Kolkata: The simple running stitch most of us learnt at school is making waves in Kolkata. Experts in India's traditional textiles have mounted an exhibition in the city of the Kantha - the embroidery stitch whose beginnings some centuries ago may have been very humble but it has evolved into a fine art.
The living heritage, say connoisseurs, must be nurtured and preserved for the future. And to make the exhibition - The Eye of the Needle - interactive and exciting, organisers held informal ramp walks - a big draw.
Some of the sarees on the ramp have been designed by a mathematics teacher, Shamlu Dudeja, who turned into a Kantha entrepreneur. The humble stitch for Ms Dudeja is all about economics, history and art; and a passion she nurtures at 80.
"I call Kantha 'stich art'," she says, "But I want it to go beyond Bengal, wherever women have time for 'dwar pe rozi' (livelihood at doorstep). They can be sitting at home, on their doorstep, and do Kantha, earn a living and take the tradition forward."
Indeed, Kantha stitch is a living heritage. Ask Ruma Pal Chowdhury, a champion of traditional textiles, who nurtured Kantha as head of the West Bengal Crafts Council. She is now emeritus chairperson. "For me, Kantha is an art because of all the emotion that is put into a piece of cloth. It was almost dying - the art - but Rabindranath Tagore really helped to revive it and we must keep it alive," she said.
The origin of Kantha is unknown but the art flourished in Bengal and Odisha over the last 500 years. The Kantha stitch has also been popular in Bangladesh. Shanta Ghosh, president of the West Bengal Crafts Council, is a collector and has lent exquisite works from Bangladesh and Bengal to the exhibition.
"I was studying in the United States, visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was amazed at a fabulous collection of Kanthas it had. I also saw how much the art was appreciated. I realised they were giving so much respect to something made by women from my state but I never thought about it, I took it for granted. So since I came back to India, I have been collecting the works for the last 30 years," she said.
So Kantha has a rich history. What about the future? Among the women who walked the ramp wearing a Kantha saree was Sreenanda Shankar, dancer and daughter of the legendary duo - Tanusree and Ananda Shankar. She is confident Kantha can go places if marketed well.
"Of course young people would wear Kantha. Look at the colours, the fine work. And given all the history and tradition that comes with it, certainly young people with great taste will love it," she said.
Eye of the Needle - the exhibition mounted by the West Bengal Crafts Council showcasing masterpieces from Ministry of Culture's Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) - focuses on making Kantha popular and not just mothballed heritage. The 16-day exhibition was inaugurated on April 25 as part of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of The Crafts Council of West Bengal at Birla Academy of Art and Culture.
"Look at the variety of fashion and lifestyle products Kantha is being used for these days. I am sure it will find a place in many lives," said Ms Chowdhury. The Crafts Council trains women in the art. Bina Dey of Kolkata even won a national award in 2014 for her work.
"I think Kantha is just beautiful. Foreigners love it, especially the traditional designs. I love stitching the traditional stitches and they are doing very well in India and abroad," Ms Dey said.
The Kantha artist - ordinary village women - do not first pencil draw the patterns. They just put one stitch after the other to an exquisite finish - a humble art fit for a queen.