Associate Professor, Department of Fashion Communication, National Institute of Fashion Technology (Ministry of Textiles, Govt. of India) Plot-3B, Block-LA, Sector III, Salt Lake City, Kolkata – 700 098.
Kantha making is a “women’s art” as described by Niaz Zaman, in her book The Art of Kantha Embroidery. Kantha embroidery of Bengal has been considered as a visual diary that documented not only the creative skills of women of rural undivided Bengal but also their aspirations, dreams, and wishes, which they interlaced into the cloth to pass on as heirloom legacy. The word Kantha originated from the Sanskrit word Kontha, which means rags. According to Monier Williams, it represents a patched garment especially worn by the ascetics. The other source refers to the throat of Lord Shiva, which also is called Kontha. Quilting methods or Kantha making initially involved putting together layers of old dhoti or softly used cotton sarees. The sides were decorated with the old saree borders. Sometimes yarns were drawn out of these
Keywords: Kantha, embroidery, needlecraft, rags, quilting, Bengal, niche market, designer wear, texture, motif, quilting, natural dye, narrative story, revival, diversification
Kantha making is a “women’s art” as described by Niaz Zaman, in her book The Art of Kantha Embroidery . Kantha embroidery of Bengal has been considered as a visual diary that documented not only the creative skills of women of rural undivided Bengal but also their aspirations, dreams, and wishes, which they interlaced into the cloth to pass on as heirloom legacy. The word kantha originated from the Sanskrit word kontha , which means rags. According to Monier Williams, it represents a patched garment specially worn by the ascetics. The other source refers to the throat of Lord Shiva, which also is called kontha . It is defined as “quilted and embroidered cloths made from recycled fabric in Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh,” by John Gillow and Bryan Sentence in World Textiles.
This quilting method was initially used to put together layers of old dhoti or soft used cotton sarees. The sides were decorated with the old saree borders. Sometimes yarns were drawn out of these resham (silk) borders and used to create a contrast. This gave birth to kantha as a rag, which is its literal meaning. It was used by the poor man to cover himself up for winter and mostly made by the women folk of the household.
The oldest kantha date from the early 1800s. Based on motifs used for early kantha, it can be traced to pre and post-Vedic times. Primitive art forms have inspired popular motifs like the tree of life, the swirling cosmos, and the sun. From a five hundred year old book, named Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita by Krishnadas Kaviraj, we find the first mention of Bengal kantha. Here we find the mention of Sachi Mata, the mother of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, sending a kantha, for his son to Puri, through pilgrims from her village as a token of blessing and remembrance. This historical kantha has been preserved in Gambhira, at Puri.
The second earliest reference is found in The Art of Kantha Embroidery  where reference is made of a woman who documented her life story; from her marriage to old age in a kantha, which she embroidered herself from Srihatta district of Bangladesh. Bengal kantha making is a little different from other quilting artistry. Kanthas were either just quilted rags or had decorative designs much like the decorative Japanese Sashiko quilting. These were called nakshi kanthas and were made in Mymensingh, Rajsahi, Faridpur, and Jessore, which are now part of Bangladesh. References have been found of disciples of Buddha, who used to stitch rags together like kanthas to protect themselves from the cold [four, 6].
The objective of the study is to understand the modifications of traditional methods of kantha practices, in terms of motifs used, color combinations, base fabric, and creative exploration ventured into by designers and craft revivalists to create a niche sector for this craft.
Research methodology involves visit to Bolpur in Birbhum district, which allowed us to undergo a critical understanding of mass methods and traditional craft practices. Visit to Alcha, in Rajdanga also gave insight into niche explorations made by Keya Sarkar, a kantha enthusiast. The collection of rare and restored kanthas from Bangladesh by Gurusaday Dutta was also meticulously studied at the Gurusaday Museum in Kolkata. It gave insight into traditional practices. Further works of various designers across India including that of Tarun Tahiliani, Anita Dongre, Agnimitra Paul, Soumitra Mondal were studied alongside Kolkata based kantha exponents and revivalist Shamlu Deduja. A visit to Osaa by Adarsh Makaria exposed me to the smart use of kantha for designer prêt segment. Insights were also gained through various journals, articles, and books.
4. Literature Review
The method involves various embroidered stitches and designs which have a different story to tell.
