Advancement and Promotion of Charitable Activities

The Narrative Thread

The Narrative Thread: Women’s Embroidery From Rural India Showcases Revived Art Form That Enhances Women’s Lives: On View at The National Museum of Women in The Arts Februray 4- May 9, 1999.

Washington, D.C.-The Narrative Thread: Women’s Embroidery from Rural India, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from February 4 through May 9, 1999, will examine the revival and reinvention of a quilting tradition. The 30 communally created quilts depict stories on topics ranging from village life and Hindu epics to health care and women’s rights.

Women of India’s rural eastern Bihar state are again creating the colorful, embroidered quilts (sujunis) first made by their predecessors in the 18th century. But these modern textiles depart from the past in technique, materials, and colors. Perhaps most remarkably, the stories that the women choose are contemporary statements that provide not only a source of social freedom, but also of economic empowerment.

The quilts in this exhibition combine the arts of quiltmaking and embroidery. They were designed by three women from the Bihar village of Bhusura: Archana, Nirmala Devi, and Reenu. After sketching a story freehand on cotton cloth, the designer narrates it to the three or four women who will embroider the sujuni. These women may suggest changes to the story or in the design. They then outline the design in chain stitches, color the figures with brilliant threads, and fill in the white background with running stitches to give a rippling, vibrant texture to the whole quilt. The main narrative appears at the center of the quilt, with one or two motifs or another stage in the narrative lining the borders.

Some quilts, such as Bamboo and Fishing in the River, use themes from everyday activities in and around the village. In others, women’s issues predominate, such as Girls’ Education and Marriage with Dowry and Without, the latter illustrating the panchayats, meetings the women hold to seek their own solutions to community problems. In Rich Woman, Poor Woman, a poor woman begs from a rich woman, then starts her own job and finds success. Quilts also address the spread of AIDS, female infanticide, wife abuse, and voting rights for women. One of the more fanciful quilts depicts scenes from the life of the notorious Phoolan Devi, The “Bandit Queen,” showing her time in prison, her election as minister of parliament, and her private helicopter.

Like many traditional arts in India, sujuni production had virtually disappeared. In 1988, Adithi, a private, nonprofit organization that provides assistance to Indian women living below the poverty line, began working with residents of Bihar to revive and reshape the art. Objects that were once given as gifts on festive occasions today provide the women of Bihar with a means to express social and political concerns and to generate income.

Prior to the project, local women rarely left their home or mixed with other castes. Now they gather together as they embroider quilts and discuss issues that concern their lives. In a rural society where social custom prohibits women from working, the quilters can now earn money practicing an art that the male members of their families deem appropriate. Their income has given them a measure of independence and repect within the home, and has meant the difference between mere subsistence and a degree of security for some families.

The Narrative Thread: Women’s emroidery from Rural India was organized by the Asia Society and has been made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation. Presentation at NMWA is made possible by the NMWA Texas State Committee; the Bajaj Family Foundation; Jatinder Kumar, trustee of Advancement and Promotion of Charitable Activities; Mr. Sharad and Dr. Mahinder Tak; and museum members.