Sujni, equally elegant twin of Kantha

Efforts are on to revive the beautiful needle craft tradition of Bihar

June 20, 2019 03:12 pm | Updated 03:12 pm IST

Sujni designs are usually inspired by scenes from everyday life

Sujni designs are usually inspired by scenes from everyday life

Thanks to the efforts of revivalists, Kantha caught fashion designers’ imagination and that of the people. But there exists a similar form of quilting technique from Bihar, which despite its beauty is yet to be discovered.

Called Sujni, the word is said to have originated from Persian ‘sozni,’ meaning needle. Sujni is common to Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Uttar Pradesh. The beautiful hand embroidered quilts are made by women using old saris and dhotis. It is the needlework on the quilts that give them an edge.

Though similar to Kantha, there is a world of difference between the two. Sujni has not been documented like Kantha. It is more a home or domestic craft pursued for personal needs and was never brought into trade like Satagon Kantha quilts. Being bulkier, it is also difficult to cart these quilts.

In Kantha quilts, the base stitches are circular while in Sujni it is in straight lines. The repertoire of stitches of the two also vary. Kantha uses several combination of stitches, while Sujni uses three or four. It is rare to find old pieces of Sujni quilts as they were never considered collectors’ items.

The making of the Sujni quilt, mostly single or double layered, is simple. Women practising the craft have a system by which old clothes are layered with a new, beautifully embroidered cloth on the top. They are given as gifts during weddings.

In the book, Handicrafts of India, celebrated craft revivalist Kamaladevi Chattopadyay says , “Sometimes the embroidery is worked right through with cotton yarn, the ornamentation being in chain stitch while the background is filled with running stitch in scale pattern. The patterns are scenes from everyday life, from a bride in a palanquin, boys flying kites to peacocks dancing. These scenes lend a local flavour.”

Sujni quilts made in Madhubani, Bihar initially used geometrical patterns but later motifs of the Madhubani paintings were embroidered on the quilts.

The motifs and stories depicted give the craft a different perspective. The fish is a symbol of fertility, the lotus denotes auspiciousness, the images of Radha and Krishna are juxtaposed with those of birds and flowers. Since Madhubani is also called Mithila, where Devi Sita was born, a lot of stories from the Ramayana are depicted. The needlework is painstaking as the entire fabric is covered with running stitch. The outline of the figures is created with chain stitch.

Sanju Devi, who is known for her sujni creations with her mother-in-law

Sanju Devi, who is known for her sujni creations with her mother-in-law

Despite initiatives from the Government and efforts of NGOs and SHGs to revive the craft (it has received a GI tag), there are few takers. Women find the needlework painstaking and time-consuming. Many Sujni embroiders have taken up painting. Also, layered Sujnis are giving way to wall hangings and embroidery on articles.

However, some Sujni craftpersons are pursuing it with passion. Sanju Devi i sone such. She started working with Aditi craft groups and is a regular at fairs in Delhi, makes two-layered quilts apart from regular embroidery work.

Nirmala Devi, who is associated with Asian Heritage Foundation, has worked with fashion designers. Her work embellishes capes, kurtas and tunics. She creates contemporary embroidery patterns for the designers she works with.

Like Kantha, Sujni can become popular through organised craft collectives and helping the craftspersons with new design ideas. Otherwise a precious craft heritage will be lost.

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