Sujani (or Sujini) is one of the most popular forms of conventional art and crafts prevailing in Bihar. It is a traditional quilt made in the rural areas of that state. The art has been preserved in the remote villages by the women who prepare articles of great aesthetic value, primarily meant for household use. Created with the simplest of stitches, with readily available fabrics and at times with well-worn pieces of clothes, the Sujani works are generally crafted by women in their free time at home.
The craftswomen produce furnishings such as bedspreads, wall hangings, cushion, and bolster covers, as well as clothing items like saris, dupattas, and kurtas.
Traditionally, at the time of childbirth, patches of different colored cloth from old saris and dhotis were sewn together with a simple running stitch to make a quilt called Sujani. The purpose of using an old cloth with sujani was very specific – to wrap the newborn, to allow it to be enveloped in a soft embrace, resembling that of its mother. Three or four sections of saris or dhotis were laid on top of each other and quilted with the thread that was unpicked from the used garments. The stitch filling of the motifs was done with a simple running stitch and the outline of the motif was usually done with a chain stitch in dark color.
The Sujini is distinctive for its transformation of a traditional craft into a vehicle for expressing contemporary social and political themes. These narratives proclaim that social change is the essence and purpose of the craft revival. Tragically similar stories abound: drunk, disabled, absentee, or unemployable husbands, unsympathetic cruel and demanding mothers-in-law, property that has been mortgaged to pay off debts. A typical quilt is divided into two parts. One side seeks to portray the realities-a drunken man beating his wife; a man giving dowry; men cloistered in a village meeting and women in purdah. The other side seeks to express a vision – a woman selling her produce in the market; a woman addressing a meeting; a woman judge, and power!
The embroideries also collectively express the injustices of everyday life-of dowry burning, female infanticide, rape, and feudal persecution. The women depict not only the familiar religious iconography but also their own suffering and discontent. This process has allowed them to develop a new vocabulary.
Sun and cloud motifs signifying life-giving forces, fertility symbols, sacred animals, fantastic winged creatures for protection against destructive forces, and other motifs to attract blessings from the gods. Different colored threads were also symbolically used, such as red, signifying blood, a life force, and yellow for the sun.
This Sujani technique of sewing together layered pieces of old cloth is deeply rooted in two ancient beliefs. First, clothbound together by Sujani served a ritual function – it invoked the presence of a deity, Chitiriya Ma, the Lady of the Tatters and stitching together these disparate pieces symbolically embodied the holistic Indian concept that all parts belong to the whole and must return to it. The second purpose of stitching pieces of old cloth together was to wrap the newborn; to allow it to be enveloped in a soft embrace, resembling that of its mother. In fact, the word Sujani itself reflects this principle – ‘Su’ means easy and facilitating, while ‘Jani’ means birth.
Today production of Sujini embroidery is done mainly in about 15 villages adjoining village named Bhusura in Ghaighatti block of Muzaffarpur district in Bihar and also in some pockets of Madhubani. Bhusura, the village where Sujuni was developed is less than 100 km away from the center of Mithila painting. The rural women of Muzaffarpur district of north Bihar now continue to embroider in the Sujini tradition, using a combination of a fine running stitch. This is an ideal vehicle for assisting the many Rajput women who are living in poverty but are prevented by social custom from working. Women can now earn money while practicing a craft that their fathers, husbands, and in-laws deem ‘respectable’. Craft revival is often characterized by nostalgia for perceived aesthetics and lost skills.