Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sujani: Stitch art of Bihar

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 Bengal 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.  
Traditional motifs 
Current winds have ensured while the basic art remains the same, a slight variation has given it a new idiom that’s enthusing fashionistas and folk-craft aficionados alike and is definitely more appealing for today’s buyer who has plethora of apparel choices. The most prominent shift has been in the theme of embroidery and the outlining that’s now done in various colours brightening a pattern. 
“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, Bihar, 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 India that encouraged cottage industry.  
It’s since the past three-plus years that NGOs active in Sarfuddinpur and Bhusra villages of Muzzafarpur district,      Bihar, have 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 artisans.  
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 New York 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 

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