri (waves of a river) and kechuli (earthworm) patterns with just a needle and a cotton thread. Without any measuring tool, the precision is immaculate, and the runners, throws and repurposed quilts created by them exquisite.
Well into their 50s, Tajgada and Sharifa are just two of the immensely talented Shershabadi women from Kishanganj district in Bihar whose embroidery work, called kheta, has earned a discerning clientele in the last four to five years.
The first-ever exhibition of this nearly five-centuries-old undocumented craft is currently on display at Delhi’s National Crafts Museum. Organised by the NCM in collaboration with Zameen Astar Foundation and Azad India Foundation, the artists who are barely literate, speak in Bangla and have travelled to Delhi for the first time in their life.
They were happy that their craft, part of their community for centuries, which was used to make gifts for their daughters at the time of marriage, has finally found a window to the world. It also helps them achieve some monetary independence and gives them a certain degree of agency in their patriarchal existence.
In Arrawadi, her village, Tajgada says most girls are taught the intricacies of kheta from a young age. The art works created by them are “presented” before the prospective groom and his family during a wedding. They are also given as gifts at childbirth. “We never knew that the outside world would be interested in our art,” she says.
For poor people like her, adds Sharifa, kheta was just a way to reuse worn-out saris and clothes. She was keen on tweaking the traditional ek phool, chaar phool, nau phool patterns -- inspired by the vegetation, cluster of flowers and pigeon holes.
According to oral history, Sher Shah Suri, who ousted the Mughals to establish the Suri Empire in 1540, conquered lands till the delta area of Bangladesh. The local Pashtun ruler gave some land near Malda district to his Afghani foot soldiers to celebrate his victory. After Sher Shah’s death, the soldiers got married to the local women and came to be called Shershabadis. They were not accepted by the Mughals or by the British army. Marginalised and persecuted, they migrated westwards for the centuries. For a long time they owned little land, but have now settled in the floodplains of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.
Ashraful Haq, one of the few graduates in the village, who coordinates with the artisans and is instrumental in getting work for the women, says the monetisation of the craft in recent years had helped them get a voice in their conservative community. “They have been able to earn ₹3,000-₹4,000 per month and are keen on learning newer motifs,” he says.
The younger generation, he says, is not interested. “In a family, most of the women know the craft but all of them might not be practising it. Also, they are not doing it through the year. They use the time between agricultural seasons, and also make them during weddings or births in the family.”
Curator Saumya Pande, head of the Department of Fashion at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Art and Design, says sujani and kantha were kheta’s country cousins from Eastern India. “The most extraordinary fact about the kheta is that though the stitch of the embroidery is linear (the thread moves vertically) but the patterns emerge diagonally. This involves an intuitive visual calculation.”
The kheta is one textile art form that is sensed through the hands and feet. Women literally walk over the layers while putting the stitches. It doesn’t have any placement of motifs (no central medallion, no corner motifs, no borders) but a thread running from one end of the layered saris to the other end.
“The treatment is linear, to create very dense patterns that run from edge to edge. Four-five layers of old, worn-off saris are layered together to hold them together to embroider,” says Ms. Pande.
Cofounder of Zameen Astar Foundation, which is working closely with the Shershabadi women, Ms. Pande says since kheta is very labour intensive, the women work upon it once all the household chores are done. “It is the identity of the community that has kept the craft alive. Each piece takes many months to embroider. These quilts were essentially made for use at home. It is only in recent times that ZAF got them made as bed covers, throws and runners to promote this undocumented craft. For the first time, they attached a ‘price’ to the textile.” She says the women never saw it as something that could get them money. “Now, they like to have the cash in hand. Earlier, they were accountable to the men for the money spent. In the beginning, men would negotiate the price, but now we talk directly with the women,” says Ms. Pande.
ZAF is also seeking GI status for kheta as the embroidery is specific to a community and region. “Also, the craft has remained largely undocumented. Academic writing, talks, presentations and museum exhibitions are on to generate awareness. We hope that with the GI status, it continues as a practising craft for longer in the younger generation and is adopted by a larger population within the community. We hope to involve government agencies for training and upskillng of the craft,” says Ms. Pande.