ReviewSpecial Issue

Kantha The Sustainability Sutra

Subhasree Biswas

1Entrepreneur, Copenhagen, Denmark.


In this article, I shall discuss kantha and the potential that crafts clusters have in delivering sustainable development to the kantha artisan of region Birbhum. Today, regions are playing a crucial role in the implementation of new sustainable models of development. I shall also discuss in this context the Govt. of India and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) initiatives, as well as United Nation’s goal for sustainable development and UNESCO’s concern to save Intangible Cultural Heritage. Finally, how women empowerment in the cluster eradicate poverty and elevate the standard of life.

1. Introduction

Kantha is an ancient form of folk art traced back in pre-vedic age. The word kantha is originated from Sanskrit word ”kontha” which has two meaning: rags and throat [1]. 

A legend says that the kantha owes its origin to Lord Buddha and his disciples who used to cover themselves with rags patched and stitched together. Kantha is a form of traditional quilting in Bengal in which old saris and dhotis are stitched together to make objects of functional, ritual, or ceremonial use. Traditionally, thread drawn from the borders of old saris is used to quilt the pieces and embroider borders and motifs in variations of the darning stitch, today the kantha artisan mostly use new fabric, cotton, silk, tussah, linen, wool. Motifs are drawn from everyday life but are often imbued with symbolic meanings. It is a traditional skill, handed down from generations to generations. Kantha is predominantly women-centric art. It was a personal expression of a woman’s imagination, dream, and fantasy. Kantha embroidery today is an important source of income for women artisan or entrepreneur.

Figure 1 A kantha work
Figure 1 A kantha work

As kanthas are a form of recycling rags, they were often associated with poverty, but the revival of kantha makes it an elitist possession. Kantha traveled the glorious journey from rags to riches. Today kantha got the status of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). The metamorphosis of a thrown out objects to an art form makes kantha legendary. Kantha can be easily called as a recycling art. It is somewhat similar to Japanese Boro textile, which is also recycled from old fabric, patched and stitched together with darning stitch. However, Boro textile in usually indigo with white geometric stitches, whereas kantha is more vivid and colorful with geometric, floral or figurative motifs [2]. 

Since independence, the Indian government has created a number of institutions, schemes and welfare programs for the crafts sector. The private sector also has contributed to uplifting artisans through different market-led efforts made by retail chains, high end-fashion designers, and social entrepreneur. In recent years, the Government has moved its focus towards sustainable development of crafts through the participation of artisans. Capacity building efforts such as the Artisan Credit Card scheme and the Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hastshilp Vikas Yojana, Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana (SGSY) generally led by the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts. SGSY is an initiative launched by the Government of India to provide sustainable income to artisan below poverty line, living in rural & urban areas of the country. Efforts include skills development, technological intervention, design and marketing support and reviving dying crafts [5]. 

In September 2015, The United Nation adopted plans to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. The 17 Goals and 169 targets are the most important economic, social, environmental and governance challenge of our time. For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and people like you. In this new Agenda, cultural heritage protection, however, occupies a rather timid position. The global leaders and international bodies have yet to acknowledge the potential of the cultural heritage sector to meet sustainable development goals. Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) understood as traditional knowledge and skills inherited from generation to generation is the expression of people’s ingenuity to adopt themselves to their natural and socio-economic environment and is a testament to the people’s survival and development. Kantha got the ICH status from Bangladesh. As it is originated from Bangladesh and migrated after partition to different places of west Bengal such as Santiniketan, Barsat, and Murshidabad etc. UNESCO has continuously underlined the importance of safeguarding ICH as a means of sustainable development, especially for livelihood improvement and social inclusion of the communities in need.

If we consider the most recent and the third definition of sustainability which states- “Sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth’s two most complex systems—human culture and the living world.” 

