Stitching women’s lives


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MY search for the narrative textiles in Bihar and Jharkhand began in 1996. My story reflects a different interpretation of the news, both local and international, of economic development, of literacy and of finding a voice through the creation of stories in threads and pieces of cloth. It is also a story of the inventiveness of traditional practice. Every time I go to Bihar and Jharkhand I am surprised by the new work being done. The textiles connect to artists in Canada. My connection to sujuni and khatwa is as a result of a research trip to India with my friend and textile artist, Dorothy Caldwell. Our discovery of sujuni and khatwa inspired us to create an exhibition in Canada. The exhibition, Stitching Women’s Lives: Sujuni and Khatwa from Bihar, India (September 1999 to February 2000) resulted in a catalogue and several related exhibitions around Canada, the United States and Great Britain.

Contemporary textiles based on traditional practice do not ‘deteriorate’ as the women are exposed to wider markets and have greater independence in their lives. The makers thrive on new experiences from international travel to discovering the ability to draw a story. The sujuni and khatwa quilts, shawls, cushions and wall hangings incorporate the collective experience of the makers and tell a story. Their efforts are to make things clear for the people who will buy the work and help sustain their livelihoods. Changes in women’s lives as they become literate, gain independence and grapple with the social and material demands of coming out of seclusion, cause a change in ones sense of identity when narrating ones story in real time.

Interpreting, presenting and selling sujuni and khatwa is complex. The work continues to be beset with practical problems of inconsistent quality, lack of understanding of markets, narratives and pricing. There is too much emphasis on stitching and not enough on the drawing, story telling and labelling. The varied skill levels of the women in self-help groups foster inconsistency in quality control. There is a great divide between the piecework commissioned by urban designers and export companies for skilled hands, and the individual expressive textile art that documents the culture of a community.

Put all of this together in villages where the roads are almost totally impassible even when it is not the monsoon, or the local politicians do not approve electricity connection without bribes, or cities where during the frequent election curfews, civilians openly carry loaded guns in an effort to shut down all normal travel and commerce. These facts of life demonstrate the difficulties you could see in the subject matter of sujuni and khatwa from Bihar and Jharkhand. These facts articulate the particular struggles Adithi’s self-help women’s groups have to maintain their livelihoods over time. Adithi is a fifteen year old NGO founded and run by the late Viji Srinivasan where I have been involved in research and projects since 1996.

Whenever I travelled with the sujuni and khatwa workers to a new place, I commissioned a piece about their experience. In this way I came to know the sujuni of Nirmila Hansa and Archana Kumari, and the khatwa of Salma Marandi.


Sujuni From Bhusara to Manhattan: I collect sujuni to share in talks, lectures and workshops in North America and to build a sponsored collection for the exhibition. Fieldwork involved bringing practical things, drawing pencils that would wash away, pencil extenders, stainless steel needles, and spot removers. In Ahmedabad and Chennai I gather special pieces of silk to make dupattas we have named ‘script scarves’. Sujuni is marketed in Canada through exhibitions and the shop at the Textile Museum of Canada and workshops conducted by my friend and colleague Dorothy Caldwell.

Occasionally I would suggest a theme, such as the women’s use of cow dung. This theme came from the feminist economist Marilyn Waring who has written extensively about dung: ‘Dung appears to be taken for granted as a "Free Gift of Nature". We will not find the hours women spend in gathering, transporting, cooking with, processing, manufacturing from or decorating with it recorded as work’ (Waring, 1996, p. 47).


The cow dung sujuni spurred a series of pieces celebrating everything from using it as fish food to the introduction of gobar gas machines for efficient cooking fuel. The women’s reaction to cow dung being added to their visual repertoire was summed up by Nirmila Hansa: ‘This dung is our work. You don’t use it in so many ways where you come from [Canada]. You gave us the idea but now it is ours’ (Nirmila in Bhusara, 1999).

Nirmila Hansa’s mother-in-law was known in the village as a good storyteller. She fused the past, the present and the future in narratives that included the family, neighbours, gods, politics and the land. Nirmila is good at drawing. She tells her stories in pictures that are stitched into sujunis. A theme often repeated and illuminated by Nirmila is the ongoing story of Ramani, a girl child from Ramnagar, Bihar, a story that over time has become a local legend.

