Re-Crafting Contemporary Female Voices: The Revival of Quilt-Making among Rural Hindu Women of Eastern India

by Sandra Gunning
Re-Crafting Contemporary Female Voices: The Revival of Quilt-Making among Rural Hindu Women of Eastern India
Sandra Gunning
Feminist Studies
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An almost forgotten tradition dating back to the eighteenth centu- ry, the making of sujuni kanthas, or embroidered quilts, was re- vived in the late 1980s, when the private not-for-profit organiza- tion Adithi set about developing programs to assist the poor rural women of Bihar State. Ln 1988, based around the village of Bhu- sura, the quilt project was born out of a collaboration between Adithi and the local organization Mahila Vikas Samyong Samiti (MVSS), as a means of offering women opportunities for econom- ic independence. This opportunity becomes increasingly impor- tant, because among those who need to supplement their fami- lies' meager income from agricultural work are widows, tradi- tional housewives prevented from working outside of the home, and women who want to send their children (girls especially) to school. The Adithi-MVSS project now boasts over 600 members and their work goes on sale as art objects both in India and in the West. The quilt makers earn anywhere from 10 to 1,000 rupees monthly, depending on how much time they can afford to devote to the craft, apart from their family commitments.

Highly colorful, with delicately embroidered human figures, animals, trees, and plants, the quilts display beautifully complex motifs: women harvesting fruit from a mango tree while birds hover above; women carrying fish or bamboo to market; scenes drawn from Hindu epics. But color, symmetry, and graceful irnagery are more often used to detail narratives drawn from the lives of the craftswomen. With titles such as "Marriage with Dowry and Without," quilts often depict the social struggles of these rural Hindu women against circumstances put into place by

Feminist Studies 26, no. 3 (fall2000). O 2000 by Feminist Studies, Inc. 719

Sandra Gunning

poverty, caste, and tradition. Domestic abuse, rape, forced prosti- tution, and the graphically depicted deaths of loved ones are im- portant themes along with scenes of female agricultural and do- mestic labor. At the same time, quilters use their embroidery to articulate hard-hitting political commentary on the struggle for female education, environmental crises in a rapidly globalizing context (such as the deadly 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, at the U.S.-owned Union Carbide plant), and linked health and gender crises such as the spread of AIDS and prostitution.

Ironically, by using what many consider to be the traditional "woman's work of sewing, the quilters are able to confront major social problems and also incorporate a vision of themselves as so- cially committed activists. Not surprisingly, the "Marriage with or without Dowry" quilt, which bears witness to the abuse of wom- en, also depicts women at a meeting organized against the dowry. Similarly, the "Girls' Education" quilt stresses the possibilities for women's organized agency. The important theme of women's col- lective activism depicted in these quilts is mirrored and rein- forced by the structure of the quilt-making process itself, fostered by Adithi and MVSS: whether in the selection of colors, the choice of embroidery techniques, or in the creation of designs, motifs, and themes, the sujuni projects provide these quilters with the op- portunity to meet together to plan their quilts and to provide community and support to each other as well.

Still, despite these acts of empowerment, the quilters have to negotiate between their own activism and the demands of poten- tial customers. In an exhibition pamphlet produced by the New York-based Asia Society for a 1998 exhibition of these eastern In- dian quilts, Molly Aitken puts the issue succinctly: "The some- times violent politics of the sujunis will not strike the average buyer as appropriate decoration for a bed (dowry deaths?), a child's room (female infanticide?), or the living room wall (AIDS prevention and prostitution?)." Because the quilting project origi- nated as a means for poor women bound by traditional customs to earn much-needed cash, is the very success of the project as an outlet for social protest detrimental to its equally important eco- nomic function? As Aitken reports, the women themselves are aware of the problem of their work being rejected as too political. Some major quilts have been commissioned by the Asia Society, but not surprisingly the women also take orders from more popu-

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