4.1 Making of a traditional kantha
In Embroidered Textiles by Sheila Paine, K
To make a traditional full-size Kantha at least 5 to 7 saris were needed. Today, old saris have been replaced by either cotton or silk material as the base material for a Kantha. A full-size Kantha is generally 5′ x 6′ . Old saris are joint to give sufficient width. Then the layers of cloth are spread on the ground, one on top of the other. This is done by several women together. The cloth must be smooth and evened out so that there are no folds or creases on the surface. Weights are placed on the edges to keep the cloth down during this stage. During this time, the Kantha must be kept flat on the ground and then the four edges have to be stitched. After this to our three rows of large stitches are done along the length to keep the fabrics together. These lengths of stitches act like a guideline to develop the placement for motifs, which are done to decorate the Kantha once the ground has been quilted. Sometimes they were left quilted without any design.
Traditionally motifs were not drawn on the cloth. The needlewoman would find a focal point and start developing the motive around it. The ground running stitches would help her decide the space between two designs. The design would start with the central pattern first which would radiate out from the middle of the cloth. After the central design, the corner or border designs would be done. Following which, other designs would be done in spaces that were left over after completion of the central and corner designs. This would give Kantha its unique haphazard patterns yet have an order or harmony about it.
The embroidery stitches used would interlace with the background stitches in such a way, that the motive would stand out like a relief. In kanthas, the background stitching tends to move lengthways and breadthways without regard to the motifs. Older kanthas had a rippled effect (Refer Figure 2) as the background stitch used to pierce through all the layers however; it is hardly visible in modern ones.
Origin Katha makers did not draw the motif but they embroidered the outline with needle and thread. After being satisfied with the design, they would start filling in with colorful stitches to complete a design. A design is usually outlined first and stitches are made from outside slowly narrowing into the middle of a design. This ensures that the fabric remains even and are not crumpled inside the design.
Modern artisans use wooden blocks (Figure 3) to trace repeated design on the fabric or use needle to prick a tracing sheet on which the design has already been drawn. Then this sheet is places on the fabric and laundry blue mix with kerosene is rubbed on the paper. The blue liquid leaves dotted marks on the fabric as it penetrates through the holes this tracing the design or pattern. It is very easy to dust away this blue when it dries or wash it off. For a dark background, chalk or zinc oxide is used instead of the blue.
Traditional kanthas had resham borders of saris stitched onto the edges for a neat finish. Modern ones have folded and stitched or hand hemmed edges. Sometimes the edges are pekoed as well. Care is taken not to draw a thread too far as it would show ugly at the reverse. A motif when completed is knitted securely at the reverse to ensure it stays in place and do not unravel.
4.2 Stitches Used
The main stitch used is running stitch, which is used to form the ground and hold the layers of cloth together. In modern kantha, the all over running stitch texture is often avoided and only motifs done.
Stella Kramrisch in her article named ‘kantha’, published in the Journal of the Indian society of Oriental Art, made the first reference of kantha as darning stitch . Following her many, other writers referred to this running stitch technique as darning stitch. However, there is a distinct difference between darning and the running stitch used for kantha. While darling is a technique where the stitches are interwoven with the fabric and the stitches alternate in each line but in case of kantha this does not occur and therefore we get the characteristics rippling effect (Refer to Figure 2). Later she, therefore, she corrects herself and states that “the stitches are of the simplest kind, the running stitch being not only the main but also the most ingenuously employed,” in Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village .
4.2.1 Running Stitch
The running stitch technique used in kantha takes the stitches a little forward or backward in successive rows than that of the first row of running stitch to give the ripple effect. Over decades, different forms of running stitch in various patterns have been used to give kantha its variety.
Some of the variations of running stitch are as follows:
- Chatai or PatiPhor- this is a pattern darning technique and visually resembles a Chatai or woven mat. Long lengths of threads are drawn from one end of the motif to another in a slightly slanted form. It often resembles a satin stitch and consumes a lot of thread. A Chatai flower or wheel is a very popular motif. When used as a checkerboard pattern it resembles Pulkari as mentioned by Zaman, N. (1993).
Kaityaor bending stitch- here stitches are closely taken in parallel rows. Each stitch moves a little forward in successive rows and the whole row appears to bend. It clearly produces a more delicate effect than PatiPhor.
- Weaving stitch-, this short or long running stitch at intervals is used to decorate borders. The needle is woven in and out of the group fabric and remembers a weave more than an embroidery as has been noted by G.S. Dutta who calls them “textile pattern Kanthas” in The Art of Kantha – Modern Review (1939).
