When you enter Dagaon, one of the nine villages that make up Nagaon district in Assam, you are welcomed by a gurgling river, Kolong which swells in the monsoon but is dry now. A wooden bridge painted in a solemn black is the only connect with the outside world. Further ahead is the bustling Erabari bazaar, where engulfed in a cloud of dust, irregular shops line the way. The shops have tin roofs and sturdy bamboo shutters, and mostly sell everyday items of use: utensils, medicines, clothes, the bazaar even has a mobile repairing shop. But it does not, however, sell what the women of the village sew: embroidered blankets that keep you warm in the winter and on unseasonably cold monsoon days. For in every household, you will find a woman who knows how to sew the kheta, a handmade recycled quilt.
Running parallel to the bazaar is the Dagaon railway line under Lumding Junction, which has been running continuously for the last 40 years or so. Beyond this are rice fields, warm with the autumn sun, and a cluster of mud huts with tin roofs and encircled by a jute fence. One of them is Jamila Khatoon’s house. It is lunch time and she is making a specially hot chutney of dry fish and dry red chillies tempered with mustard oil, locally known as chepa. It is cheap and a good source of protein, which is why it is popular with the workers from the Bengal-origin Muslim community. Her younger child is curled up on a kheta. Rather than a piece of art, it is supposed to be a utilitarian product. It is made by stitching together old cotton sarees and sometimes, to give it that extra fluffiness, a used/torn mosquito net is neatly sewn between the layers of cloth. The stitch is the Katha stitch, a running stitch that goes around in equidistant elongated strips. Its name is said come from the Sanskrit word for rags but the vibrant patchwork upon layers of patterned sarees is more beautiful than its name belies. On the chars (small riverine islands on the river Brahmaputra) as Abdul Kalam Azad points out, a resident of Barpeta town and a researcher, the stitch runs more closely together while the khetas made in and around Barpeta town have more space between them. In Dagaon village, however, much like on the chars, the stitch runs closely enough.
The kheta in Jamila’s house has seen better days, as the layered fabric is tearing at the seams. It is said that the condition of a kheta can tell you about the prosperity of a household. Jamila’s household comprises of her two young children, her mother-in-law and an absent husband. Since her husband has not been getting regular agricultural work, the whole burden has fallen on her shoulders. Having studied at the Bhakatgaon ME High School till the VIth standard, she dropped off to help her mother with her younger sisters and was married off a year later, at the age of 15 and a half.
Jamila is well-known among the women of her village as a good seamstress, her specialty being the kheta. Earlier, most women of the village stitched their own kethas but many women of economically sounder households have started outsourcing this work to women like Jamila. Arsia Sarkar, 48, says, ‘We have moved to using Chinese blankets now, they are more durable. But our weakness for the ketha remains as its texture and feel is more comfortable, especially for younger children many of whom react to the synthetic fibres used in a Chinese blanket.’
A Chinese blanket costs upward of 1000 rupees, but the stitching of a ketha pays around Rs 100-150. In Victorian England, men stitched/embroidered hankies and other items of use, but with the advent of Industrialization in the 18th century, the task was delegated to machines. Around the same time, women took up embroidery/sitching as a ‘leisure’ activity and in the popular English novels of the day, the women are found stitching when they have time while the men work.
By Nasreen Habib
This piece was first published in Eclectic Northeast April 2018 issue