Figure 2: Woman doing kantha embroidery using a kind of skill to generate income. Cluster   simple run stitch
Figure 2: Woman doing kantha embroidery using a kind of skill to generate income. Cluster   simple run stitch

Then we definitely have a role to play. NIFT, a pioneering institute under ministry of textile has its own share of contribution towards craft sector through various initiatives. Amongst others crafts, cluster development programme is extremely significant. The idea behind is to involve NIFT’s professional expertise in the areas of design, technology, marketing and management along with external expertise, and synergies all developmental activities by various government and non-government agencies.

Each NIFT campus, a specialist in specific crafts and aesthetics of the region, has chosen a cluster each for the initiative. I personally was involved in the Crafts cluster development programme of Kolkata NIFT from the very beginning. The Cluster initiative of NIFT Kolkata is based in Birbhum District. Birbhum district of West Bengal in known for its art and craft. Moreover, the existence of Visva Bharati University is an added advantage to ensure enduring quality of art and craft in the region. Amongst various traditional craft, kantha has a very important role in the region. I conducted many skilled development project on kantha in Birbhum under the cluster development programme of NIFT [3].

After Michael Porter’s seminal work on clusters and competitiveness published around 1990, cluster initiatives has become known as a new concept for economic development. Clusters are a specific form of cooperation that has increasingly gained importance in recent years. They can be defined as geographic concentrations of interconnected   companies, specialized suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions. In craft cluster initiative a particular craft is recognized where there are concentration of artisans practicing the same programs and initiatives are today established in all developed and in many developing countries. Cluster development approach is important tool to stimulate economic growth, generate employment amongst artisan and finally mitigate poverty. Cluster development is a powerful tool for sustainable growth of a country [4].

NIFT generally work with self-help (SHG) of the region mainly consist of women artisan specialized in kantha. The Self-help group can easily get micro loans from Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI), National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) etc. These banks has been involved in funding and implementing development work for artisans through different schemes.

The cluster development programme on kantha is a highly successful endeavor. It generate considerable amount of product diversification, which are market oriented and price competitive. Intervention on design and opportunities in new market generated more income into the groups of artisan, thus elevated them from below poverty line. Most of the kantha artisans in the crafts cluster are women. Everybody knows when women have economic power in their hand they have potential to change not only their own life and their family but also the community and the country they live in.

After partition and in 70’s, lots of kantha artisan migrated from Bangladesh to West Bengal. In Birbhum, there is a concentration of migrated kantha artisan. In the time of distress, the only thing they could carry along with them is their cultural heritage. These artisans have kantha in their DNA. Slowly they were assimilated in the culture of Birbhum and escalated their skill in the local society. Today both the Hindu and Muslim community simultaneously makes exquisite kantha embroideries in the region. There are many self-help group doing thriving business on kantha. They are participating in the crafts fair in and around the country and even going abroad to exhibit and profited from kantha.


The Cottage industries of kantha cluster is a magnificent example how cluster initiative can create a sustainable society. Sustainability not only in terms of economic development but also in terms of gender equality, awareness of health care, education. The last but not the least important is the stabilization of the relation between the human culture and the world by sustaining an age-old craft.

The women artisans started to understand and appreciate the newfound economic freedom. They are the game changer and plays a pivotal role to make a better world. Today they send their daughter into school along with their son, combat domestic violence and balance the domestic life and work efficiently. It is a known fact economic development efforts to combat poverty can only succeed if women are part of the solution. Doing so yields a double dividend: When women are economically empowered, they raise healthier, better-educated families .The cluster development is a form of investment on women. The women artisans of the kantha cluster helped to speed up the development of local economies and created a more sustainable society.


  1. Basak, S. (2002). Banglar Nakshi Kantha.
  2. Can ICH safeguarding contribute to the New 2030 SDGs? A case study from West Bengal, India. (2015). Available at: [Accessed 4 July. 2016].
  3. NIFT Cluster Initiatives (2016). Available at: [Accessed 4 July. 2016].
  4. The Cluster Initiative Green book. (2018). Available at: /faculty/Pages/ [Accessed 4 July. 2016].
  5. Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY). (2005). Available at: https://www. [Accessed 14 Apr. 2018].
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