Self Help Enterprises
"The kantha works are imbued with a sense of serenity."
Shamlu is the founder of Self Help Enterprises, a nonprofit organization focused on women’s welfare in rural parts of India with the mission of providing women the training and support to produce exquisite Kantha textiles. “Each piece is a labor of love,” Shamlu adds. She has dedicated her life to promoting stitched textiles in the kantha tradition, not just to revive this integral piece of Bengal’s heritage, but also to empower the women of rural India to generate their own incomes, right from their front porches.
Munun, a key member of the organization explains, “Rural women of Bengal are empowered with each piece that we sell. Being a part of the IFAM | Online program means we will get more orders which means more work, leading to the empowerment of more rural women in Bengal.”
For 30 years, Self Help Enterprises has helped women to create and sell saris, scarves, stoles, jackets, bedcovers, wall hangings, and cushion covers. The word ‘kantha’ translates as ‘rags,’ and the style of embroidery evolved centuries ago out of the need to reuse old fabrics to make new ones.
“The women of Bengal have always been great conservationists,” Shamlu says. “They do whatever they can to reuse and revive objects in their lives—fabrics, quilts, dusters, even empty bottles.” Today, kantha embroidery is a common sight in the garments of India’s urban residents.
Between 600 and 800 women sell their textiles under the umbrella of Self Help Enterprises. Every purchase goes towards supporting the women of rural Bengal. A single scarf takes two to three months to complete, and most pieces depict traditional designs, including flora and fauna, gods and goddesses, paisley motifs, and the circular pattern of the mandala, which is said to hold healing powers.
Before starting Self Help Enterprises, Shamlu explains that she was a math teacher for many years, until she was struck by cancer. To earn a living from home, she wrote math textbooks, but wondered what other income possibilities existed for the many Indian women who work—unpaid—at home all day. When Shamlu came across some women selling kantha panels at the local market, she realized that the traditional, imaginative textiles could be the ticket.
“Seeing those kantha scarves took me back to the days when I learned the technique in school in Delhi,” Shamlu says. After that market day, she visited kantha artists in their homes to learn more about the tradition, and says she was struck by the simplicity of their lifestyles. She immediately realized that she could help these women sell their work, and Self Help Enterprises was born.
Shamlu describes the lengthy, complex process of creating a piece of kantha embroidery. “We use natural (often silk or cotton) hand-woven fabrics for georgettes and crepes,” she says, “and no synthetic thread is used.” The process starts with cutting, sizing, and dyeing. Then, designs are traced onto butter paper and the outlines are embedded onto fabric. Finally, the motifs are stitched, the designs filled in, and the piece is ready for sale.
Shamlu’s goals for the organization include marketing more broadly, to more countries. In addition, Shamlu hopes that Self Help Enterprises can continue to reach women throughout rural India. “With kantha, women with almost no education are able to generate income from their homes in their spare time,” Shamlu explains, “and there is no commuting time or expense.” The craft brings women money and respect from family and community members.
“Each one, reach one—that is my life’s objective,” Shamlu concludes. “This is a plea to people the world over: we do not need handouts. Instead, we wish to spread the word of kantha textiles, so more and more women in rural Bengal are empowered to create, earn, and flourish.”