The artform of Kantha embroidery originated in the pre-Vedic period. This ancient practice involves the stitching of patchwork cloth from rags or discarded clothes. The women of the pre-Partition region of rural Bengal further propagated this craft. Kantha became repositories for memories and well wishes that were weaved onto them. The illiterate women thus found in this generational skill, a way to leave a lasting impression of their artistry.
Although not monetized into a profession back in the days, Kantha stitching was indulged in by most women regardless of class and has been passed on from one generation to another. The word ”Kantha” refers to the running style of a stitch as well as the finished product of patched up cloth. The craft of Kantha stitch is practiced today by numerous South Asian women. However, traditional techniques involving layering are not widespread anymore. The modern industry of Kantha is generally known as a set of embroidery techniques.
The History of Kantha Embroidery
Tracing its history back to the earliest written record, this practice dates back to more than 500 years ago. The poet Krishnadas Kaviraj wrote in his book Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita how Chaitanya’s mother sent a homemade Kantha to her son in Puri. Kantha had humble beginnings in the rural setting of Bengal and almost vanished in the early 19th century. As a part of the rural reconstruction program, the Kantha stitch was revived during the 1940s by Protima Devi.
The Partition of India in 1947 posed a giant hurdle for the Kantha craft. As the conflict between India and Eastern Pakistan (which is now Bangladesh) ensued, the commoners waded through the murkiest waters in the history of the country. Kantha began to experience its rebirth after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Finally, it was revived as a traditional craft of esteemed heritage and developed into the contemporary industry.
How was Kantha Made
The labor-intensive textile of Kantha is influenced by several factors, including climate, geography, economy, and material availability. The traditional method involved stitching together old clothes, like cotton sarees, dhotis, and lungis, which had become incredibly soft due to continuous wear. The thread for the Kantha stitch was drawn from the fabric itself, and the design was then embellished. The Kantha, thus, is a brilliant craft engaging with resourcefulness and recycling.
Layering five to seven fabrics together, the lighter coloured clothes were generally used as the outermost fabric to ensure better visibility of the stitch and pattern.
The chosen pieces of layering fabrics were first cut in desired shapes and sizes. Then, they were spread out and ironed. In the beginning, they were given loose stitches about the edges to hold the cloths together. After this, the finer, stronger Kantha stitches are made, starting from one corner and moving in parallel lines.
Kantha on cotton fabric is much easier than on the modern silk layers that many artisans resort to nowadays. The traditional preference of cotton ensures firmer and quicker embroidery as it doesn’t slip, unlike the silk fabrics.
Types of Kantha Stitch
Earlier, the women of most households in rural Bengal were skilled at Kantha. They devoted whatever time they could squeeze out from their daily responsibilities towards stitching the cloth pieces. It often took months or years to complete one Kantha. The craft was much valued and passed down through generations.
Usually, in modern times, ‘Kantha’ specifically refers to the type of stitch used. The earliest style of Kantha stitch is the basic, straight running stitch. The modest embroideries allowed women to incorporate their imagination and beliefs. There were stories and characters of mythology, folklore, and religious themes embroidered into the fabric. The dreams and values of life that are subjective to the individual artisans also found their path into the designs.
Over time, the ‘Nakshi Kantha’ developed, which has fantastic intricate patterns. The name Nakshi comes from the Bengali word, “naksha”, referring to artistic designs. The motifs on Nakshi Kantha are influenced by religious and cultural themes and also derived from the daily lives of these women. There are no stringent rules of design for Nakshi Kantha. However, often a lotus was woven as a focal point, surrounded by birds, fish, plants and other elements of nature.
The district of Murshidabad, West Bengal, is home to over 1400 Kantha makers today. Most artisans emphasize on a specialized style of Kantha called Par Tola, embossed with fine geometric patterns. The stitching style of this Kantha is looping the threads on one side of the surface. Thus the reverse side remains simple with just the straight running stitch, while the beautiful patterns draw attention on the front side.
Other than the above mentioned forms, Kantha also has other categories based on the type of its stitch:
- Lik or Anarasi Kantha: The word ‘Anarasi’ is derived from the name of the pineapple fruit called Anaras in Bengali. It is usually practiced in the Chapainawabganj and Jessore areas of northern Bangladesh and has several variations of form.
- Lahori Kantha or ‘Wave’ Kantha: It is most popular in Rajshahi, Bangladesh. It has three primary forms of stitching: the simple straight stitch, the “kautar khupi”, meaning ‘pigeon coop’, or triangle stitch, and the “borfi” or diamond stitch.
- Sujni Kantha: It is mainly found in the Rajshahi area of Bangladesh. A popular motif is floral or vine that is stitched in undulated patterns.
- The Cross-stitch or carpet Kantha was introduced during the British Rule in India.
Kantha Embroidery Techniques
The technique used today in the modern Kantha industry incorporates a variety of stitches. These include darning stitch, loop stitch, satin stitch, and stem or split stitches. The ideal dotted look associated with Kantha is created when the long-running stitches are broken by short stitches on the reverse side.
The artisans decide the ornate patterns and then trace them onto a fabric panel. The design technique of ‘modelling’, for example, uses rows of parallel stitches that are tightly packed to emphasise a central embroidery. Areas of contrast are created by adjusting the density of stitches. While traditional Kantha is inspired by spiritual patterns, like the mandala or the lotus flower, contemporary designs are more symbolic and metaphorical.
Few of the distinct Kanthas sewn across Bengal and Bihar include small bags called ‘archilata kantha’, heavy quilts called ‘lep kantha’, and the decorative ‘sujani kantha’ used during religious ceremonies.
Use of Kantha
In earlier times, Kantha embroidery served as an item for utilitarian purposes. Since it was a tradition of the women to pass it on to the next generation, they made Kantha over a long period. It was used by the entire family, and each household in Bengal had Kanthas for varying personal purposes. Other times, they were given as gifts during occasions, like weddings, from one woman to another.
Usually, Kantha doubled as a quilt for warmth during the mild winters and monsoon nights of Bengal. It was also used as a swaddle for babies. Expectant mothers stitched the quilt by themselves as it was believed to protect the baby and bring good fortune to the family. Kanthas would also be created in specific shapes to use them as satchels and purses. It was used as rugs on the floor and also as prayer mats and pillow covers.
Kantha of Today
Kantha embroidery has seen major commercialization during modern times. It is still used in several households in Bengal but has also found its glamourous way into the fashion trends. Today, shawls, pillow covers, dupattas, and even some home furnishings exhibit the Kantha embroidery.
Majority of the production is centered in the eastern region of India and also aimed for the export market. The Kantha industry has given the rural women of Bengal an important source of income and employment, but the artisans have yet not been released from the exploitation, as it is in every handicraft sector.