1 December 2022

The stories hidden in an ancient craft

The thousand-year-old upcycling handicraft was traditionally a canvas for ordinary women to tell their stories and express their fears and hopes. Now it’s hugely popular again, writes Kalpana Sunder.

For centuries, in eastern India, babies have been swaddled in soft kantha quilts made from old clothing such as frayed saris and dhotis, layered and stitched together. And when guests paid a visit, special kantha rugs would be spread on the floor. Kantha is more than one thousand years old, dating back to the pre-Vedic times (prior to 1500 BC) in ancient India, and although it was traditionally a utilitarian, functional style of embroidery, it also had – and continues to have – a unique way of portraying and celebrating life events.

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Kantha refers to both the style of running stitch as well as the finished cloth, and the craft was mainly practised in east Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) and west Bengal, where thrifty women of all ages took discarded clothing, soft and worn by use, and layered them with simple running stitches. Using thread taken from the borders of old sarees, they created quilts and other useful items like bed covers and furniture covers. A finished piece of kantha usually had a slightly wrinkled and wavy appearance, because of the  multiple lines of running stitches, and the original kantha was double faced, with the design appearing identical on both sides. Over time, nakshi kantha – or large throws – emerged, which featured more intricately embroidered patterns.

Kantha is a craft that dates back a thousand years, and was traditionally created with discarded fabrics (Credit: Getty Images)

Kantha is a craft that dates back a thousand years, and was traditionally created with discarded fabrics (Credit: Getty Images)

Today kantha is practised in west Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of Odisha and Bihar in India. Other countries have a similar culture of layering old textiles with stitching, such as Boro in Japan. Kantha is also known as sujani, the word for stitch or a needle, and is  related to suzani embroidery of Central Asia.

Kantha may owe its name to kontha, the Sanskrit word for rags. It was first mentioned in the 500-year-old book Chaitanya Charitamrita by Bengali poet Krishnadasa Kaviraja, in which the mother of the 15th-Century saint, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, sends a homemade kantha to her son via some travelling pilgrims.

Kantha was about upcycling old clothes and giving them a new life, but the craft also acted as a canvas for women to express their artistic talents, and was typically practised by every woman in a village for her household. 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. Niaz Zaman, writer and scholar from Bangladesh, writes in her book The Art of Kantha Embroidery that “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”. 

Often it also acted as a journal to record the life story of the women embroidering the piece. In Hindu households kantha frequently depicted religious iconography and scenes from mythology, whereas in Muslim households there were more Islamic and Persian influences, such as geometric and floral motifs.

Kantha in its origins was never a commercial activity but a domestic craft that women practised, in between running their households and looking after their livestock and children. Sometimes the same piece would be continued from mother to daughter. Over the centuries, kantha has had a variety of end uses, from arshilota (make-up case), to bostani (clothes wrapper) and galicha (rug). Red, black and blue were prevalent colours in early kantha work, though now it comes in all shades, and though running stitch is most frequently used, blanket stitch and chain stitch are also sometimes employed. The design was first traced on to the cloth that was layered and held together with basting stitches, and then filled with coloured threads. The empty spaces were filled with yarn stitches to create a rippled effect. 

A Bengali embroidered kantha quilt from the 19th Century portrays typical animal and floral motifs in a variety of stitches (Credit: Alamy)

A Bengali embroidered kantha quilt from the 19th Century portrays typical animal and floral motifs in a variety of stitches (Credit: Alamy)

Most traditional kanthas had an image of the Sun or a lotus as the central focal point. But the motifs used in kantha varied enormously, with characters from folklore and mythology, to elements of nature such as oceans, birds, animals, the tree of life, rivers and sealife, and the things the makers saw around them, such as palanquins, chariots, temples, mirrors and everyday objects like umbrellas.

Along with Indian inspirations, kantha was also influenced by colonial rule and Portuguese traders. Kantha with silken threads was created under Portuguese patronage, with motifs like sailing ships and coats of arms. A 19th-Century kantha at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi has motifs of playing cards, sahibs and memsahibs, chandeliers and medallions of Queen Victoria, side by side with scenes from Hindu mythology in which Shiva looks like a Madonna in a Christian painting, and Rama and Lakshmana appear as European boys.

Kantha also often represented a family’s hopes and aspirations, from weddings and happiness, to family and fertility. The light quilts were useful in the monsoon and winter and some were used as prayer mats. More elaborate examples were gifted as wedding dowries, made by mothers and grandmothers with their hopes, wishes and family histories graphically weaved in.

Each piece of kantha was unique as there were no formal rules. Although some symbols and motifs were universal, each design depended on the creator’s individual composition, technique and colour scheme. It was a handicraft that belonged to communities, and was never something that was commissioned by the royal family or rich landlords. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, under British colonial rule, many Indian handicrafts took a backseat, though kantha continued to be practiced among rural women.

Many public figures have shaped kantha’s journey over the years. In the 1940s, a revival of kantha was spearheaded by Pratima Devi, the daughter-in-law of the poet and Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, as a part of a drive to empower women in rural areas. Unfortunately, the Partition of India in 1947 led to  kantha declining again, as many people left from India to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, outside India, one US institution that has contributed to the revival of  kantha is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which preserved the kantha collection of Stella Kramrisch, a US art historian and curator, who had acquired an extensive collection during her time in India in the 1920s as a teacher in Santhiniketan.

