The Embroidered Kantha

Craft Revival Trust

The Kantha, a form of embroidery, is a tradition that continues in 21st century India. Pushing the boundaries of this historic craft are approximately 50,000 women embroiderers who describe their work as “ghore bosa kaaj” or home-based work.

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.

Quilting with the bhui phor or base kantha quilting stitch

Here, the lotus and other auspicious motifs are symbolized, without the use of words, the feelings, blessings and wishes of the embroiderer.

The foundational allover embroidery is executed in the Kantha phor stitch that employs a single-ply thread in a colour that is similar to the base fabric - usually cream or white. This stitch creates a texture that though it appears indistinguishable from the base material it adds the Kantha's unmistakable rippled, three-dimensional look and feel.

Two-ply threads are used for the embroidered patterns with variations in stitches and their deployment to create forms and motifs. The threads were traditionally pulled out of the borders of saris and dhotis and thus availability, rather than a predefined color palette, appeared to have determined the colours with red, black, blue and white palette being most common. However many of the kanthas use a variety of colors leading to the possibility that new yarn must have been used to either supplement or substitute the old.

The fundamental vocabulary of the Kantha is built on the basic Kantha phor, the running stitch that lends itself to innumerable variants. Variations within a stitch are created by introducing or removing spaces, lengthening and shortening stitches, adding a stitch and other creative approaches. The nomenclature used for stitches is self-explanatory – from the box-stitch, the ant-stitch, bend-stitch, mat-stitch and others. This embroidery vocabulary continues to be expanded with words that refer to everyday objects in the embroiderers surroundings.

The Vaishnav Kanthas were embroidered invocations in the name of the Hindu gods - Lord Rama and Krishna - avatars of the God Vishnu. The repetition of these holy mantras was an act of piety.

In the message embroidered on the heirloom Kantha the maker specifies that while her fabric may be worn-out, her threads like her embroidery remain new and bright.

This genre of Kanthas drew their inspiration from the Kalighat paintings that were a popular genus of art prevalent in nineteenth-century Kolkata which satirized the emerging Anglicized elite 'babu' culture of Bengal.

Contemporary Motifs in Kantha

A close-up of a contemporary Kantha with the effortless juxtaposition of old and new motifs

The tradition of Kantha embroidery continues in 21st century India. Pushing the boundaries of this historic craft are approximately 50,000 women embroiderers who describe their work as “ghore bosa kaaj” or home-based work.
Evolving from its original form to be harnessed as a commercial skill the Kantha in Bengal is now significant product for the domestic and overseas markets. This journey has lead to economic and social transformations in the life of the women embroiderers while ensuring the continuity of the tradition. 
For women embroiderers the Kantha embroidery continues beyond economic empowerment as their creative impulse has led to developments not just in its form and materials used but in a growing vocabulary of motifs and patterning. 

In many rural communities it remains customary for the bride to take four to six Kanthas to her in-laws' home.

An expectant mother quilting a kantha for her yet to be born baby

After a long day of focused work, the community which has already closely bonded together, get together once more and discuss what they've done. Here, the women from Mollapara admire each other's work.

Craft Revival Trust
Credits: Story

Text by Ritu Sethi
Photo credits:'Embroidering Futures - Repurposing the Kantha', edited by Ritu Sethi, published by India Foundation for the Arts, Bengaluru, India with support from Infosys Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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