Tales of: Kantha Embroidery and Fabric

Kantha is a centuries-old tradition of stitching patchwork cloth from rags, which evolved from the thrift of rural women in the Bengali region of the sub-continent - today the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, and Bangladesh. One of the oldest forms of embroidery originating from India, its origins can be traced back to the pre-Vedic age (prior to 1500 BCE).

"Kantha" refers to both the style of running stitch, as well as the finished cloth. It was a craft that was practiced by women of all rural classes, "the rich landlord’s wife making her own elaborate embroidered quilt in her leisure time and the tenant farmer’s wife making her own thrifty coverlet, equal in beauty and skill." It was never commissioned by kings, nor ordered by landed gentry, but passed down in learning and dowry from mother to daughter. Kantha comprises of the simplest stitch in the language of embroidery – the running stitch. It is the way in which this stitch is used, in different arrangements, that forms the complex vocabulary of kantha.

The history

Kantha, one of the oldest forms of embroidery from India and a craft practiced today by millions of South Asian women, originated from the most humble of beginnings.

Born in the rural villages of Bengal, this art form all but disappeared in the early 19th century before being revived in the 1940s by the daughter in law of the famed Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. The revival of kantha was disrupted again during the Partition of India in 1947 and the ensuing conflict between India and what was then Eastern Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Finally, since the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971), kantha has experienced a re-birth of its own as a highly valued and much desired art-craft form. While the word kantha has no certain etymological root, it is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word kontha, meaning rags. One of the oldest forms of embroidery originating from India, its origins can be traced back to the pre-Vedic age (prior to 1500 BCE), though the earliest written record is found dating 500 years ago. In his book titled Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, the poet Krishnadas Kaviraj writes how the mother of Chaitanya sent a homemade kantha to her son in Puri through some traveling pilgrims. This same kantha is today on display at Gambhira in Puri.

The stitch

In modern usage, kantha more generally refers specifically to the type of stitch used. The earliest and most basic kantha stitch is a simple, straight, running stitch, like the type used on our Kantha Sari Scarves. Over time, more elaborate patterns developed, which became known as "nakshi kantha". Nakshi comes from the Bengali word, naksha, which refers to artistic patterns. Nakshi kantha is made up of motifs influenced by religion, culture and the lives of the women stitching them. This most humble of cloths gave free reign to the imaginations of the women; kanthas told of folk beliefs and practicies, religious ideas, themes and characters from mythology and epics and the social and personal lives of the artisans; their dreams, hopes and every day village life. Although there is no strict symmetry to nakshi kantha, a fine piece will usually have a lotus as a focal point, with stylised birds, plants, fish, flowers and other scenes surrounding this. In the district of Murshidabad, West Bengal, India, where we work with a cooperative of 1,400 kantha artisans, the women focus on a specialised form of geometric patterned kantha, called par tola. This has evolved along the lines of traditional Islamic art which focuses on geometric patterns rather than life forms, which are discouraged by the Quran. The beauty of this kantha is that the shape is formed by looping threads on one surface only, so the reverse side of the fabric remains a simple kantha of straight, running stitch, while the front side is a complex geometric pattern. Kantha can be categorised by stitch type: Running kantha, which is a straight running stitch and the original and earliest form of kantha. Running kantha can be further classified into that using figures and story telling (nakshi kantha) or geometric patterns (par tola kantha). Lik or Anarasi (pineapple) kantha is practiced in the Chapainawabgonj and Jessore areas of northern Bangladesh. There are numerous variations of this form. Lohori kantha or ‘wave’ kantha. This type is popular in Rajshahi (Bangladesh) and is divided into (a) soja (straight or simple), (b) kautar khupi (‘pigeon coop’ or triangle), and (c) borfi (‘diamond’) forms. Sujni kantha; this type is only found in the Rajshahi area of Bangladesh. A popular motif is an undulating floral and vine pattern. It's worth noting that Sujni is also practiced in Bihar.

Cross-stitch or carpet kantha was introduced by the English under the British Rule in India.

The cloth

Traditionally, kantha was an intimate and utilitarian item, made over a long period of time for use by the family; every family in Bengal had a number of kanthas for personal use. The majority of kantha was used as light coverlets during the mild Bengali winters and breezy monsoon nights. Another early use was for swaddling babies. Expectant mothers would spend the last months of their pregnancy stitching the cloth, in the belief that it would bring good fotune to their families and and protect the baby from diseases. Other kanthas were specifically created in different sizes for use as satchels or purses, as floor covers for special guests, to store personal items, to cover the Quran or use as prayer mats, or as pillow covers. To make the kantha cloth, the fabric is first cut to shape and layered to achieve the desired size and thickness. The layers are spread out on the ground and ironed. The artisan will first stitch some large, loose basting stitches around the edge of the fabric to hold the layers together. The finer kantha stitch is then made, starting in one corner and making short, parallel running lines to avoid creases and warping in the fabric. Traditionally, kantha was an intimate and utilitarian item, made over a long period of time for use by the family; every family in Bengal had a number of kanthas for personal use. The majority of kantha was used as light coverlets during the mild Bengali winters and breezy monsoon nights. Kantha on the traditional cotton fabric was much easier than the silk fabric layers that our kantha artisans create; while cotton layers stick together, silk slides and slips and the kantha is much more time consuming. For par tola geometric kantha, the stitching count is done from memory; no pattern is drawn. For nakshi kantha, the pattern was traditionally outlined with needle and thread. Today, patterns are first drawn by pencil and then copied by tracing paper onto the fabric. In some types of kanthas (carpet, lik and sujni, etc.) wooden blocks were used to print the outline.

Kantha today

If you travel in Bengal today, you will still find modern iterations of the traditional patchwork kantha quilts; airing in the sun on verandahs in Kolkata or laid out over paddy fields in the villages to dry. But the bulk of kantha production is made for commercial consumption - both domestically in India and Bangladesh, and for the export market. This, in theory, is a good thing - the rural women of Bengal, who are limited by economic, cultural, social and religious factors from finding gainful employment outside of their homes now find themselves in high demand to produce enough kantha for this market. In practice, kantha artisans suffer the same exploitation as their brothers and sisters working in almost every handicraft sector in the region. In a study carried out for the Journal of Social Work and Social Development on kantha artisans, it was found that the majority of women were cheated on payments owed to them, suffered from irregular or late payments, and were socially immobile due to an absence of training and advance payments. It was found that the average annual income from kantha production was a meagre Rs.2,000-4,000 (USD 30 - 60) per artisan, which is far, far below anything which could be considered a living or fair wage, even in the context of kantha work being on a part-time basis.

Happily, there are a growing number of designers becoming more conscious of the importance of applying fair trade principles to their work, and it's possible to find ethically produced kantha products, like those we source at The Design Cart.

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