‘Several years ago a young woman with a son was widowed when her husband was killed in a road accident. Forced to work for a local landowner, she was raped by her overseer and became pregnant. When the child was born, her rapist poisoned her and left her newborn daughter for dead. Sadly, the mother died. The child was named Ramani. In the sujuni border there are representations of Ramani as a newborn without her cord cut. The men of the village had said that this should not be cut so that the baby would not survive. Friends of Adithi found the baby girl and brought her to Patna.

Ramani’s half-brother Hira was found working in a sweet shop as an indentured servant. He too was rescued. The BBC did a documentary on the family and was instrumental in convincing the owner of the sweet shop to let Hira be adopted. A couple in Ireland adopted Ramani and Hira. The adoptive parents have assisted Adithi in rebuilding Ramani’s house in Ramnagar. In the year 2000 Ramani and Hira returned to Bihar to visit with their friends in Adithi and to see their new Indian home.

‘With their new parents, Ramani and Hira established a non-formal education centre for girl children in the village. Now 30 girls between the ages of 6 and 12 study every day. Friends from a school in Canada send gifts every year including red sweaters, school supplies and a water pump. Something good has come from the sad beginning of Ramni’s life’ (Nirmila in Bhusara, 2004).


Nirmila’s life, like Ramani’s mothers, is not easy. Because she does not stitch and yet is uniquely talented in drawing, she is resented by younger sujuni workers who seek only the money for stitching. Often she is not asked to come for work and is paid less than half for her drawings than what other women receive for stitching. Her health is poor and she was recently widowed. Her personal situation does not diminish her knowledge that drawing is ‘a gift from the Gods’. We must all work to maintain and promote her art.

Archana Kumari was fourteen years old when she started drawing for sujuni. Her older sister Anju was one of the original managers at MVSS Bhusara and is now a teacher in Ramani’s school. Anju recognized that Archana had a natural ability to visualize ideas. Archana often worked with Nirmila. Much of the MVSS sujuni made from 1996 to 1999 is a reflection of their ideas. In 1998, at the age of seventeen, Archana travelled alone from Bhusara to Manhattan, USA to represent sujuni sponsored by the Ford Foundation at an exhibition, ‘The Narrative Thread’ at the Asia Society. In keeping with my practice, I commissioned her to make a New York City sujuni when she returned to Bhusara.

‘There are five "Statues of Liberty", one in each corner and one in the centre because I love her. Fish surround the border because Manhattan is an island and all the tall buildings are inside. We visited many places. Molly [Asia Society curator] and I saw the Metropolitan Museum, the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building. There was a funny shop where they made clothes for animals, a "pet boutique". At night there were lights all over the Brooklyn Bridge. We rode on the Staten Island Ferry and on the "train that runs under the ground" [subway]. There are many tall buildings filled with people. The lights on the street corners would never be put in Bihar. The roads are paved and smooth. At the Asia Society you see Viji, Laila and Skye and all the people who came to the workshop.

‘I chose the colours carefully – just the right blue for the KLM airplane and many colours of gold and gray for the big buildings with such light. Maybe someday I will go back to New York city again and it will be different’ (Archana in Bhusara 1999).


Archana’s life and mine were profoundly changed by our friendship and her visit to New York. When I collected the New York city sujuni for the Toronto exhibition in 1999 Archana told me she wanted to learn English and study at a design school. Supported by Canadian friends and Adithi she studied English in Ahmedabad and Patna. With great persistence and natural talent she gained admission to the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi where she is completing a degree in textile design. In five short years she has come to understand her village life as an informative past while becoming a contemporary urban designer. Archana is a magical mirror between traditional practice and contemporary life. I look forward to her future adventures although I have no idea what they will be.


Khatwa from Patna to Jarmondi to Baker Lake, Nunavut, Canada: In August 2004 there was a cross-cultural textile collaboration, drawing upon the imaginations of people in Canada and India at Harbour- front Centre, York Quay Gallery in Toronto, and the Woodland Cultural Center in Brantford. During the Planet IndegenUs Festival, August 13 through 22, Inuit women textile artists from Baker Lake, Nunavut in Canada worked with Santhali (Adivasi) women textile artists from Jharkhand, India. The collaboration began with the exhibition Images tell the stories: thread has a life of its own.’

