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Bihar’s Sujani embroidery has a GI tag. But why does no one know about it?

Through Sujani embroidery, the women tell stories — of drunken husbands, women at work, or social evils such as child marriage and dowry.

Through Sujani embroidery, the women tell stories — of drunken husbands, women at work, or social evils such as child marriage and dowry.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

Considered a ‘cousin’ of Madhubani Mithila, but perhaps closer to Bengal’s Kantha work

On a late winter morning a group of women — Pinki Devi, Khusbu, Chanchala, Sunita, Nutan and Bhibha Devi among them — sit on a large, grimy, black tarpaulin sheet in the part-shadow of a slouching tree in Bhusra village in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district.

In their hands are colourful fabrics on which are emerging stories told through chain stitch embroidery — of drunken husbands, women at work, or indictments of social evils such as child marriage and dowry. When done, these fabrics will be worn as saris or stoles, used as cushion covers or wall-hangings.

We are at Sujani Mahila Jeevan in Bhusra village, where around 400 women and girls from several villages in the district gather after their work to create Sujani embroidery. This space not only carries forward a dying tradition, it helps give women an opportunity to get out of their home, gives them a sense of community and an income. And their role model is Sujani Mahila Jeevan founder, 44-year-old Sanju Devi, who runs the organisation from her home.

Married at 13 , Sanju Devi had little time to pursue her dreams. But 19 years and three children later, Sanju found both time on her hands and inspiration — Sujani, a craft that her mother, her aunts and grandmother produced in their free time.

Village life, on a Sujani bedsheet.

Village life, on a Sujani bedsheet.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

“There is not very much known about when, how and where the craft came from, but the earliest known pieces of embroidered Sujani quilts are from the 18th century,” says Sanju. “They were used to swaddle newborns and often made with pieces of cloth, in different colours, from old saris and dhotis,” says a young Pinki Devi, who also learned the craft watching her mother and aunts. Pinki, who has completed Class X, has studied the literature on this form of embroidery. Motifs, she says, have changed. “Earlier, motifs were drawn from nature or the sun and clouds, indicative of life-giving forces, or fertility symbols and sacred animals. But these have changed with time.” Today, contemporary life is depicted through their embroidery, with a special place given to social messages against customs like child marriage.

Considered a ‘cousin’ of Mithila painting of Madhubani district (less than 100 km away from Bhusra) but perhaps closer to West Bengal’s Kantha, Sujani could have been as popular had it been given government support and a marketing push, says Bhibha who is embroidering a yellow sari. The women rue that in the absence of an organised market, “we make it and sell it ourselves in exhibitions and fairs in Patna, Delhi and Jaipur.”

Sujani artiste Pinki Devi.

Sujani artiste Pinki Devi.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

Sujani would have likely become extinct if Nirmala Devi of the Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti had not revived it in Bhusra village in the late 80s. Later, a Bihar-based organisation, Adithi, popularised it beyond the boundaries of the State. “A lot has been done, but much remains too,” says Sanju. Sujani was given a GI tag in 2006, but Sanju, who has received a Unesco award and recognition by the State government and Crafts Council of India for her work, doesn’t know about it. “We are village women. How are we to know about it unless someone tells us?” she asks.

For the hundreds of women artistes of Bhusra, Sanju is “guide, mentor and marketing manager.” Says Pinki: “We want to be like Sanju didi and see the world outside through Sujani art but...,” her voice trails off. “But, the necessary support from the government doesn’t seem to come,” Bhibha finishes her thought.

But the organisation has helped women like Pinki and Bhibha to not just step out of the confines of their village and travel to other States like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Delhi, but also created a source of income. “We earn ₹3,000 to ₹4,000 every month and it helps in running our household,” says Bhibha whose husband was recently injured in an accident and has been unable to work on their farm.

“If the government comes forward, Sujani could get global recognition and it would also make a huge difference to the artists in villages,” says Sanju. “My dream,” she says, packing finished work in a big jute bag, “is to bring Sujani at par with Madhubani in terms of global attention and marketability.”

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 11:51:03 PM |

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