4.2.2 Darning Stitch
It is used more for embroidery technique than for the ground stitch . The spaces between the tiny stitches are larger for darning giving it a dotted effect and renewable op art . Several varieties of darning stitches are used. Jessore Stitch, for example, is a darning variety used for embroidery work in saris in Jessore area of Bangladesh . The stitch is longer than the gap here.
Rows of stitches are placed close to one another to form a color blocking area.
4.2.3 Threaded running stitch
This variation is new conspired to the above and comprises of rows of running stitches equally spaces. Stitches in desires number of rows run alternate or parallel as desired. The cloth is turned and then the needle weaves in and out of these rows. Sips geometric patterns can be created with these especially for border design.
It comprises of a number of parallel rows of running stitches. The stitch size and gap size is same. The rows may run parallel or alternate depending on desired design. After many such rows are finished, the cloth is turned and rows of stitches are joined with previous rows. Traditional kantha also used satin stitch, herringbone, cross-stitch, arrowhead, buttonhole and satin stitch for designs.
Apart from these, modern kantha uses Kashmiri stitches like stem as outline and satin to fill up motifs. Long and short satin stitches are also used. To give seeding effect or cluster small flowers French knot is also used these days along with Lazy Daisy to create the popular floral motifs. Fly stitch, fish bone, and fagotting is found in contemporary kantha in abundance. Some appliqués and patchwork are also being used. These, however, essentially takes away the tradition flavor from kantha and best avoided.
Albeit these variations are to create variety and quick production, to thrive the demand of volume of the very market-authentic Kantha do not use them. Artisans argue customers are not ready to pay for traditional Kanthas, which are extremely, time-consuming. Their argument to some extent stands true, thus forcing Kantha to lose its traditional glory.
5. Types of kantha
Various forms and types of kantha existed based on end-use . Some of the popular ones are as follows:
- The traditional lep kantha was rectangular. The purpose of these heavy layered pieces was to act as blankets or quilts. These were for daily use.
- Sujani kantha was more ornate and used as a bed spread for ceremonies or special occasions.
- Baiton kantha was square and had elaborate colorful embroidery on them. The borders had several rows of decorative design. They were mainly used as a cover for valuables and books.
- Oar kantha was used as a pillow cover. The design was minimalist but the edge was decorated. The shape was like a pillow-rectangular.
- Archilata kantha had colorful designs along the borders, which were very wide. They were small rectangular pieces used to cover mirrors and cosmetics.
- Durjani kantha is small rectangle piece, three corners of which are folded inward to from a wallet. They are decorated with a central lotus design and embroidered borders.
- Rumal kantha, which is used to cover plates, and come with a lotus motif right in the center.
6. Areas of Modification
6.1 Experimenting with Base Material & Raw Materials
Traditionally kantha makers used old cotton sarees or dhotis, which were recycled as a base material for kantha. The threads used for embroidery were drawn from the borders of the saree. As the purpose of a kantha changed from being a blanket to protect one from the cold or as a personal diary of a woman which was passed on to the next generation (as a dowry or gift or as blessing), the ground material of kantha changed. Initially, kantha was made on cotton and silk, which were readily available in Bengal.
The silk was usually sourced from Murshidabad or Bishnupur. Later tussar, Bangalore silk, Assam silk, silk from Bhagalpur were introduced. Holding hands of mass production, synthetic fabrics entered the workshop of the artisans. These comprised of poly-cottons, artificial georgette and chiffon, and artificial silk. The focus here was to bring down the price of each item, to increase affordability by the masses. The finish, however, was not as graceful as done on a pure cotton or pure silk base. Today more youth centric fabrics like the denim and knitwear have also been explored upon. With the call for ‘back to handloom’ and Khadi, cotton and Khesh is the new age fabric for kantha followed closely by handloom tussar.
Yarns used for contemporary kantha ranges from expensive Anchor yarns to less expensive Dolly brand of cotton yarns. Silk yarns often called as ‘chiffon suto’ by the artisans, are used for fancy work. Many designers are exploring with different yarns in varying counts from fine to thick and even twisted. The edgy experiments include wool, Lurex, and chord, to get various textures. The possibilities are galore, especially when used for lifestyle products.
6.2 New Explorations
Based on market demands, artisans are exploring new methods of presenting traditional kantha in contemporary forms. Patch kantha, for example, called ‘baul kantha’, is a current trend. Mix media is also in soaring claim where Khesh, block print, and kantha are being used together to add value to clothes and sarees. Many new stitches are being incorporated as well, like the colorful mirror work of Kutch and the Sindhi Karai. Use of sequin and beads along with kantha have also been explored. Diversification has also been noted in terms of using the pieces of kantha as a patch or appliqué in garments .