Viji Srinivasan (founding Director of Adithi) and I first discussed the dream of Inuit women meeting Adivasi women from Adithi in 1998 during a three-day working train ride across India. On the 1998 trip I brought books of Inuit women artists to Bihar and Jharkhand to show the women that there were Canadian artists in the Arctic who too worked with storytelling on cloth.

Sally Webster (whom I met through the Textile Museum of Canada in 1998 at an exhibition of appliqué wall hangings from Baker Lake) was the Inuit link to the collaboration. An innovative and knowledgeable art dealer working with artists in her Baker Lake home as well as the rest of the new territory of Nunavut, she was interpreter and friend to the Inuit elders.

Judith Nasby, director and curator of the Macdonald Stewart Art Center in Guelph, Ontario loaned pieces from their extensive collection to the project. Three established khatwa groups in Patna, Bihar and one from Jharkhand were commissioned to make work based on Adivasi themes. ‘Images tell the stories: Thread has a life of its own’ was born.

The exchange involved getting Inuit women to come from Baker Lake at the height of the summer fishing season. Then we had to get visas and sponsorship for single Adivasi women from Jharkhand to travel to Canada. Our persistence paid off and provided a venue to share the work of Santali, Hindu and Muslim khatwa makers in India with the experienced artists of Baker Lake. It was also a connection to my childhood.


In the 1950s many of the Inuit in what is now Nunavut were forced off the land into settlements, including Baker Lake. Starvation and disease took their toll. This is how I met Inuit women as a little girl in Edmonton, Alberta. My mother was a nurse in the TB hospital which handled chronic cases. I remember looking through the windows in the wards where they worked quietly, hand sewing dolls that I eventually received as gifts. These women were displaced from their remote northern homes for treatment. They never completely left behind their stories or their skills.

In the 1970s southern artists encouraged Baker Lake Inuit women to use the same skills for art making in the form of wool wall hangings. All the raw materials come from the South at great expense. For income generation, artistic expression and the retention of a culture they tell tales in textiles. In the ‘South’ (that is the rest of Canada, South of the Arctic circle), Baker Lake wall hangings are sold through art dealers, galleries and museums and because of these markets and their traditional lives Inuit women work alone as individual named artists.


For our 2004 project two senior artists, Victoria Mamnguqsulak and Irene Avaalaaquiaq, came to meet Santhali artists Salma Marandi and Teresa Hansda, for ten days in Toronto, Canada. Upon receiving an honorary PhD from the University of Guelph, Irene Avaalaaquiaq summarized her thoughts on artistic skills and culture. There are obvious parallels to the lives of the sujuni and khatwa makers.

‘We did not have schools to go to learn but we did get an education. If Inuit did not learn well, whey would not survive in the harsh climate. We had to learn in order to live. The father taught the boys how to hunt and the mother would teach the girls how to sew. Now times have changed and a lot of women hunt, but the men have still not learned to sew.

My education was from my grandparents. Inuit did not write their history down like people do in the South but we passed on our traditions, culture and values through an oral tradition. I try to keep our culture alive through my art. Each wall hanging I do tells a story or a legend. Art is a way to preserve our culture’ (Nasby, Appendix 3, 111).

Just as Canadian artists encouraged Inuit women to make wall hangings, with the success of the sujuni workers and encouragement of Canadian artists, urban Hindu and Muslim women from Patna began to make khatwa narrative appliqué.

Dorothy Caldwell and I found one large piece about the evils of dowry on our last day in Bihar in 1996. Made of cotton, this work was graphically exciting but needed technical upgrading (to prevent colours from running and to make the work more ‘particular’ to the place). Since 1998 I have worked with the three-khatwa groups in Patna, helping them with drawing, developing distinctive styles and with technical issues ultimately presenting them with treadle sewing machines to improve their finishing and increase income potential. Viji Srinivasan suggested that the khatwa workers could add value to their work by using the natural dyed handspun tussar silk made by Santhali Adivasi women at the Adithi/IGNOU campus in Dumka district, Jharkhand.


