I’m excited to write about Kasuti Embroidery, a traditional craft works that is centuries old. The art of needlecraft in itself is as ancient as the Vedas themselves. For it is mentioned in this sacred text that one of the accomplishments of a woman was the art of needlework. Many excavations dating as far back as 3rd millennium have yielded crude forms of needles, awls used by cobblers as well as embroiderers. The Indus Valley civilization crude female figures do seem to be clad in what looks like embroidered waist garments. Embroidered veils and upper and lower garments adorn the Apsaras in the Ajanta cave murals. The Buddhist Toranas show tree sprites called Salabhanjikas in bustiers with designs on them as well as their waist garments are embellished too.
The needlecraft has had an unbroken tradition in our country with varying types of embroidery in each region depending on the local traditions and beliefs. Ritual cloths in temples and for other purposes are also finely embroidered with figures of gods and goddesses and their Vahanas. Also, floral, animal and bird motifs, as the cloths covering the bullocks, horses and temple elephants. Besides, of course, temple chariots that are beautifully adorned with appliquéd cloth hangings. Initially used to strengthen and join together old fabrics, embroidery has evolved into an important craft now. It is an expression of refined skill of womenfolk mainly. The rich variety of Indian needlecraft includes any number of stitches and techniques. It is worked on a variety of fabrics with fine silk and embellishments of beads, mirror, coins, buttons, shells, metallic thread and sequins. These are added to make the embroidery extraordinarily beautiful.
Each region of our country has its own unique embroidery tradition. Like, the Phulkari of Punjab, Kantha of Bengal, Abhala of Saurashtra and the exquisite Kasuti of Karnataka which originated in the old provinces of Karnataka. It dates back to as far as 7th. century A.D.
Motifs used in Kasuti:
Karnataka has been influenced by various cultures – Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina, and Islam and many folk traditions. The Kings encouraged both Shaivism and Vaishnavism and Sakti worship had its claimants too. The Chalukyas, the Hoysalas, Rashtrakutas, Pallavas and the famed Vijayanagara dynasty encouraged art, architecture and music during their reign. They were patrons of many temples and the sculptures in the temples of Karnataka speak volumes of the artistic traditions of this region. This sparked the imagination of the women to create motifs resembling temple gopuras, chariots, the processional elephants & the sacred Tulsi plant. Also, ritual floor drawings motifs in temples, homes and borders resembling fine anklets worn by the women are used. Besides, there are temple tanks and the deepa sthambas or lamp towers. Motifs exhibiting Palanquins in which the Utsava murtis in the temple were taken out in a procession during festivals are equally good.
Traditionally the tribal women of Belgaum, Hubli, Dharwad and Bijapur districts of Karnataka worked the Kasuti embroidery on a black Ilkal Sari with a red border. Referred as Kali Chandrakala, designed to be given as a gift to the brides in their family. Also, a choli or saree blouse called Kanas from Ilkal was embroidered with Kasuti stitches for a mother to be. These sarees and blouses were worn on special occasions like weddings and festivals. Even the domestic animals like the ox were rewarded for their selfless service with a Kasuti embroidered cloth covering their backs. Basically, the original purpose of the Kasuti was ritual in nature.
It has gone commercial now with the mass production of Kasuti embroidered sarees and modern wear like tops, skirts, Dupattas, etc. Few notices the symbolism of the different stitches or its ritual significance. The Kasuti resembles the western cross stitch. The traditional Kasuti was embroidered in such a way that it was reversible, with no wrong side to it. The thread used was single and only a skilled needlewoman could execute fine work.
Traditional Kasuti motifs are geometric in design and in cross stitch. It is executed by counting the threads of the fabric. Furthermore, the designs are worked along in such a way that it finishes at the point where it started. The weft and the warp threads were counted and an exact count of stitches are calculated. Hence, the eyes of the embroider need to be acute to get a fine finish. It is a painstaking and exacting labour for the women. No knots were allowed to mar the work.
The original Kasuti were done on small hand towels called Panchas, typically worn in North Karnataka. It is similar to the western Samplers or small squares of cloth on which the stitches were preserved in a framed hanging. The embroidery was done by women and the traditional motifs were augmented with their own inventive genius. For instance, stylized birds and animals, flowers and plants, dolls, etc. Till recently it remained a domestic art form until it spread to other parts of India. In addition, easier methods were also adopted to mass produce Kasuti articles. It includes bedspreads, napkins, shawls, lamp shades, small bags, etc.
Types of Kasuti:
Traditional Kasuti has four types of stitches- Ganti, Muragi, Neygi and Menthe which means knot, zigzag, weave and fenugreek seed. Neygi went out of hand work as the modern weaving techniques can produce woven butis and other designs in the loom itself. Murgi is the most admired and the most difficult stitch of the four. Ganti is a double running stitch used extensively in Kasuti work for marking vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. Kasuti remains Karnataka’s pride and joy and rightly so. Its popularity is unlikely to wane in many years to come. The reason is plain to see, it is at once elegant, beautiful, traditional, and ageless in its charm.