In fabric, an ode to dexterity...

In fabric, an ode to dexterity...

It was not until my third-time purchase of a sujani product that I realised what it was...a sujani product that is. Also known as sujini, this art looks similar to kantha embroidery. The third time, however, I had an expert who corrected me. I was in a small village of Bihar and had just picked up a wall hanging, and complimented the lady artisan on the "bahut sundar kantha kaam (beautiful kantha work)." Standing right next to me was a young man who told me this was not kantha but sujani work. He told me he was a state government tourist guide and this was his native place, and that is why he was speaking with so much certainty. Talking to him and several women, the practitioners of this art, I gathered some more information about this art.

Sujani is a little-known but impressive embroidery tradition. It looks simple but requires much dexterity and experience given the minute stitches and well-proportioned motifs. Vibrant colours make up the pattern of this embroidery. The art uses an aesthetic combination of the running stitch and chain stitch. The artisan generally prefers linear designs. The outline generally is in black thread and the filling is with brightly coloured threads.

Interestingly, though I was pointed out the difference between kantha and sujani, I heard several people refer to sujani as sujani-kantha or sujini-kantha. Apparently, some people habitually use the two words to refer to sujani and that should not confuse or mislead you, explained one local.

There is a rustic charm to sujani and this is natural given the origins of this traditional craft. Sujani art is native to Bihar and Rajasthan. More specifically, it belongs to southern Rajasthan and the Muzaffarpur area of Bihar, where you will find most of these craftspersons. One boutique-owner in Jaipur told me that sujani traces its origins to Bhusura village of Bihar. All of them said that the art was pioneered by Rajput women.

Apparently, the origin was purely utilitarian. Newborn babies needed quilts and so did the mother. So, quilts were created by stitching together colourful and sturdy patches of old clothes with sujani embroidery. Soft muslin cloth was ideal for babies, hence the choice of that fabric. Richly hued threads were used to create designs and motifs to give these old clothes a new and attractive appearance.

The old clothes employed for this purpose were used dhotis and saris that were in good condition, which had a practical reason. Unlike, for example, a shirt or blouse, saris and dhotis are relatively large and unstitched stretches of fabric. Hence, they formed the perfect raw material or canvas for the creative artiste. This old cloth was folded over twice or thrice following which simple stitches were done on the cloth. These layered pieces of old cloth material thus made for the perfect specimen of sujani art.

This is why it is called sujani, I was told. Su means facilitating and jani comes from the Hindi word janam meaning birth. It was not only quilts that were made but small shawls for wrapping the baby, explained the women artistes.

Over the years, sujani evolved into a beautiful embroidery tradition with newer and more interesting patterns. The practitioners were women - homemakers of different ages. For them, the art not only became a useful and interesting hobby, but also a means of supplementing the family income.

Given that the womenfolk stayed mostly confined to home (as was and still is the case with the rural female population of interior India), they honed this art. With practice, it became more refined. The popular motifs then and now are naturally drawn from scenes of village life. So, there are trees, flowers, peacocks, turtles or fish in a pond, village women in traditional attire, deities, water pitchers, etc. A goddess called Chittriya Maa (meaning Mother/Lady of Tatters), holds special significance for the artistes, I was told.

Over the last two or three decades, many changes have come into sujani: in the fabrics used, the motifs, the sales outlets, and visibility of the artistes. Today, you find even newer designs with quilts depicting scenes related to women's issues and some intended to inspire reform and female empowerment. For example, there was a motif of a woman
addressing a gathering or generally a woman in a leadership role. I saw motifs which depicted urban scenes, and modern gadgets like a computer, women holding cellphones, women in western outfits, etc. Evidently, these sujani artistes are moving with the times.

Even the product range has widened greatly, which means more sales for sujani art and more
income for the women artistes. Today, sujani embroidery-embellished items include saris, blouses and blouse material, dress material, kurtis, kurtas, stoles and jackets. I was told that jackets, stoles, shawls and saris with sujani on tussar silk are considered ethnic chic.

Other sujani-embellished products which sell well include wall hangings, cushion covers, bolster covers, bedspreads, etc.

For all this, both the artistes and the tools of their trade still remain simple - the art employs threads in vibrant colours, needle, frame, scissors, pencils, chalk pieces, inch tape, tracing sheet, tracing wheel, rubber and kerosene. And of course, a lot of skill and concentration!

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