Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when cloth was not as abundant as it is now, the recycling of old and used textiles was a common tradition in many cultures across the world, and especially in the Indian subcontinent. The North Indian 'gudri', the Pakistani 'ralli' and the 'kantha' from Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh, are examples of this tradition.
The Art of Kantha Embroidery
Kantha of West Bengal was a traditional home craft. The word Kantha signifies both the object as well as the style of embroidery. Women spend months, sometimes even years, working on a single piece. Traditionally, several layers of old fabric - usually saris - were stitched together, with intricate and elaborate stitches. The technique of layering and stitching together cloth significantly extended its life and made a durable and warm textile, appropriate for bedding or cover. The thread used for the stitches was usually pulled out of the sari itself. The meticulous artistry that was then applied transformed worn-out rags into extraordinarily beautiful creations.
Kanthas are an integral part of the village life in Murshidabad.
Kanthas of the softest old cloths are made to wrap the newborn, they are offered during ritual and festive occasions..
.. often as covers to protect precious objects, and at marriage every bride receives a Kantha that her mother would have worked on over many years.
..Kantha is used also at the end of a life, to cover the dead body.
Traditionally, the lep kantha involved poor village women sewing together layers of old cloth, mostly saris, with elaborate and intricate stitches. Layering not only extended the life of the cloth but also ensured that it could be made into durable bedding, depending on the number of layers of fabric stitched together. The thread used for the stitches was pulled out of the sari itself and this meticulous artistry transformed worn out rags into extraordinarily beautiful creations that could withstand further usage. The intricate geometry of their design and the near absence of folk motifs continue to be a notable feature of Muslim kantha-making traditions of Murshidabad, West Bengal
In the transition of Kantha from home craft to a source of income, certain design interventions have been critical.
New colour combinations have been developed and kanthas are now made to standardized sizes and thickness, and with fabrics and threads which are colour fast.
KANTHA OF BENGAL
Traditionally, the size of a kantha would be either for a single bed or for a baby. The actual measurement and the number of layers depended on the amount of fabric available. The commercial success of kantha however has led to more and standardised sizes. Kanthas are now produced in a baby size, a single cover size and a double cover size, using two or three layers of cloth.
In recent years, increasing awareness and appreciation of the craft have led to an incredible growth of demand for kantha textiles. A traditional leisure pastime has been given new life and become an income generating activity, supporting the livelihoods of thousands of women. Stepping out from their homes into the world with their skills and hard work, the lives of the women have been radically transformed, their dignity and self worth vastly enhanced, by kantha.
Exhibition at Crafts Museum: 2013 — Dr Ruchira Ghose, Mushtak Khan
In collaboration with — Shabnam Ramaswamy, Street Survivors India, Murshidabad, West Bengal
Online exhibit credits — Consultants - Digitization, Crafts Museum - Gunjan Tripathi, Visetuonuo Kiso and Habib Ahamad