Culture — Kasuti, the Ancient Embroidery Craft from Karnataka

Culture — Kasuti, the Ancient Embroidery Craft from Karnataka
Nestled in the northwestern stretches of Karnataka, Dharwad — a name that might conjure images of the prestigious IIT for many today — holds a history that delves much deeper than its present-day academic fame. The town's name itself, hailing from the Sanskrit 'dwar' meaning door, and 'wad' signifying town, speaks to its historical significance as a pivotal thoroughfare. But Dharwad's role as a gateway extends far beyond mere geography; it is a portal to a wealth of cultural and historical treasures.

One such treasure is the traditional craft of Kasuti embroidery, an art steeped in intricate design and cultural heritage. This exploration piece seeks to audit the current state of Kasuti embroidery in India, an interest that sparked during the creation of our very own "Memories of Kasuti" collection.
Text: Shweta Vepa Vyas | Photography: Shreya Wankh

Pictured above: An embroiderer from Sakhi Saphalya is at work and is wearing our Dual Pixel Bangles from the Memories Of Kasuti Collection
From the pages of history

Dharwad’s history can be traced all the way back to the 6th century to its earliest rulers, the Chalukya dynasty under whom the arts and crafts flourished. Prominent amongst these crafts was Kasuti embroidery that has stood the test of time. Aparna P Sirsalmath, CEO, Sakhi Saphalya, a company founded to revive the craft sheds light on the history of this embroidery form. “Kasuti dates back to the early 6th century during the Chalukyan Era. It is understood that Kasuti was one of the 64 skills that a woman was required to learn amongst both royals and commoners. When men were away from home, women took up this craft to keep them occupied. Whatever they observed was translated into Kasuti on the fabric,” she notes. It would follow that most of these designs featured the region’s flora, fauna and culture. It wouldn’t be uncommon to spot motifs like birds, animals, architecture and scenes of everyday life like fairs and celebrations.

Samples of Shop Lune embroidery experiments and cards from the Memories of Kasuti identity are placed together.
A painstaking process

A closer look at the process of bringing these designs to life gives an indication of how labour intensive the craft is. Sirsalmath elaborates on this process that begins with transferring the design on the graph sheet. “From here, it’s traced on tracing paper. Then, the design is pricked on paper. The pricked paper is then placed on the fabric and the design is transferred using chalk powder paste.” Following these steps, the artisan begins the embroidery. The craft uses four types of stitches — gavanti the most common double running stitch; murgi, a zigzag stitch; negi, a weaving stick and methi, a simple cross stitch.

Details in the embroidery at Sakhi Saphalya in Dharwad, Karnataka.
Modern day challenges

In a world of fast fashion and e-commerce, where does such an elaborate textile art fit in? And how does one make it relevant to the new generation? Also, like with most traditional art and craft forms, the knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next. How does one ensure that the baton continues to pass on? 

Suman Mundkar, retired associate professor, SNDT Women’s University who used to teach embroidery believes the biggest challenge is marketing a handmade craft as finding buyers is difficult. “People don’t appreciate the value of handmade items. When I visited Hubli in 2008, I primarily found machine embroidered garments in the market. The beauty of Kasuti is that you can’t tell the right from the wrong side as the knots are so well concealed” She explains that a lot of housewives in Dharwad take on this work on order basis and one needs to pay per motif. She also points out that her students would take about a month for a 10 by 10 inch sample, indicating the kind of labour involved in this work. 

At the Sakhi Saphalya workshop in Dharwad, Karnataka.
 Breathing new life into Kasuti

Thankfully, there’s an awareness about wanting to restore and revive this declining art. Sirsalmath tells us more about such endeavours: “The IDF SHG foundation saw this craft declining at its place of origin. So, they conceptualised a project that would bring back or at least try to bring back its forgotten grandeur. Since 2010, Kaikrafts mobilised interested women, trained them and provided them with work,” she says. The embroidery also has a GI tag by the Indian government to protect the craft and its craftspeople.

Then there are those like Utsavi RN Jhaveri, a tattoo artist who creates designs inspired by embroidery forms including Kasuti. What started as a tribute to her grandmother after she passed away has now taken the form of a whole new tattoo design language. “The embroidery tradition in India has been one of the strongest marks of womanhood. It’s an art form that has been practised for generations in all parts of the subcontinent.” Speaking about her Kasuti-inspired tattoos, she adds, “I learned that one of the oldest embroidery forms in India is Kasuti, started by wives of weavers. They would use the leftover yarn to beautify their own garments. My work has always been about decolonizing myself as well as the Indian tattooing industry and it only made sense to continue my tradition of embroidery tattoos and drawing attention to these centuries old crafts.” Through her work she hopes that people start learning about our textile history and give our karigars the respect and money they actually deserve.

Sreesha Shetty with the women who are working on a project with Shop Lune that will be released soon.
Sreesha Shetty, Founder and Creative Director of Shop Lune, cherishes the Kasuti craft as a treasured piece of her childhood, reminiscent of sunny days spent at her ancestral home in Chikmagalur. She fondly remembers marveling at the distinctive embroidery patterns adorning sarees in local shops during her family's road trips from Goa to Karnataka. With Shop Lune's collection, "Memories of Kasuti," she aims to cast a spotlight on this geometrically intricate art form. The collection honors the ancient craft, translating traditional embroidery motifs into metal, thus continuing the storied legacy of culture and craftsmanship through time