Chitra Balasubramaniam explains how ancient skills are being applied to modern designs.
India is renowned for its many crafts, particularly those in the realm of textiles. The state of Bihar, in northeast India, has its own textile traditions, including khatwa, in which many small scraps are put together to create beautifully designed pieces. In her book Handicrafts of India,* the late Kamaladevi Chattopadhya – a great exponent of India’s many craft traditions – describes khatwa as being ‘famed for decorative tents and canopies used for ceremonial occasions. The designs for tents … include trees, flowers, animals and birds’.
An early tradition
Khatwa is essentially an appliqué technique, although it is sometimes described as patchwork. In the past it was used to create canopies and tents, called kanats, which were made to be sold; other khatwa work was made for more personal use. For the more commercial items, large pieces of cloth were cut into smaller patches and joined together to create new designs; a bird, for example, might be made up of three or four different pieces.
Another style of khatwa was a form of reverse appliqué, in which designs were cut out from the top cloth, and then sewn down onto a different-coloured background fabric that would highlight the cut-out designs. These were often then embellished with embroidery.Much earlier pieces of khatwa were often very fine, and may even have adorned the palaces of the Mughal rulers. Certainly the early patchwork kanats incorporated intricate designs reflecting Indian folklore, and colourful canopies and tents would have been made for royalty and the nobility for festive occasions, religious and other events, such as the shikar, or hunt. On these occasions the forest area would be cleared and a base camp established. Comfort in the camp was created using a number of kanats and farzis (carpets). The tents were imaginatively decorated and so fine that to an onlooker it seemed as if a new city had been built in the forest.
The women use a combination of quilting, appliqué and embroidery techniques – all worked by hand without the use of any machine. The motifs have a childlike quality to them. The edges are hand cut and stitched with tiny hemming stitches, which is also how the designs are appliquéd. The appliqué is then embellished with embroidery to create a new effect. Tents and canopies are also still made. The khatwa or appliqué is worked using fine white cloth which gives a beautiful shaded effect. The drawing of the motifs and cutting out are done by men while the women hand appliqué the motifs onto the background fabric and decorate them with embroidery. Embroidery stitches include chain stitch, running stitch, buttonhole and blanket stitch (the women have their own names for each stitch).
I first saw some modern khatwa that had been made by a small group of women who were trained in the techniques with the aim of enabling them to make items for sale. These included some simple pieces describing village life or life in the jungle, while others were made to inform women about AIDS, birth control, and women’s rights.
In 2015, the government of Bihar applied for Geographical Indications of ‘Appliqué (Khatwa) Work of Bihar’, and the craft does now have registered status. Today khatwa products are made largely for sale, and the work reflects the sophistication demanded by today’s markets. Bihar is famous for its silk, which is often used, sometimes with cotton, and the colours are also selected carefully for modern appeal. What remains unchanged is the simplicity of the motifs, which are largely drawn from nature, and which reflect those earlier traditions of telling a story in fabric.© Chitra Balasubramaniam 2020
The full version of this article appeared in our quarterly members magazine The Quilter, Journal NO. 163, Summer 2020.
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* Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Handicrafts of India, first edition 1975, Indian Council for Cultural Affairs.