Meet the man bringing two dying embroidery styles back to life with over 1200 women

Pstitching the colorful silk thread with a small needle and skillfully stitching the most beautiful hand-woven Pashmina shawl stretched over the embroidery, wooden frame to create an intrinsic pattern, this is what Pia Chatterjee, Rupsana Khatoon, Rita Mondol, Mou Jana, Falguni Maity, Mita Mondol, and 100 other women are doing well. They are chatting happily but are completely focused on embroidering an art canvas.

Yes, their work in Petit point and Gara embroidery designs on sarees, shawls or dupattas is nothing less than a work of art. Their work is sure to receive compliments, if displayed alongside the works of legendary artists like Raja Ravi Varma, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo or any other great artist in the world.

Women from modest backgrounds – few from tribal lands, few from areas with limited opportunities – have not completed high school. The only language they speak is a dialect of Bengali as they all reside in the underdeveloped hamlets around Midnapore, Hooghly, Bankura of West Bengal. But they all like to watch Hindi movies especially Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar movies without understanding Hindi.

“It’s my eighth year. I trained here for six months and now I love making different flowers, leaves, birds with a needle and colored resham (silk) thread,” says Pia, 26.

Embroiderers working on a sari at Prastuti Designs.

“I have worked here for 12 years now and we have all become a family. We work, eat, share our problems, talk about movies and enjoy our time here with work,” adds Rupsana, 34.

Mother of two daughters, Mita, 42, says she loves seeing pictures of wealthy women from elsewhere wearing their designs. For 15 years, she has worked in this place and says: “We are proud when we see women dressed in our work. The embroidery is so intricate and beautiful that when people appreciate our work, we are happy.

They are all part of Prastuti Designs, a design organization over 30 years old. None of the products made on fully hand-woven silks, woolen fabrics are sold for less than Rs 15,000 per piece and the top price can reach thousands of dollars.

“My mother, Deepa Gupta, had started working with around 600 women in the style of Kantha embroidery. But my sister Tanvi and I wanted to do something different so started the Gara and Petit stitch in our units,” says Anshul Gupta, 45, the man behind the revised Prastuti designs, who so far has worked with more than 1,200 women over the past two decades.

But how did Gara and Petit point, which are non-Indian embroideries, become established in this region?

Design inspirations from abroad

French knot with Parsi design embroidery by Prastuti Design
French knot with Parsi design embroidery by Prastuti Designs

Gara is known as the Parsi saree worn on special occasions like weddings or festivals. Gara sari for a Parsi bride is like the Benarasi brocade sari for a North Indian bride, a Kanchipuram sari for a South Indian bride or a Paithani sari for a Maharashtra bride. Gara embroidery was introduced to India by a Parsi businessman traveling to China for trade. One of them brought a cloth that had this embroidery that depicted the flora and fauna so beautifully that it almost looked like the flowers were real and the new Parsi settlers who wanted to have an identity in India decided to adopt as part of their marriage clothing.

Petit point embroidery, famous as the embroidery of France, was popular in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was brought to India by European settlers and missionaries. The dots are so small that almost 1000 points are sewn in a one inch square area. Each stitch can be made with a different colored yarn, which makes the piece incredibly attractive. The problem with Gara and Petit point is that they are very difficult to master and take a long time to do.

It takes almost 1,500 to 5,000 hours to make a saree and that is the reason why 10 to 12 women are tasked to work together on a saree so that it can be finished on time. No machine can reproduce this embroidery and this increases the cost of the final product.

Recover lost embroidery

Saree by Prastuti Design
Saree by Prastuti Designs

At any given time, more than 350 women are working in three units of Prastuti spread across three different areas in the West Bengal hinterland. Added to this are more than 300 people indirectly involved in undertaking other work for Prastuti.

Deepa Gupta launched Prastuti with only women making beautiful products from Kantha style embroidery in the 1990s. He became famous for authentic Kantha products. Thus, Anshul and Tanvi were exposed to Kantha styles early on.

At the turn of this century, Anshul was pursuing her studies as a Chartered Accountant (CA), but one point less for passing the final exams changed her future. In fact, having grown up in the atmosphere of fabrics, yarns, patterns and embroidery, he was never too fond of pursuing a CA career.

“It was also the time when suddenly in the world of embroidery, we started talking about Gara and Petit point. Like all other handmade items, even these two styles were almost gone. In Mumbai, I met a Mrs. Aagha and knowing my interest in embroidery, she suggested that I introduce these styles into our units,” Anshul recalls.

To introduce these two styles which were completely foreign to him in his country was intimidating. Fortunately, he met two embroiderers Mukhtarbhai and Gulambhai, both expert embroiderers in these styles, eager to return home to Bengal from Uttar Pradesh where they had trained and worked as master embroiderers. They agreed to train women in these styles.

Of course, there was a lot of opposition to learning something new that required hard work, as these women had known Kantha since childhood and worried about job opportunities. But they were promised secure employment with good working conditions.

Today, each trainee receives a monthly stipend of Rs 500 for six months. After training, the trainees selected are absorbed into the unit at a salary of Rs 300 per eight-hour day, for 360 days a year.

Although anyone can take time off at any time, the units operate all year round except during Durga Puja – a major festival in West Bengal. In addition, an interest-free loan of Rs 3,000 is granted to purchase bicycles for the women to travel from their homes to the accommodations. The majority of these women cycle to their place of work, as it saves them time and money from using erratic public transport. Thus, depending on the days they devote, they earn between Rs 2,500 and Rs 7,500 per month. It also offers them protection against child marriage and harassment at home.

Their gain gives them strength.

Embroiderers working on a saree at Prastuti Designs
Each intern receives a monthly stipend of Rs 500 for six months at Prastuti Designs.

Falguni Maity, 32, who has worked with Prastuti for 12 years, says: “I love cycling to my workplace. Even during the monsoon, I either wait for the rain to stop or bring a change of clothes to change in our unit’s washroom once I get here. The bike saves me from having to wait for public transport.

This is another reason why women love working at Prastuti. Unlike many other such units in the country, Prastuti maintains clean and tidy restrooms for its workers. Added to this are the air conditioners installed in two units, which makes it comfortable to work in the summer.

“We also serve free lunches of rice and egg curry or rice and fish curry with torkari (vegetables),” says Biplab Mazumdar, 51, who has worked as a supervisor in one of the units for over two decades. . Even his mother and four sisters worked here as embroiderers.

With wealthy customers, who can afford these heritage products, Anshul Gupta wants to slowly branch out to start other hand embroidery styles prevalent across the country.

He hopes this will generate more jobs for women in the West Bengal hinterland and that many endangered hand embroidery styles will find new life.

(Editing by Yoshita Rao)