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How homemakers kept Karnataka's 'kasuti' embroidery alive

This embroidery style owes its life to homemakers. What makes it stand apart is that the pattern looks the same from the front and back of the fabric

Detail of a Kali Chandrakala sari, embroidered by Chandrabai Karnataki.
Detail of a Kali Chandrakala sari, embroidered by Chandrabai Karnataki. (Mala Sinha)

In February, the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) sent out an email to subscribers, inviting them to send in “archival photos/paintings/family portraits of people wearing a Kasuti saree where the embroidery is visible to be used in a publication on the embroidery tradition of Karnataka”. Soon, images began streaming in.

Kasuti—a portmanteau of the Kannada words kai (hand) and suti (cotton thread)—is an embroidery style from Karnataka. Done on even weave fabric, it resembles the embroideries of Austria, Hungary and Spanish blackwork and used to be practised mainly by homemakers. Because only one strand of thread is used in kasuti, the design appears delicate and linear. What makes it stand apart is that the pattern looks the same from the front and back of the fabric.

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“If you go back 200 years or even as recently as 70 years, kasuti was done by the wives of weavers in north Karnataka—especially Dharwad (where it originated) and Hubbali. They got into it because they probably had yarn or thread lying around the house and wanted to adorn their saris and blouses. And the ladies usually stitched motifs they saw around them—parrots, jathre (temple chariot processions), elephants and peacocks,” explains Arati Hiremath, who runs an embroidery business, Artikrafts, in Dharwad.

Hiremath started Artikrafts in 1991, when kasuti embroidery was still considered a hobby. “It started when two women who were into kasuti embroidery approached me and asked me to get them work because they needed money.” Today, 250 skilled artisans work with her—luckily the pandemic didn’t hit them hard.

It was “Arundhati’s (Ghosh of IFA) idea to do the photo call when I suggested that I wanted to feature regular people wearing the kasuti sari in the book. These people, after all, are the true holders of the tradition,” says Ritu Sethi, chairperson of The Craft Revival Trust and co-editor of the work-in-progress publication. “I am delighted that we got some lovely pictures. It shows that people cared enough to dig through their records and send pictures.” The publication, with co-editors Jasleen Dhamija and Aditi Ranjan, is a collaboration between IFA and The Craft Revival Trust, supported by the Infosys Foundation. It is the third book in a series of arts and crafts publications the three organisations will be bringing out, Sethi says, “sometime in 2022”.

Generally only one strand of thread is used in ‘kasuti’ embroidery.
Generally only one strand of thread is used in ‘kasuti’ embroidery. (Sujaya Mahesh)

For Sethi, the research has thrown up interesting insights. “Long before remote working became a trend, housewives in the north Karnataka region treated this as work from home. They could earn an income without having to step out of their home, which is fascinating. Another aspect that we discovered was that there had been special courses and schools to teach kasuti.

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It was women from the Neykar, Hindu weaving community who created kasuti. In the 20th century, it became a skill most women in Karnataka, irrespective of class or caste, learnt, and it remains a good means of income for women of all communities. “It is a good way for these women to earn an income without having to step out of their homes and their men support it too,” says Hiremath. Today, a skilled artisan working full time can earn 10,000-15,000 in a month. For Sethi, “One of the most exciting aspects of the publication is that we hope to bring these makers—the people who embroidered in the past, the people who are embroidering today—to life.”

Rukkaiyya, in her mid-30s, has been a kasuti embroiderer and master trainer with Hiremath for 10 years. “I learnt this embroidery from madam and decided to work for her because I enjoyed it and I would also get to earn money. I have three kids and this extra income would take care of their education.” The fact that it’s creative and finds appreciative customers is a bonus. “My life got better as I kept doing it,” she says. Depending on the orders received, Rukkaiyya takes home anywhere between 15,000-18,000 per month. She says most of the students who come for training are homemakers as well.

The Sameeksha School of Embroidery sits in a quiet lane in Koramangala, Bengaluru. Run by Sujaya Mahesh, it lists over 25 kinds of embroidery, including kasuti, kantha, phulkari, aari, zardozi, chikankari, Chinese and Brazilian embroidery. If she had her way, though, Mahesh would focus on kasuti. “I learnt kasuti by watching my mother, and the rest of the styles through self-research,” says Mahesh, who has been practising kasuti for close to 25 years. Like Hiremath, she also runs a small business doing customised kasuti embroidery on saris, blouses and lifestyle products. “I have a team of 10-12 women in Hubbali who work for me,” says Mahesh, displaying a few saris with the craftsmanship. “Look at this pattern, the back of the design is just like the front—this is how you distinguish good kasuti embroidery from bad.”

Since the pandemic, Mahesh has taken the school online. She conducts weekly classes for six-eight students from as far as the US, Malaysia and Dubai. As a kasuti practitioner, she believes the craft needs to adapt to customer demand.

“I know of purists who say we need to stick to the traditional motifs instead of experimenting. My response is that I am not changing the motif, I am only changing the position of motifs,” Mahesh notes wryly. Online, you will find cushions, curtains, even face masks with kasuti work.

For Hiremath, the thrill lies in the renewed demand for kasuti-embroidery saris from 2012. She attributes this to a sudden interest in saris from expats—mostly Indians in the US—and social media. “I get orders from major brands such as Fabindia, iTokri, Jaypore, among others. Not just that, I get many offers from customers in the US. I think a big part of the credit goes to sari groups on Facebook,” Hiremath chuckles, adding, “Right now, the kasuti embroidery business is a good venture to be in.”

Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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