A heritage of craftsmanship

geometry of weaves

A heritage of craftsmanship

Kasuti, a traditional form of embroidery unique to Karnataka, reflects the art, culture and nature of the State. The craft is conceived, pursued and dominated by women and has become a medium for expressing their creativity. Pursued as a hobby in the olden days, it is embedded in the culture of the region and has also become a source of livelihood for many.

Though there are no authentic records, the history of kasuti craft can be traced back to the period of Chalukya dynasty, between the 6th and 12th centuries. This handicraft, which originated in the old provinces of North Karnataka, later travelled to the southern parts of the State during the Vijayanagar and Mysuru dynasties. Kasuti flourished and underwent different experiments in Dharwad, Vijayapura, Bagalkot and Belagavi districts, which were ruled by the Chalukyan and Vijayanagar kings.

Symmetrical patterns

Though each region in Karnataka has got its own style of embroidery, Dharwad style of kasuti (Dharwad Kasuti) is the most famous. The uniqueness of Dharwad Kasuti is that it just needs a needle, thread and creative mind coupled with patience and time. The artisans do not use traced drawings for embroidery. It is done directly on the cloth by counting the warp and weft threads.

The needle moves in different directions creating symmetrical geometric designs that look identical on both sides of the cloth. In most of the patterns, the design ends at the starting point. Usually, handloom cloths of dark colour, especially Ilkal saris, are preferred for kasuti. Bigger and intricate designs are placed in the pallu and smaller and scattered designs adorn the rest of the sari. The designs can also be found on blouse pieces called kana.

There are 4 basic types of stitches in Dharwad Kasuti: gavanti (jawari), muragi, menthe and negi. Gavanti is a double running stitch while muragi is a running stitch in a zig-zag line. Motifs like squares and ladders are created with muragi stitch. Menthe is similar to western cross- stitch and is used for filling the designs. In negi, long and short lines are crossed to give a weaved appearance.

Most of the kasuti designs are inspired by local culture and nature. Interestingly, they are also inspired by rangoli designs. Temple gopuras, chariots, palanquins, tulsi enclosure, howdahs, flowers, animals and birds are some common inspirations. According to folk experts, there are over 700 designs in Dharwad Kasuti. Though, some families have a good collection of these designs and have been collecting them by touring the region, the designs have not been compiled properly. Many traditional designs have vanished mainly due to their complicated and time-consuming nature.

Gracy W Halli, who has been doing kasuti for 4 decades now, said, “I was introduced to kasuti by my sisters and aunts. Initially, the demand was not encouraging and I didn’t believe that it will gain commercial success. But today, many women like to wear dresses with kasuti. It involves laborious work and so, artisans involved in this work suffer from vision problem and back pain. But it gives a kind of satisfaction to see others wearing dresses with our kasuti work.” She proudly recalls that legendary Hindustani  musician Gangubai Hangal loved her work and used to wear saris with kasuti work on important occasions.

Shobha Patil, a resident of Dharwad, has been pursuing this craft for the last 40 years. She learnt it from her mother-in-law, Vithabai Shintre. This craft has become a part of her family for generations. She recalls that Indira Gandhi, the late prime minister of India, had visited a kasuti exhibition organised by her mother-in-law in Dharwad in 1966 and appreciated the work. Her mother-in-law had also presented a pair of kasuti saris to Queen Elizabeth of England.

Traditional yet modern

A stroll down the lanes of Raviwarpeth and Hosayallapur in Dharwad, and one can see a number of women engaged in kasuti work in front of their houses, underlining the fact that kasuti work is still popular in the city. Though bright, single-coloured threads on dark background (cloth) are preferred in Dharwad Kasuti, multicoloured threads are also being used to give it a new look. Like any other folk art, modernisation has influenced kasuti too. Now, kasuti designs are also made using machines. This development has generated mixed opinions among artisans and consumers.

“Garments with kasuti designs give an ethnic feel. Embroidery machines have made work easier and faster, but the craftsmanship is missing here. Handmade kasuti still has a great demand in the market,” said Geeta Mahale, a faculty of University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, who has been doing a study on kasuti.

Endorsing Geeta’s views is Sunanda Bhat, who heads a DESI clothing outlet in Dharwad. She said, “People are ready to pay extra for hand-made kasuti work as artisan’s creativity and effort are visible in the final product. As a result, hand embroidery is more in demand.”

Fascinated by the beauty of Dharwad Kasuti, many fashion designers have incorporated it in their work. Though normally seen on cotton saris, the designers from National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) have used it to add glamour to Mysore Silk sari. Some have even tried it on Kanjivaram and cotton saris and received good response. Ramachandra Bharani, who sells dress materials with kasuti work on it, said, “Silk saris and dresses prettified with traditional kasuti designs look elegant and accentuate the beauty of the garment.” Naturally, silk saris with kasuti designs fetch 25% extra price.

Dharwad Kasuti got Geographical Identification (GI) tag in 2006 with the effort of the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation (KSHDC). The new status helps protect the quality, originality and regional identity of the craft.

Need for revival

To get the kasuti work done, weavers and traders employ artisans. However, these artisans often get poor wages, which they feel is not worth their effort. The artisans who are mostly illiterate or semi-literate are neither aware of the demand for their skill in the market nor the assistance offered by the government for art and craft promotion. Unhygienic work conditions, poverty, health problems like backache and poor vision, developed due to the constant delicate needle work, have made life difficult for them. All these factors discourage artisans from taking it as a full-time profession. Many government and non-government organisations are striving to promote the craft, but their efforts have not yielded visible results. Due to this, there is a scarcity of skilled people in the region despite the demand.

Some educated women have tried their hands at this craft to make it contemporary. Such efforts have drawn the attention of present-generation consumers. Better opportunities should be provided for such innovative people while traditional artisans should be encouraged for the craft to flourish.

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