Kantha is a centuries-old tradition of stitching patchwork cloth from rags, which evolved from the thrift of rural women in the Bengal 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, 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.
As with all traditional textiles, Kantha was influenced by external factors such as material availability, daily needs, climate, geography and economic factors. Historically, textile production was one of the most labour-intensive industries, and as such, textiles were highly valued. Thus, the recycling of well used cloth-turned-rags was a natural step in the lifecycle of textiles the world over. Given that this recycling was home-based work, it usually fell to the women of the village to prepare, cut and stitch the rags - giving old textiles new life.
Traditionally, old cotton saris, lungis and dhotis, which had turned incredibly soft through wear, were used to make Kanthas, with the thread for the stitching drawn out from the fabric itself. Recycling at its best!
Around five to seven fabrics would be layered together, with lighter coloured fabrics on the outside so the stitch and pattern was discernible. The stitch would cover the entire cloth to provide strength.
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 stitching could be handed down through generations, with grandmother, mother and daughter working on the same Kantha.
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 Kantha Saris or 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 practices, 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.