The Embroidered Kantha

Ritu Sethi

Archaeological finds of needles unearthed in the ancient cities of the Harrapan civilization have led scholars to infer that embroidery skills have been practiced in on the Indian subcontinent for several millennia. Motifs, patterning, stitches and the symbolism that enriched the diversity of embroidery styles continue to be practiced both within the tradition of professionally embroidered goods and the ongoing development of domestic embroideries that were created by women for their own use or for that of their families.

Orally transmitted over generations from mother to daughter within communities the symbolism inherent in embroidery imbued it with an added dimension of value. These domestic embroideries constituted a visual language that served as cultural markers of identity, with their design and patterning speaking of a culture and a place.

The tradition of patching and quilting textiles in the Indian subcontinent has an equally long history. These domestic repurposed embroideries were primarily made for personal use or for gifting. This repurposing of worn out textiles, usually received from known and well regarded sources is a tradition that extends from the Bengal Kantha to the Gudri and Ralli traditions that extends from Western to Central India, the Sujni of Bihar and other traditions spread across India.

The visionary thinker, philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote movingly on Lord Buddha renunciation in his poem Ebar Phirao Morey. The young Prince Siddhartha donning only a “chhinna Kantha” or tattered Kantha, leaves his kingly home, on his first step in search of the ultimate truth, shorn of all his princely garments and material possessions. It is noteworthy that in early literature as well as oral traditions that the Kantha is celebrated in its humblest domestic form as ‘jeerna Kantha’, a quilted textile covering made up of threadbare pieces of cloth, held together with the Kantha stitch.

Kantha embroidery remains indigenous to the once undivided region of Bengal in the Indian subcontinent. Originating as a means of upcycling and reusing worn out lengths of saris and dhotis (the unstitched traditional wear of women and men) it remains renowned as a cultural and economic phenomenon on both sides of the border that divides this region into the Indian state of West Bengal and the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. The Kantha was located in the fertile landscape of thrift and creativity as the stitches held together the layered worn-out textiles to create quilts, spreads and wraps while the embroidered motifs were imbued with protective and talismanic symbols, with social commentary on the mores of their times or with messages to loved ones, or floral and figurative imagery. The complexity of stories that were told through these embroideries extended to allegories on folklore, legends and religious themes.

Unfortunately, the earliest material evidence of this domestic tradition’s historic roots are dated to their period of acquisition in the early 19th century. These can be studied in the collections pieced together by Gurusaday Dutt, a civil servant with a deep interest in rural art forms and Stella Kamrisch, the famed Indologist, and by those found in private collections and museums in India and across the globe. The worn fabrics used in the construction of the Kanthas and the frequent use they were put to made the Kanthas fragile while the tropical climate of Bengal was not conducive to conservation making it difficult to date the origin of the tradition. But what can be said with certainty from the provenance of the pieces available is that the tradition was widespread across undivided Bengal, cutting across the social, economic and religious divide and that the technique, process and aesthetics of this repurposed textile would have deep seated ancient roots.

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  • Title: The Embroidered Kantha
  • Rights: Text - Ritu Sethi Photo from: 'Embroidering Futures - Repurposing the Kantha', edited by Ritu Sethi, published by India Foundation for the Arts, Bengaluru, India