Discover The Magic Of Karnataka’s Local Embroidery Called ‘Kasuti’
“I am not big on embroidery, but I had seen some kasuti products in Delhi and realised that it was something that could be translated into menswear quite effortlessly,” says Suket Dhir, whose menswear collection won him the coveted Woolmark Prize in 2016. Made up of the words kai meaning hand and suti meaning cotton, kasuti translates to ‘the handwork of cotton thread’. Originally stemming from the Dharwad, Belgaum, Hubballi and Bijapur districts of Karnataka, the geometric embroidery is typically done by women in their homes. It was restricted to saris, cholis and children’s clothes, with the nine-yard Ilkal — a type of woven sari with cotton warp on the body and silk warp on the border and pallu — being the garment of choice. Integral to wedding customs in tribal villages, brides were presented with an extensively decorated black Ilkal cotton sari with a red border called kali chandrakala.
Tapestry of tales
Traditionally, the embroidery involved using brightly coloured threads in red, orange, yellow, purple, blue and green on dark, netted fabric to create innumerable motifs that were borrowed from the women’s surroundings. Because kasuti thrived at a time when South Indian dynasties patronised art and architecture, motifs took the shape of chariots, palanquins and processional elephants with howdahs. Religious symbols, too, were prevalent via the sacred tulsi plant, gopura (ornate tower entrances to Hindu temples), pushkarini (temple tank) and conch shells. Animals such as the ox, Nandi (the sacred bull), horses and coiled serpents, as well as birds like parrots, peacocks and, occasionally, swans, were commonplace, as were floral patterns of the betel nut leaf and lotus.
In a bid to contemporise the craft, Dhir moved away from convention and experimented with muted colour schemes, as can be seen in a lot of tone-on-tone work on his jackets and shirts. He replaced the traditional designs with those of mangoes and parrots that were inspired by his childhood spent at mango orchards with his grandfather in Punjab.
The designer firmly believes that he was able to achieve the patterns — and not just the standard paisley ones — because of the measured precision of the technique. Clean stitches and sharp lines Kasuti involves the precise counting of the threads of the weft and warp; stitched such that one always returns to the starting point. Four stitches are responsible for the arresting symmetrical motifs. These are gavanti, muragi, negi and menthe, the former two being the classic Holbein stitches responsible for designs appearing identical on both sides of the fabric. Depending on the intricacy of the design and the stitches employed, it can be a laborious and time-consuming process. Dhir, who worked with all the types with four embroiderers from Dharwad, talks about his experience. “It was nerve-racking. I initially wanted to use kasuti for quilting. But when I saw the results, it just made sense to incorporate it in my line. The application is 100 per cent mathematical and it’s all calculated beforehand; yet somehow, the final results are so organic.”
What’s more, in order to give a seamless appearance on both sides of the fabric, the patterns are stitched without tying any knots whatsoever. This is what struck Dhir the most. “I love the single thread and the reversible and almost invisible aspect of it so much that I even used it on the insides of pockets — and what’s so great is that it is versatile enough to allow you to achieve those small details.”
In today’s heavily industrialised world where man is no match for machines, Dhir reasons, “I love authentic crafts. They’re our heritage and we get them on a platter. Why would we not use them in their truest forms if they can enhance the look and quality of what we produce? Kasuti is an ancient technique, and I think it’s going to be around for a while.” Although not many designers have explored it as yet (though one can find products sold directly by artisans on websites such as iTokri), Dhir is optimistic about its future, and that of other heritage crafts. “These things have energies of their own. And as long as I continue to practise, kasuti will stay alive…,” he trails off.
Care for your wear
“Kasuti is an easy, lightweight embroidery, done with a cotton thread, in pukka colours, so it can be easily washed. Just steer clear of jewellery with sharp edges!”
“The application is 100 per cent mathematical and it’s all calculated beforehand; yet somehow, the final results are so organic.”