The art of Kantha has been around for ages but is now staging a revival of sorts because of its surging popularity in the domestic as well as the overseas markets. Kantha is a type of embroidery that dates back several centuries. Legend has it that Gautama Buddha and his disciples used old rags stitched together to cover themselves while sleeping and therein lie the roots of kantha embroidery.
In recent years, its origins can be traced back to Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Faridpur and Jessore areas of Bangladesh and neighbouring Bolpur, Birbhum District, in the Indian state of West Bengal. Traditionally, rural women would take four or five sarees or dhotis and sew them together with ‘running stitches’ to create blankets or bed linen for their kids. The thought behind this needlework was to reuse old clothes and threads and turn them into something new.
The craft faded over time until it was revived on a massive scale in the 1940s by the Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, affiliated to the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. Given its proximity to Shantiniketan, Bolpur naturally became the seat of crafts and culture in West Bengal.
What started as a way to meet life’s basic necessities, has caught the fancy of urban consumers and has taken the clothing and furnishings business by storm. Today, a full length kantha work done in myriad hues on a lovely Tussar silk sari is a staple in every modern Bengali wardrobe!
Contemporary Kantha stitch craft is being practiced in several other Indian states, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Kantha tradition by women artisans in the Barmer region of Rajasthan is a rage among foreign buyers because of its versatility and ability to beautify modern fabrics and silhouettes. There are several variations of this embroidery, some of the popular ones being Patchwork Kantha, Nakshi (Pattern) Kantha, Lep Kantha and Sujni Kantha . It is applied to a wider range of garments such as sarees, dupatta, shirts for men and women, bedding and other furnishing fabrics, mostly using cotton and silk.
The embroidered fabrics have multiple uses – they can be used as shawls, covers for mirrors, boxes, and pillows. Motifs found in early Kantha embroidery include many symbols that were derived from Nature. These symbols commonly used are the sun, the tree of life and the universe. In some cases, the entire cloth is covered with running stitches, employing beautiful motifs of flora and fauna and geometrical shapes, as well as themes from everyday activities.