Kantha from Kantha ~ Shabnam

The Eye of the Needle - An event by The Crafts Coucil of West Bengal - A talk by Shabnam Ramaswamy

The Katha of Katna!

Shabnam - To smile for!

It is dusk. A verandah in Katna, a small town in West Bengal. An assortment of women with complaints against domestic violence, maybe rape. A woman presiding over proceedings, having a dialogue trying to help women to find workable equations, solutions to problems in a more benign manner, bypassing the “thana”. In the majority of police stations across our country there is an absence of women to provide support to girls or women, complainants against violence, rape and other offences. These thanas are generally a far cry from saviour or protectors, which they purport to be.

A faux “mouche” a metaphor of male dominance, this woman Shabnam, has been accepted by the local men to be one of them. The drama unfolds. The case is unusual. A young man, newly married feels his wife is not according him the due respect she should offer a husband - serving him food, setting out his clothes and such like. The young wife was summoned and she proudly sat in the chair and looked everyone in the eye. She had no qualms about owning up to this act of wilful negligence. Her reasoning was very simple. Her father sold all his belongings including his house and gave her in-laws 3 lacs. She would not cooperate till the money was returned and her father had a roof over his head. The money it transpired had been spent on farming, gold and the “chhele pule” (kids). Miffed the girl retorted that there were no chhele pules so there was no merit in “their” arguments. A heart warming story of empowerment! Non cooperation that led to Swarajya- Independence, perchance?!

A single woman’s efforts and there have been perceptible changes in this neighbourhood. Barely out of school, Shabnam was married to a man who physically drove her out. Her second marriage was much happier, her husband an academician. At the beginning of this century she inherited a piece of land in Katna. A leap of faith and they decided to invest their life savings in a school on the premises for educating the kids in the vicinity. By 2005 the building was ready to be inaugurated but by a cruel twist of fate her husband died of a cardiac arrest before the project had commenced. Shabnam was clueless about running a school but started nevertheless, determined to learn from her mistakes.

Every Bengali woman has a kantha, a blanket, made with torn saris, stitched with beautiful motifs, binding the warmth and comfort of the family, moments spent together, happy times and maybe even death as the Mazhar on the bier. This fabric has tremendous personal value often handed down through generations with a personal construct and connect . Shabnam realised that these could not ever be purchased for those who wanted one. This despite the availability of abundant talent in every family. The girls effortlessly stitched these kanthas, coloured with their personal testimonies and stories. Inspired, she took the next leap of faith. She sold her remaining gold, purchased some cloth and thread and involved the local women on the school premises to make these. An enterprise was born.

Days elapsed and she had some ready to be sold – but had no idea how to go about it - how and where. She literally wrapped them in a bundle and like a “feriwala” went to the local Govt, craft bodies, and other official retailers with no avail. A friend suggested she meet Laila Tyabji and a conversation later she took a stall at Dilli Hat. She managed to sell most of these creations. Overjoyed she was not one to rest on her laurels but took home the lessons learnt of sizing, colour and design. Market research and an opportunity!

Her spunk took her to NID where the then Director allowed some of the students to intern at Katna. Not only rays but sunbeams of hope later, the road ahead brightened. She improved on the basic elements of the humble kantha and made it a sophisticated piece for upmarket interiors, and apparel.

The women instinctively measure (elbow to fingers) and count while they stitch. They make geometric patterns with effortless accuracy. Today she employs 1400 women and they work according to their own time tables. However quality and deadlines are non-negotiables and the women do it unfailingly because they have come to realise and value the importance of discipline, reliability and efficiency.

Shabnam has in ten years achieved a turnover of over ten digits. She has fought the price war to provide a fair wage to the women. On an average a kantha / bedcover for a King sized bed takes 60 days. Rs 50/= is a pittance compared to the minimunm wages of 250/= 300/= the men earn under the MNREGA scheme. She has been steadfast and unwavering and the discerning buyers have succumbed to the lure of the “Katna Kantha”.

The profits have been channelled back, some into the business but most into her dream venture – the school! There are now two, one CBSE and the other the West Bengal Board. Women are encouraged to save and in case of emergencies even in the middle of the night, ready help is available. There is education for all in her schools, subsidised for those who cannot afford it. The education system is innovative drawing from local wisdom. The Katra Masjid in Murshidabad made many years ago have accurate squares exactly the size of asanas built into the stone floors. Incredible but true!

Shabnam travels, not for her business or even the schools both of which are self sustaining. After all they cannot be dependent on her and have to outlive her and carry on. Her journey takes her to different parts of rural Bengal to better the system for women, to demand protection, support, effective legislation, safe spaces for amusement. She heads many Govt bodies and is relentless.

With her Kantha she has “needled” structural dominance and tirelessly continues in her endeavours. In her initial days when she was unable to find solutions she surged on knowing well that if she was not about to give up she would certainly reach her destination. Persevere! Profound wisdom, the beauty in its simplicity. If you sow wheat saplings it wont blossom into a mango tree, there will be a wheat plant. The cycle of karma and environment. She does not believe in God but is surrounded by believers . And she shows them the way, the right way. Women have a voice, financial ability, clarity of thought process and true empowerment in her world. Katna.

Meanwhile it is dusk in Katna and she is surrounded by people seeking her advice, as she counsels with wit, humour, common sense. She proudly asserts that her oasis in Bengal has freedom. Her schools are “Jagriti” and “Pragati” ( awakening and progress)eponymous of her philosophy in life and now the motto of the people of Katna

If she can why cant we all? Drops do make the ocean!




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