The secrets of the ancient Indian craft of kantha
Traditionally, the thousand-year-old upcycling craft served as a canvas for ordinary women to tell their stories and express their fears and hopes. It’s regaining popularity, writes Kalpana Sunder.
Babies in eastern India have been swaddled in soft kantha quilts made from old clothing such as frayed saris and dhotis that have been layered and stitched together for centuries. When visitors arrived, special kantha rugs were spread on the floor. Kantha embroidery is over a thousand years old, dating back to pre-Vedic times (before 1500 BC) in ancient India, and while it was traditionally a utilitarian, functional style of embroidery, it also had – and continues to have – a unique way of depicting and celebrating life events.
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Kantha refers to both the running stitch style and the finished cloth, and the craft was primarily practised in east Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) and west Bengal, where thrifty women of all ages layered discarded clothing, soft and worn by use, with simple running stitches. They made quilts and other useful items like bed covers and furniture covers out of thread taken from the borders of old sarees. Because of the multiple lines of running stitches, a finished piece of kantha usually had a slightly wrinkled and wavy appearance, and the original kantha was double faced, with the design appearing identical on both sides. Over time, nakshi kantha, or large throws, with intricately embroidered patterns, emerged. Kantha is still practised today in West Bengal, Bangladesh, and parts of Odisha and Bihar in India. Other countries, such as Japan, have a similar culture of layering old textiles with stitching. Kantha is related to Central Asian suzani embroidery and is also known as sujani, the word for stitch or needle.
The patterns often symbolised the affection for loved ones of the maker, and were also thought to protect the wearer or user from the evil eye
Kantha may have gotten its name from the Sanskrit word for rags, kontha. It was first mentioned in Bengali poet Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s 500-year-old book Chaitanya Charitamrita, in which the mother of the 15th-century saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, sends a homemade kantha to her son via some travelling pilgrims.
Kantha was a craft that involved upcycling old clothes and giving them new life, but it also served as a canvas for women to express their artistic talents, and it was typically practised by every woman in a village for her household. The patterns frequently represented the maker’s affection for loved ones, and they were also thought to protect the wearer or user from the evil eye. Niaz Zaman, a Bangladeshi writer and scholar, “One reason a new-born was swaddled in a kantha made of old clothes was [the family’s] fear about the child surviving in an age where child mortality was high, and buying new clothes meant hoping for a future that they were scared to think of,” she writes in her book The Art of Kantha Embroidery.
It was frequently used as a journal to record the life stories of the women embroidering the piece. Kantha frequently depicted religious iconography and mythological scenes in Hindu households, whereas Islamic and Persian influences, such as geometric and floral motifs, were more prevalent in Muslim households.
Kantha was never a commercial activity, but rather a domestic craft practised by women in between running their households and caring for their livestock and children. The same piece was sometimes passed down from mother to daughter. Kantha has been used for a variety of purposes over the centuries, including arshilota (make-up case), bostani (clothes wrapper), and galicha (rug). Early kantha work featured a lot of red, black, and blue. Though it now comes in a variety of colours, and while running stitch is the most commonly used, blanket stitch and chain stitch are also used on occasion. The design was traced onto the cloth, which was then layered and held together with basting stitches before being filled with coloured threads. To create a rippled effect, the empty spaces were filled with yarn stitches.
The central focal point of most traditional kanthas was an image of the Sun or a lotus. The motifs used in kantha, however, varied greatly, with characters from folklore and mythology, to elements of nature such as oceans, birds, animals, the tree of life, rivers, and sealife, and things the makers saw around them, such as palanquins, chariots, temples, mirrors, and everyday objects such as umbrellas.
Kantha was influenced by colonial rule and Portuguese traders, in addition to Indian influences. Kantha was created with silken threads under Portuguese patronage, with motifs such as sailing ships and coats of arms. A 19th-century kantha at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi features motifs such as playing cards, sahibs and memsahibs, chandeliers, and Queen Victoria medallions. alongside scenes from Hindu mythology in which Shiva appears as a Madonna in a Christian painting and Rama and Lakshmana as European boys.
Kantha was also frequently used to represent a family’s hopes and dreams, ranging from weddings and happiness to family and fertility. The light quilts came in handy during the monsoon and winter, and some were even used as prayer mats. More elaborate examples were given as wedding dowries, made by mothers and grandmothers and graphically weaving in their hopes, wishes, and family histories.
Because there were no formal rules, each piece of kantha was unique. Although some symbols and motifs were universal, each design was unique because of the creator’s composition, technique, and colour scheme. It was a handicraft that belonged to communities and was never commissioned by the royal family or wealthy landlords. Under British colonial rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, Many Indian handicrafts fell out of favour, but kantha remained popular among rural women.
Kantha’s journey has been shaped by many public figures over the years. Pratima Devi, the daughter-in-law of poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, spearheaded a revival of kantha in the 1940s as part of a drive to empower women in rural areas. Unfortunately, the Partition of India in 1947 caused kantha to decline once more, as many people fled to Bangladesh from India. Meanwhile, outside of India, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has contributed to the revival of kantha by preserving the kantha collection of Stella Kramrisch, a US art historian and curator who acquired an extensive collection during her time in India as a teacher in Santhiniketan in the 1920s.