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The stories hidden in the ancient Indian craft of kantha

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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 https://www.happylandgummybears.com/ 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.

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