6.3 Modification of Motifs Used
The most observed alteration in kantha has taken place in terms of design or motif used. Earlier kantha reflected crude pictures or aspirations of the embroider which were directly stitched on the cloth. However, after commercialization, motifs were made to appease the customers and therefore we see a paradigm shift from crude motifs to fine symmetrical motifs, which were traced and then embroidered onto. Tracing methods have also been refined technically from use of a racing paper, which is pierced by needles to motor pens that help in making faster khakas. Ever block prints are used as a reference for doing the embroidery as seen in Figure 3.
Primarily the motifs were inspired by the flora fauna of the region along with historical and sociopolitical events of Bengal. Folk animals, birds, poems and rhymes (chora) had a special place in children’s kantha. Parveen Ahmed suggests many such symbols like the cosmos (mahajagotik), the fish (matsya avatar), the crocodile (makara), boats, the plough, the ladder, the rice pounder (dhenki), the nut cracker (janti), the hand fan, the umbrella have found their way in fold art form as motifs into kantha .
However, presently motifs have crossed boundaries and range from Egyptian art to Warli paintings, from Greek designs to Tribal designs from Nagaland. A lot of geometric influence is witnessed owing to a niche group of customers, who prefer minimalism and linear designs. Therefore, we observe that there is a deviation from the initial poddo kantha (with Lotus designs) or golap kantha (with big roses) to contemporary designs. Birds and animals are also used in abundance now. Modern Kantha also incorporates motifs like a cycle, taxi, train including the vanishing, traditionally hand-pulled rickshaw of Bengal.
7. Creation of a Niche Market
Kantha according to many has been over used to the extent that they identify it with cheap mass-market product and avoid investing in the craft. Ever since Shantiniketan has become a favorite weekend getaway for tourists, who in particular target the Sanibarer Haat (Saturday local market) at Sonajhuri, kantha has undergone immense changes. As mass-market demand increased for kantha owing to mushrooming of artisans in the local market including Bhubandanga in Bolpur, focus shifted from quality to quantity. Competitive pricing determined quality as well-which was far from being good. The artisans who catered to the mass market neither had sense of design nor color combination. Their aim was quantity. The base material used were also cheap and synthetic. The price was almost half if not less than pure silk or soft cotton. This resulted into an
Overload of medium to cheap quality of products flooding the markets of Kolkata and many ecommerce sites. Therefore, this exquisite needlecraft fell from its traditional personalized glory of storytelling to mass-market products, which were soon adding to dead stock. It was time to revive it to its previous glory. Therefore, an understanding of the niche market was needed .
8. Understanding the Craft Sector Development
India, ever since its independence has emphasized in handmade crafts and handloom as the key strength to survive against the machine made mass productions offered by its more advanced neighbors. The growing fraction between rural and urban India was evident beside an escalating middle class market that demanded products befitting their lifestyle. Their need was getting further away from what the rural craftsmen could produce. The major challenges hence faced by artisans were due to globalization, which resulted into decline of traditional markets. Further, they realized that the developments and economic empowerment as part of contemporary India was not benefiting them.
Many women since then have contributed to this cause, help important posts in the government, and crated milestones of their own. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a pioneer in this craft revival movement and has contributed immensely to revive the craft sector and artisans in particular, across India. In 1952, she was appointed the chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB).
In 1950s, with some short break, Pupul Jayakar, was appointed as Chairperson of the All India Handloom Board as well. Under the leadership of Indira Gandhi followed by her son as Prime Minister, Pupul Jayakar brought about new policies related to development of craft sector and culture as well.
The potentiality of re positioning India, as a hub for handmade products was a driving force in bring about some developmental changes, which included the following:
- Formation of Weavers Service Centers
- Formation of the Handloom and Handicraft Export Promotion Corporation.
- Providing marketing frameworks for the sector
- Formation of institutes like National Institute of Design (1955) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (1986) for benefiting this sector
The above initiations brought about a major face change to the Indian economy in terms of placing handmade Indian products in the global market as a competitor against machine made cheap products. The young Indian designers, who graduated from these institutes, helped to create global awareness and draw attention of foreign buyers towards crafted items from India. In short, they stimulated a demand and therefore growth in this sector.
