Come November, and it’s time to greet the winter. To be honest, winter in Mumbai is almost non-existent, but we Mumbaikars rejoice in the slightest dip in the temperature as it gives us the only chance to pull out comforters (if not woollens).
In anticipation of the winter, a few days back, while shopping, I picked up a hand-quilted Kantha comforter to be used as a bedspread or as a blanket (if at all needed). Made of colourful square patches of cloth pieces stitched together it instantly rendered a cheery look to the room.
It took me back to my growing up days when I would see my grandmother cutting out squares from old cloth pieces. She would then stitch the borders, make designs and sew them together to make spreads for the newborns in the family.
Such repurposing of worn out clothes to form patched quilts has been a part of Indian quilting traditions since times immemorial. Let us take a look at the Kantha tradition of patching and quilting in India, the unassuming practice of putting discarded clothes to use, that has evolved into a fashion and style statement.
Origin of Kantha Embroidery in Bengal
Indigenous to Bengal, Kantha embroidery was a household craft of the rural women, who would reuse their worn out sarees to create quilts, spreads and wraps for their family, especially for the newborn babies. Taking four or five old sarees, they would place them in layers, sew them using a running stitch or a “Kantha stitch” across the length and width for holding the layers together. The resulting piece was then embellished with embroidery depicting folklore, legends, daily activities or religious themes.
Image credit: http://handeyemagazine.com
Though the origin of Kantha is supposed to go back to a thousand years or more, the earliest mention of Kantha is found in the book “Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita,” which was written almost 500 years ago. The writer says that Chaitanya’s mother Sachi had sent a homemade Kantha to her son through pilgrims. Rabindranath Tagore mentioned in his poem ‘Ebar Phirao Morey’ that when Buddha renounced the world, he left his palace donning a tattered Kantha.
Kantha is essentially a women’s art
The practice of sewing discarded clothes using colourful threads, which were also pulled out of the saree borders infused creativity into thrift, resulting in beautiful embroidered Kantha quilts, spreads and covers. The patterned running stitches across the width of the fabric gave the cloth a rippled look and feel. The designs ranged from simple to intricate, depending on the skill and the interest of the embroiderer. While Hindu women depicted the theme of daily activities or stories around a central floral image in their design, Muslim women used the combination of geometric and floral designs.
Image credit: https://magazineworld.jp
For centuries, the techniques of the craft were passed down from mother to daughter. The craft was majorly seen as a “women’s art” or a means of personal expression for the women, who did the embroidery after finishing their household chores. The finished pieces were used mainly for personal consumption or for gifting to the near and dear ones during auspicious occasions. It was never commissioned by the landlords and no attempts were made to market the products. With the introduction of the mill made textiles in the first half of the twentieth century, slowly, the craft started showing signs of decline.
Transformation of Kantha into Contemporary Designs
From the late 1970s, various cultural trusts, and individuals took upon themselves to revive the craft. While this has ensured the continuity of the tradition, it has also brought about economic and social transformations in the life of the women embroiderers.
Kantha embroidered products now find their way into the domestic and overseas markets and are found in boutiques around the world. In the present times, Kantha is not restricted to old layered sarees. Many designers have transformed the traditional Kantha work into contemporary products. The embroidery can be seen on cotton and silk sarees, shawls, home furnishings, covers of the pillows, bedsheets, stoles etc.
Here are some online collections of Kantha work available on Amazon.
Kantha blends together art, colour, and fine craftsmanship, with functional use and eco-conscious fashion. Incorporating Kantha works into our lifestyle is a step towards preserving the craft.
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