The Santhali women at the Adithi/IGNOU campus had never seen the khatwa from Patna. In 2002 khatwa workers from Adithi’s head office in Patna came to Jharkhand for a spontaneous exhibition as part of a Home-based Workers Worldwide conference. The policy for new groups in Adithi is that the existing groups have to decide amongst themselves if they want the work to expand. The experienced groups are part of the process of training the next group. Muzzarat Ara, Ganga and Lalita started helping the new group leader of the Santali, Salma Mirandi, to make khatwa.

Viji and I spent a week with twenty Santali women in February 2004 conducting a workshop called ‘Storytelling through khatwa’. We also visited bamboo workers in the area to start a product development workshop. During the long road trip between remote villages, workshop participants Subarshani Soren and Nirmala Marandi, talked about khatwa as their first new form of creative expression. It was in the conversation that Nirmala said ‘All the colours, the threads and the stories we can tell… it is like the thread has a life of its own’ (Morrison: Field notes, 2004).

Salma Marandi became a skilled craftsperson in her home village. As a single woman, Salma had to make everything from leaf-plates to moonshine in order to earn a living. She met other Santhali women from the Adithi campus in 1999 and worked making baskets, mats, natural dyeing and weaving for income generation. With her excellent technical skills and calm leadership, Sirali (meaning mother earth) women’s self-help group was born. Salma became the group leader. Until March of 2004 she had never seen an airplane or travelled beyond Bihar and Jharkhand. Her trip to Canada was a monumental adventure in her life. ‘When I first tried to see outside from the plane, I could only see clouds, so I thought that Canada was only clouds. But then when we came down, I could see that there were trees and houses and people. Electricity, everywhere, as far as you can see, electricity. And electricity only came my village a month ago’.


In the collaboration we shared materials and examples of work from each other’s cultures. They have common techniques, experiences as first nations people of their land, and the love of storytelling. My humorous predictions were of ‘Curried Caribou’ and ‘Air-conditioned appliqué’. Ten days of collaboration resulted in a wall hanging called ‘What will happen?’ which was about the ambiguities of life and death.

On the last day of Planet IndigenUs everyone exchanged gifts of their work. Irene and Victoria took this experience back to Baker Lake to encourage young artists so that they can keep alive the stories through wall hangings because there are only eight elderly artists still making wall hangings and a new generation needs to be nurtured. Salma and Teresa shared their stories with Santhali women so that they can begin a new tradition of khatwa with a global experience of the significance and potential of the work. These gifts are a thread around the world keeping cultures alive, a thread with a life of its own.

There are no guidebooks when you work in the field with living traditions. Creating the possibility of new experiences is the best one can do.

My rules are to ensure makers a fair price for their work and buy it rather than accept gifts. I work to ensure that my presence is seen as a benefit rather than interference. Although it is exciting for outsiders to visit with textile artists in remote communities, I think it is like stealing a soul not to return, reflect and build on the work. Don’t say you are going to come back if you really don’t mean to go.

Nirmila, Archana and Salma have touched my life deeply as have Irene and Victoria. Irene wants me to come to Baker Lake, ‘Just like you go all that way to India.’ She reminds me of the universality of the power in textile art.

‘When are you coming back?’ Nirmila asked when I met her in 1997.

Archana says: ‘I’ll show you through my studies what I can become.’

At the end of her Canadian trip Salma said: ‘I have so much to take back to the women in my community. Khatwa is my way of telling our stories.’

This is the best we can do.


* In 2004 Skye Morrison worked for the Government of Gujarat celebrating traditional Indian kite makers through the book Strings of a Timeless Tradition and the film, Keepers of Flight. She also wrote and produced a film, Thread has a life of its own: aboriginal women’s stitched stories.



Skye Morrison and Dorothy Caldwell: ‘Stitching Women’s Lives: Sujuni and Khatwa from Bihar, India.’ 29 September 1999 to 27 February 2000. The Textile Museum of Canada (formerly the Museum for Textiles), 1999.

Judith Nasby, Irene Avaalaaqiaq – Myth and Reality. McGill-Queen’s University Press, The University of Washington Press, 2002.

Marilyn Waring, Three Masquerades: Essays on Equality, Work and Human Rights. University of Toronto Press, 1996.