The Sanskrit word kontha means ‘rags’. Kantha, a popular style of embroidery that comes from West Bengal, is a significant symbol that displays the skill and talent of the rural women in Bengal. It hails from the regions of erstwhile East Bengal, present day West Bengal and Bihar. While the craft can be traced back to pre-Vedic times, it’s the rural women practicing it who have kept this tradition thriving, repurposing and stitching together layers upon layers of soft saris and old dhotis with a reinforcing running stitch, using motifs depicting birds, animals, fish, folks stories, mythological characters, etc, to tell a graphic tale. One legend links their origins to Lord Buddha and his disciples, who used to cover themselves with garments made from discarded rags that were patched and sewn together. Essentially a woman's art, it is a form of patched, quilted and vividly embroidered textile made entirely out of used cloth.
Kantha is perhaps the oldest form of Indian embroidery as it can be traced back to the first and second A.D. The thought behind this needlework was to reuse old clothes and materials and turn them into something new. This is what makes kantha embroidery only one of its kind.
(Source: Artist Sakhina)
It was never commissioned by kings, nor ordered by landed gentry, but passed down in learning and dowry from mother to daughter. Women in almost every household in rural villages would be kantha experts, and spend whatever quiet time they had available - between looking after the house and children, tending to livestock and during the long days of the monsoon - on stitching the pieces. It could take months or even years to complete one kantha.
The oldest existing examples of kantha, date from the early 1800s. They are embroidered with blue, black and red threads that were unraveled from sari borders. Because they were salvaged from used garments that had been frequently laundered, the colors tend to be muted.
(Source: Artist Sakhina)
Over time, Kantha developed into a variety of end uses and has specific names referring to its end use. Some of these include the quilt (called lep in Bengali), a large spread (nakshi kantha), cosmetic wrapper (arshilota), puja floor spread (ason), wallet (batwa, thoiley), clothes wrapper (bostani) and floor spread (galicha), among others.
The designs of kantha are taken from day to day life, depicting folk stories, epics, mythological background, ritualistic motifs, luxurious vegetation with roaming animals, deer running, dancing peacock, temples, jewelleries, various types of costumes and so on. Some kanthas even represent the steeds of Gods like bull, swan lion, elephant, peacock, mouse, cat, eagle, owl, and swan.
For many centuries, rural Bengali women have taken their discarded cloth scraps and sewn them together with a simple running stitch; taking the old and reimposing it into something useful. Over time, it developed as a generational artistry, a craft that could weave stories and also be used for gifts of various kinds.
It is a treasured art of every door where-in the Bengali ladies irrespective of their castes, classes and socio-economic groups, are experts. The embroidery not only depicts the stitches employed but it also expresses the outflow of their creative, resourceful, imaginary, patient craftsmanship.
~Written by Khushi Daryani