Kantha Work: Traditional craft in contemporary designs

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.

Kantha SpreadIt 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.

Kantha

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.

kantha work

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.

References:

  • https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute
  • http://sos-arsenic.net/lovingbengal/quilt.html
  • http://www.iisd-ngo.org/attachments/File/Hat_-making_process.pdf

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    By: Somali K Chakrabarti

    Hi there! Welcome to Scribble and Scrawl! Here, I delve into themes related to positive lifestyle – from making smart-living choices, savvy financial decisions to nurturing the mind, body and soul. I share my travel experiences, explore facets of art and culture and highlight inspiring stories. Hope you enjoy reading my posts.

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20 thoughts on “Kantha Work: Traditional craft in contemporary designs

  • November 10, 2017 at 4:24 pm
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    Nice article on this Bengali folk art form – Kantha. Nowadays, kantha motifs are more found on sarees than on rags or quilts.

    Reply
    • November 10, 2017 at 4:29 pm
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      Thank you, sir. Very true that Kantha threadwork is found more on sarees and stoles, a must have for most Bengali women. 🙂

      Reply
  • November 10, 2017 at 8:08 pm
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    This post is quite nostalgic to me as just a few days ago I took out two kanthas stitched by my Dida from the cupboard. I still use them at this time of the year. Kantha stich has really become famous now and are often done by machines, but nobody ever will do it better than our Didas and Thakumas… 🙂

    Reply
    • November 11, 2017 at 4:03 am
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      Yes, machine stitches are used these days, but some designers still engage the artisans for handstitched pieces, which are priced higher. I agree with you that there were some things that Didas and Thakumas did were much better – kantha, bodi daoa, dhokhar daalna etc . 🙂

      Reply
  • November 11, 2017 at 9:37 am
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    Frankly, I always thought that Kantha work was from Gujarat!

    Reply
    • November 11, 2017 at 12:01 pm
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      Besides Kantha, there are different quilting crafts like Ralli, Gudri, Sujni etc. from different parts of India. Kantha has been practised in Bengal for centuries it seems.

      Reply
      • November 13, 2017 at 2:30 am
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        Thanks for this information, Somali. Bengalis are famous for their skilled hands as far as art is concerned.

        Reply
  • November 11, 2017 at 12:24 pm
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    It is beautiful kantha work and embroidery you described in this post, Somali. How interesting that the patterns on some of then can tell a story like daily activities. They look like quite small patterns yet they come together to tell us somethign 🙂 It always takes time to make anything by hand but hopefully this tradition will prevail over the mill made textiles which you said are becoming an ever popular method of making things these days. I have a blanket from when I was a kid. It was bought from the shop, but it looked like it’s made from bits and pieces being sewn together. I love it and still have it today 🙂

    Reply
    • November 11, 2017 at 4:25 pm
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      Hi Mabel, It is said that each Kantha tells a story. Since these were handcrafted, each piece was unique. I was surprised to find that these embroidered pieces of clothes are now found as exhibits in museums all over the world.
      We tend to get attached to things we have from our childhood. Don’t we? Actually those become more dear to us with time. It is good to know that you still have the patchwork blanket with you.

      Reply
  • November 12, 2017 at 2:43 pm
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    Yes when we look back to our childhood days and especially winter season we could see our mother and grandmothers busy with such lovely creative works on clothes. Mumbai, winter is rarely felt and it has almost become like that in Hyderabad now a days. Take the case of Delhi where smog is the new blanket of winter and how bad is the scene there, and who cares?

    This is perfect example of how modernity and traditional work of creativity can converge, create employability to thousands of people outside the main stream economic and how such things can have a proper meeting ground in our daily life. Yes, as rightly put it with it’s economic dimension is the creative engagement woman have which make their living much more meaningful. We have so much talent and creativity in the hands of rural woman, it is just that they don’t have the avenue to express themselves and make their work of creativity like embroidery or kantha work available to a large audience and along with their engagement this becomes a source of economic freedom. With machine taking a rapid replacement to any handcrafted works for mass production, there is loss of that unique touch and the individual inputs that one artist brings to each such wonderful pieces they make with such precision. In fact lot of today’s fashion patterns have their sources from our old repository of embroidery pattern and such beautiful kantha works.

    Thanks for reignited our interest on such art forms and work of pattern that has always made our tradition apparels and accessories look uniquely fashionable.
    Hope you had a lovely Sunday!!!
    😀

    Reply
    • November 12, 2017 at 6:13 pm
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      True Nihar, the air pollution in Delhi has become unimaginable, with doctors advising people not to go out for morning walks to protect themselves. Smog is the new blanket there.
      I was pretty surprised to see that the craft which was considered a mere pastime for the rural womenfolk has found place in the exhibits of the museums such as the Museum of Philadelphia, British Museum and in Japan. It is good that now attempts are being made to transform the craft as per the present sensibilities and market it, which has created earning avenues for women and also helped in preserving the craft.
      Thank you very much for adding your valuable thoughts, Have a great week ahead,

      Reply
      • November 13, 2017 at 2:33 am
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        That’s good news, such craft are getting their long due and moving places, somehow we have always underestimated our talent so deeply ingrained in our rural hinterlands of our country, and as rightly said it is the marketing skill and the branding that needs to provided for these crafts to be on the trend, and people keep looking for new things. Our young generation are good at it and we have so many old things that recasted can give a completely new basket of fashion products, just take the case of Khadi, it has now started coming onto the mainstream as fashion trend.
        I agree Somali, something very imperatively need to be done on the air pollution in our country, perhaps these are imminent signs and we just cannot anymore ignore or avoid for long.
        Thanks and you too have a lovely week ahead.
        😀

        Reply
  • November 12, 2017 at 5:16 pm
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    Kantha is very creative and it is such a delight that this traditional art has found its way into the modern boutiques. Kantha stitch sarees have been making a fashion statement for many years now and I love them. Thanks for sharing the background and how this art started, I had no idea of its origin. 🙂

    Reply
    • November 12, 2017 at 6:16 pm
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      Thank you Balroop. Yes, Kanha stitch sarees look very stylish, Lots of credit to the designers who have merged this craft with their fashion designing and have taken it to the shops and boutiques. Thank you for your visit,

      Reply
  • November 13, 2017 at 2:57 pm
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    This is such a lovely post showing how beautiful and skilled is this craft.. So many traditional crafts throughout the world are being lost as we give way to the mechanical age I know from my own part of the world how lace would be hand made, now it is almost always done by machine..
    I enjoyed seeing the fabrics and designs dear Somali and yet again I learnt so much I am happy to learn such crafts are bringing back incomes and work to those using these skills..
    Wishing you a perfect and most Colourful day of Peace Somali.. xxx Hugs Sue xx

    Reply
    • November 13, 2017 at 3:23 pm
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      Thank you so much, Sue. Yes, the irony is that earlier too these crafts were seen only as hobbies of women, and nobody ever gave a serious thought about marketing them. Now, with the stuff entering different markets, the women artisans are seeing it as a means of earning. Thank you for your visit and kind wishes, Sue, but honestly, I request you not to overstress your eye, Love & Regards

      Reply
      • November 13, 2017 at 3:25 pm
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        Thank you, I am closing down for the day shortly.. LOL.. Much love and Many blessings for your kindness.. 🙂

        Reply

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