|Contemporary sujani motif on a chanderi stole|
These are exciting times for sujani, the stitch-art from
Bihar. Having sat modestly in hamlets across the
state for several decades, it’s seeing its revival.
Initially created for use as household linen, in its current avatar sujani is increasingly embellishing apparel. It’s wooing not merely the ethnic market by making an appearance on dupattas, sarees and kurtas but has found favour among those with more contemporary tastes and accordingly kimono jackets, stoles, skirts, tees etc are being adorned with these threads.
While different forms of hand-embroidery across the country made rapid strides, sujani got overshadowed by the social environment prevalent in the state and also by the immense popularity of other folk arts of
Bihar: madhubani and papier-mache.
It’s been the effort of NGOs, especially in the state’s Muzaffarpur district,
that’s seen it emergence. The barometer of popularity of a folk-form these days can be gauged
when it makes its presence felt at premium handicraft fairs. Sujani, unknown till a
few years to the layperson, is now a permanent feature
attracting a cross-section of buyers.
Colour and form
Quite fundamentally, sujani is a form of quilting. Traditionally its canvas was old sarees and dhotis that were layered together. These were embellished with simple line or motifs in running stitch to give the recycled structure a new look. The layers of decorated muslin cloth were transformed into a quilt or mat for home use.
Sujani often gets mistaken with the kantha of
as it is seemingly similar in appearance. The subtle difference lies in the
colour scheme and theme. By tradition, the embroidery is always on a cream-base fabric
and the pattern usually portrays village life. Also, in sujani the motifs are almost-always outlined in black chain-stitch with the inner detailing being in colour. The other distinction between the two is that unlike kantha where the stitch can be done in any direction, in sujani these are always in straight lines.
“The customer these days is always looking for novel ideas. Till a few years back we were embroidering only those motifs that we had learnt from the elders. What I’m doing now is the same form of embroidery but on a different material, with different motifs, for a different clientele,” says Archana Kumari, a young girl from Ramnagar village,
who made the effort to study the nuances of textile designing which has helped
her in giving the sujani patterns she embroiders a refreshingly-fresh edge. She
has combined tradition and modern with utmost grace and her patterned silk
stoles are a hot seller. “The shift to apparel from the conventional linen has
made a big difference as far as sales are concerned,” she says, adding, “Sujani
is being regarded as the next big thing in the fashion world. We need to
explore a few more avenues before it goes truly international and is reognised
more widely in the country just as kantha or kutchi embroidery is.”
Revival and uplift
Sujani was a recreational task for the village woman, who tried to beautify her home with the meager resources available. She embroidered what she knew best: traditional motifs thus were a display of village life and folklore. Interestingly, beside it being employed as linen, the first known use of sujani-embellished cloth as a piece of clothing is a shawl to wrap the new born. The concept behind using worn-out clothes for a baby — a tradition followed till date across the country despite the offerings of multi-brands — was the reasoning that used fabric would be soft on tender skin.
What could have developed as a popular stitch-art form, dwindled because of poverty and unstable social conditions. Consequentially sujani did not receive patronage that other forms of embroidery got, chiefly via government policies of independent
encouraged cottage industry. India
It’s since the past three-plus years that NGOs active in Sarfuddinpur and Bhusra villages of Muzzafarpur district,
inspired confidence and got village women to re-look at their craft. The
explicitly-visible makeover in style via a change in motif and fabric has shown
desired result. The increased sales and exciting opportunities is a shot in the
arm not just for sujani but it’s also been instrumental in empowering women
These experiences are reflected in their work. “Via our motifs we express the new understandings we have acquired. It’s through this embroidery-skill that we have crossed frontiers. Our women had not stepped out of their home surroundings. Some of them now travel confidently and deal with customers themselves,” says Sanju of Sujani Mahila Jeevan, Bhusara.
New and old
The new motifs Sanju speaks off includes presenting city-life, gadgets (yes, the cell phone has become a prominent part of sujani pattern), social themes and also their experiences of visiting new lands. “The pattern I’ve made of
on a sujani shawl I’ve designed always draws curious glances and appreciation,”
beams Archana Kumari. Her figurines of women on the fashion ramp also demand attention.
Interestingly, the new-age buyer does find traditional pattern on garments quite funky. So apparel, especially skirts and tees, with conventional sujani motifs of village scene or a pond with turtles and fishes is as much a rage as the newly-experimented-with geometrical and floral patterns. These trends certainly bode well for a stitch-art that’s now begun getting long-overdue recognition.
Published in Apparel, December 2012