Burberry Prorsam is among the international designer brands to have featured kantha in its collections (Credit: Getty Images)

Burberry Prorsam is among the international designer brands to have featured kantha in its collections (Credit: Getty Images)

“With shifts in social practices and lifestyle, the practice of Kantha began to wane,” folk-arts curator Nandita Pal Choudhuri tells BBC Culture. “In west Bengal, pioneers such as Srilata Sarkar and the Crafts Council of West Bengal began its revival with small groups of women by replicating traditional designs from the Gurusaday Museum that had been collected by Gurusaday Dutt, an Indian civil servant who travelled across villages in undivided Bengal between 1929 and 1939. While the Crafts Council continued to produce only high-quality authentic objects, a whole new set of entrepreneurs began to emerge who repurposed the kantha embroidery on to garments and lifestyle products. Now, kantha-embroidered  products are accessible at a variety of qualities and prices across India.”

‘Traditional and contemporary’

Over the decades, many have contributed to Kantha becoming an enterprise that empowers women. Shamlu Dudeja founded a non-profit organisation called Self-Help Enterprise (SHE) in the 1980s to revive kantha, and started incorporating kantha in home décor, furnishing and clothing, while also motivating women to take it up seriously as a means of livelihood. “In 1987, in Kolkata, I happened to go to an exhibition, Shantiniketan Craft Mela,” Dudeja tells BBC Culture. “Amongst assorted handicrafts, I saw a table full of wraps for babies and men. This took me back to my craft teacher in school, who helped us sew small mats from three layers of cotton fabrics using a simple running stitch, with lotus or bird patterns.

“Stunned by these exquisite pieces at the exhibition, I thought of having saris embellished with kantha. I brought three artisans home, gave them a couple of beige silk saris to embellish with this running stitch, using their creativity, and paid them fully, in advance. A couple of weeks later, I went to their village with my daughter Malika to see their workmanship. A few women were sitting on a sheet spread on the floor outside a hut; they were working on my saris, two artisans working on the two ends of each sari. The patches of workmanship were extremely pleasing; but what brought tears to our eyes were their living conditions in the one-roomed mud huts.

“Soon we gave them more and more work, as friends and relatives loved it and wanted the work done on saris or kurtas. Our NGO, SHE Foundation, was set up to look after the needs of these artisans. Today, we have nearly 1,000 artisans working with SHE. My intention has been to spread this alluring artistry of Kantha to a wider group, so that more and more rural women would be able to earn a small living, working from their homes.”

Kantha frequently depicts the narratives of ancient myths (Credit: Shamlu Dudeja/ SHE Foundation)

Kantha frequently depicts the narratives of ancient myths (Credit: Shamlu Dudeja/ SHE Foundation)

Since then, Dudeja has had exhibitions across India and in the UK, the US, Australia, Japan and several other countries in Europe. In Paris, kantha was so popular that a group of women started SHE France for marketing kantha embellished scarves, on a regular basis.

“The gradual re-purposing of this once domestic and personal embroidery has led to perceptible disruptions in its traditional form, practice and application,” says Ritu Sethi, chairperson of Craft Revival Trust and the managing editor of Asia-InCh, the online encyclopaedia of traditional arts, crafts and textiles. “The most evident change is that the base material is no longer worn-out cloth but now a newly purchased cotton, silk or other material. The other transition is the shift in the demographic profile of the embroiderers. Whereas earlier kanthas were embroidered across the social and economic divide, this has now become the exception rather than the rule, with kanthas now largely being worked on by women from economically deprived sections of society. This is not to say that the kantha is no longer embroidered for personal use, but the vast majority [of it is done by] the many thousands who embroider to earn a livelihood. Though this new mode of operation is increasingly characterised by context-free embroidery for distant markets and makes few demands on their expression and creativity, the women I spoke to value their work and took pride in their skill and their ability to earn a livelihood.”

Today kantha is found on everything from stoles and kurtas, sarees, shawls and purses, to linen, quilts and bedcovers – all crafted to meet an increasingly global demand. International designers have also started using kantha in their collections in the past decade or so. Designer Tarun Tahliani devised a fashion collection in 2013 featuring garments with kantha. Bridal couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee has incorporated kantha in his collections. In 2015, British brand Burberry Prorsum presented kantha in a collection called “Patchwork, pattern and prints”. Kolkata-based Darshan Shah who runs Weaver’s Studio has been using kantha to empower impoverished Bengali women since 1993. “Weaver’s Studio came into existence with a mission statement ‘use as many hands as possible’,” says Shah. “Kantha, which is a celebration of the daily life of rural Bengal, is one of our USP products at Weaver’s Studio – it’s traditional and at the same time contemporary, modern  and experimental.”

Indian designers Abraham and Thakore have used it in coats and dresses, and Ssōne (pronounced, “sewn”), the London-based label, uses kantha embroidery on bags and totes. The kantha gowns and quilts stocked by TOAST, the clothing-and-homeware brand, have been made by small groups of artisans in west Bengal who are part of the fair-trade cooperative Sasha.

Kantha is now sought after globally, and in rural Bengal more than 30,000 women artisans are creating the embroidery (Credit: Alamy)

Kantha is now sought after globally, and in rural Bengal more than 30,000 women artisans are creating the embroidery (Credit: Alamy)

“Now, there are so many designers who include kantha in their fashion wear that over 30,000 artisans are engaged in kantha embroidery in rural Bengal. If more and more designers use this decorative stitch, kantha will become a sustainable medium for fashion,” says Dudeja.

Commercialisation has its own set of  negative effects, and it is the same with kantha. There are still many cases of artisans not being paid fair wages, though many NGOs have entered the fray to ensure that this exploitation is stopped. “Many designers today are using kantha stitch in their work,” says Divia Patel, Senior Curator of the Asian Department at the V&A, London. “It can be adapted to convey a contemporary aesthetic and it helps in the employment and upskilling of artisans. It is particularly powerful and sustainable when those groups of artisans are paid a fair price for their work.”

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