Sujuni & Khatwa

6 Oct

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Sujuni and Khatwa are two types of stitched work, now made mostly by collectives in India.  Sujuni refers to works made in rural areas and they are typically two layers of cotton with chain stitched lines and color fields filled in by long stitches.  Khatwa is the urban version, again using chain stitched lines, but the shapes or fields are usually filled in by applique fabric.

The two art forms tie very closely to womens’ rights, and both have had a troubled history.  Traditionally, they were viewed as useful objects, much as quilts in North America.  Recently, they have been made by collectives of women seeking freedom–the money these women make from their work allows them to provide for their families, and often they are able to leave their villages or even the country to display the work. At the same time, the collectives have in the past become corrupt, and the people who did parts of the work were taken advantage of by higher-ups in the collective.  Certain collectives have made efforts to use more transparent and democratic business methods.  Also, a lot of the collectives fall under outside influences (i.e. people from humanitarian organizations or western art professors in this case)  so there is some discussion regarding how much control the drawers and sewers have over the work.  There is also moral debate about the involvement of outsiders.  Would the collectives exist without them?

These works walk a line between art and business.  The women often work on commission–for them this is a way of life, and the financial freedom afforded by this allows them to make their own decisions.  At the same time, just as with American quilting, people are beginning to view them as art objects.  The work does, however, pose a bit of a problem for the western art world because they are not made by one artist.

Usually, there is a story-teller, who is the draftsman.  She draws the design on the piece of cotton.   The sewers then interpret the story and put those interpretations into the colors and the stitching that fill in the drawing.

The work is related to Mithila and Madhubani painting, using rounded figures to tell a story.  Mithila and Madhubani painting is usually thought of as two processes–first there is a line drawing, then the spaces are filled in with color.  In Sujuni and Khatwa, this process is mimicked in thread.  Commissioned work is often decorative and conservative, but many times, the women of these collectives use the process to tell their own, updated stories.  Some of the works are about the dangers of AIDS, some address the unfairness of the market, and some record the telling landscape of everyday life.

Stitching Women’s Lives

The Object of Labor

Livingstone, J., & Ploof, J. (2007). The object of labor: Art, cloth, and cultural production. MIT.

Viji Srinivasan, Dr. Skye Morrison, Laila Tyabji, Dorothy Caldwell (authors of pertinent essays in the book)


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