9. Creation of a Niche Market-Role of NGOs
To further the developments, NGOs came forth to play a vital role. They reached to the craftsmen and trained them to produce products as per the market demand. Design and technological advancement through training programmes were constantly the endeavor of NGOs, who contributed in the development of products, which could be marketed to the middle class, particularly upper middle class. However, it was felt that to hold crafty products at the global platform required it to move from a mass requirement to high product offering. Thus influencing some of the NGOs and later designers to rethink and reroute toward a niche market of trendy products, as per global standards.
In West Bengal, a number of such NGOs are until date working with the kantha artisans to provide economic empowerment through training and formation of self-help groups. Some of them have also developed a niche market for these artisans by forming a brand of their won like Sasha set by Late Subhashini Kohli, Keya Sarkar with her unique, standalone boutique Alcha, at Rajdanga in Shantiniketan.
10. Role of Designers
Another adept in the niche category is the label Chutti-Raja by Late Chutti Adhikari, which is now run by her husband Sudipto Adhikari. Kantha revivalist Shamlu Dudeja’s contribution in trickling up kantha from rags to riches though her NGO named SHE Foundation, is a story worth documenting.
Apart from revivalists, we have a number of Indian designers who have used Kantha in their collection and helped create a higher platform for Kantha. Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s collection “Kora” at the Lakme India Fashion Week 2003 won him admiring reviews where he used unbleached and hand-woven fabrics with Kantha and other hand embroideries. He further used Kantha work on Benarasi silk in his India Couture Week 2014 collection [Figure 6(a) and 6(b)].
Agnimitra Paul used Kantha for her collection in Lakme Fashion Week in 2007 [Figure 6(c)]. Tarun Tahiliani used Kantha in Lakme Fashion Week- Summer/Resort 2013 as well. Divyam Mehta’s collection for Autumn-Winter 2016 titled “Into the Woods” combines Japanese fabrics, silk, merino wool, linen knits and Khadi denim with shibori, further highlighted with Indian embroideries such as Kantha.
Among new age young designers of Kolkata, we have Rimi Nayak known for her sensuous drapes, signature prints, and unconventional surface techniques along with classic cuts. Over the years, the designer has maintained a vivid ingenious essence in her creations with a generous use of traditional Batik, kantha, and other hand dyeing and printing techniques.
Kantha is a popular style in the global platform. It is simple yet versatile looks makes it easily adaptable to western aesthetics. Japan too has its own style of kantha, which has been discussed earlier. Despite so, designers like Mieko Mintz who began her brand in 1999 in West Village before moving on to Soho, is sourcing from India. Interestingly her first collection was developed from kantha throws made in West Bengal, which were later shaped into designer jacket patterns [Figure 5]. Her collection is comfortable, contemporary and sophisticated. Her uniqueness lies is sourcing sarees and throws which she upcycles to clothes, remaining side cuts of which is used to make bags and jewelry. She believes is total utilization and up cycling .
Likewise, Jamala Design from Upper Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia also sources its kantha from India. Their area of expertise is to create clothes that are ‘comfortable and yet elegant, as well as being good for the earth and for all involved in creating them’ . They source their garment production out of Jaipur and indulge in block printing, kantha, and natural dyes. The base material varies from Khadi cotton to hand woven silks. The designer Corinne Willowson visits India on a quarterly basis to ensure best quality is delivered for the brand. The collection is very subtle and suitable for middle-aged women with a bias towards handmade and sustainable clothing.
Kantha has undergone a change of role – from a blanket to a high fashion piece, making its mark equally in local markets alongside export market and through global brands. We may consider that the world is ready to source kantha from India and to make it available for the niche market. However, to make this process seamless kantha artisans must cater to the following:
- Deliver best quality
- Ensure yarn is azo free and colorfast
- Base material is of best or specified quality
- Develop modern motifs and provide color story as per client need
- Concentrate on skill up-gradation though trainings
- Product diversification as per market needs
- Explore mix media options
- Deliver on time
We can conclude that the modifications have taken place as kantha became commercialized and the adaptations helped it remain as per the taste of the market segment it was catering. The shift, therefore, was a conscious one; while it resulted into loss of intangible cultural heritage, however, kept the craft alive through decades of change. It is only through the shift to the niche, high-end segment that an intricate tradition like kantha can survive and earn its due respect perhaps as an heirloom piece, which gets passed on through generations- thus retaining its customary splendor.
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