“I could not believe that such a textile really exed. It amazed and surprised me that India is a country where you can still find crafts that remain undocumented,” said Saumya Pande, co-founder at Zameen Astar Foundation (ZAF) and HOD Fashion at Indian Institute of Art & Design (IIAD), New Delhi.
The craft she was talking about is kheta, exclusively practised the women of the Shershabadi community who currently call Kishanganj, Bihar their home. Kheta is a little-known craft form in the family of embroidered quilts like sujni of Bihar and kantha of West Bengal.
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Khetas are embroidered, reversible quilts made from layering and stitching together four to five old, worn off saris. (Photo: Zameen Astar Foundation)
Speaking of their elaborate ancestry that spans two countries, Pande said: “As the story goes, Sher Shah Suri, an able ruler, won the lands till the Delta area of Bangladesh. He gave some land near Malda drict to his Afghan foot soldiers to celebrate his victory, but died soon after in an accident. The soldiers got married to the local women, and were called Shershabadis. They were not accepted in the Mughal nor the British army. Marginalised and persecuted, they migrated westwards for the last 400 years. For a long time they owned little land but have now settled in the flood plains of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.”
Her organisation has been working with the community since 2017 when a flood ravaged many villages in Kishanganj.
Close up of the the Kheta embroidery. (Photo: Zameen Astar Foundation)
Kheta quilts are reversible. (Photo: Zameen Astar Foundation)
Khetas are embroidered, reversible quilts made from layering and stitching together four to five old, worn off saris, and is a generational craft form that is exclusively practised the women of the Shershabadi community. Unlike sujni and kantha, kheta doesn’t have any placement of central medallions, corner motifs, or even borders, just thread running from edge to edge of the layered sarees in a linear treatment to create dense patterns.
The women make these quilts using just a needle and thread, embroidering on them with linear stitches as the pattern emerges diagonally, which is why “I feel they have a visually calculative mind,” said Pande. She added that “it is one textile that is sensed through both the hands and feet; women walk over the layers while putting the stay stitches when they start the piece.” In terms of the design that feature in the quilts, patterns are inspired nature — from lahori (fine ripples on rivers) to biskut (bamboo forests that enabled basketry) — as well as chatsiani from chatai (bamboo mats) or the leekphool (floral patterns).
But khetas were horically never made to be sold for monetary benefit. Tajgara Khatun, 47, who is from Harishchandrapur, West Bengal, said its something women of their community must learn at a very young age, like she did when she was 10. Sarifa Khatun, 54, added that a girl must know how to embroider khetas for being considered eligible for marriage. “If she doesn’t know how to make kheta, she will be questioned on her abilities.” Khetas are a prized, heirloom pieces for them which are gifted the mother when her daughter gets married and when she has children.
Kheta is embroidered on 44-5 layers of old saris. (Photo: Zameen Astar Foundation)
“We practise Kheta in our spare time, after tending to our cattle and doing our farming. But each piece takes a lot of time, sometimes months, to complete. But despite the laborious nature, everyone in my family, including my mother and grandmother practice this craft as it is in our heritage,” said Tajkera Khatun, 33, who was taught this craft her mother and is now teaching her daughters, too. She, along with other fellow villagers, spoke on the phone from Crafts Museum, Delhi where they are presenting an exhibition on Kheta, marking the first time these women have travelled outside the village. “It feels great, I am very excited for the world to see our craft,” shared Tajkera.
Up until Zamin Astar Foundation and Azad India Foundation’s work with the community, Khetas were only made “poor people, and sometimes bought rich people”, according to Tajgara. But Sarifa said that after their workshops, they are now encouraged to engage in commercial activities with their cultural and generational craft form. “They showed us that this can fetch money, and we did start earning more money after they started working in our village,” she added. Adding to that, Ashraful Haque, Tajgara’s eldest son, observed that earlier, very few people even in Bihar knew about kheta; now, people from across Kishanganj and outside the Shershabadi community are seeing value in the craft and are eager to learn from the women.
The craft knowledge is passed down from and to the women in the family. (Photo: Zameen Astar Foundation)
But with a craft so intrinsically personal and restricted within families and traditions, came challenges, too. Pande shared that these women do see it as something that can get them cash in hand because they are often held financially accountable the men. But she also noted that while some villages are willing to take up orders of making throws and runners in kheta embroidery, they usually don’t want to part with the ones that they have made for themselves.
“Before the exhibition, I went to loan some of these khetas from the women. And even though they didn’t ask for any money for loaning it, they specifically sent a message to me requesting for them to returned in due time. So, I do feel that something that is meant for their own use is seen differently, and what we ask them to make is different.”
A Shershabdi woman separating thread for Kheta embroidery. (Photo: Zameen Astar Foundation)
Yuman Hussain, executive director at Azad India Foundation (AIF), said there have been several barriers “as Shershabadis are a closed Muslim community with low female literacy rate. They belong to a conservative Bengali-speaking community where women are not the decision makers. Many girls are married off before they turn 18 years, even today. Many women are beedi rollers who earn very less (INR 100-150 per day), and that too if they are lucky to get work every day.”
(Photo: Zameen Astar Foundation)
But the foundation’s work aims to change that and empower the proud inheritors of this unique craft replacing rolling tobacco into beedis with learning and upskilling of kheta skills and popularising it pan-India. The organisation is working with the Shershabadi community through women literacy program and learning centres for the young children and adolescent girls in different villages of Kishanganj drict. Hussain believes “kheta’s social impact would help Shershabadi women earn a respectable living for themselves and move closer to financial independence.”
Now, ZAF along with AIF is seeking GI status as the embroidery form is specific to a community and region. Pande believes that this could economically empower the community. “We hope that with the GI status, it continues as a practicing craft for longer in the younger generation and is adopted a larger population within the community. We hope to involve government agencies for training and up-skilling of the craft.”
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