05 Apr Kantha Embroidery born out of Recycling and Upcycling Traditions
Kantha Embroidery: We speak so much nowadays of recycling and upcycling as a means of repairing what we have done to the environment and our ecology through thoughtless consumption. But in several cultures, and particularly Japan and India, upcycling has existed historically.
Japan, of course, has her Sashiko and Boro. And India has Kantha. I recall when my son was born, our Bengali help embroidered his first nappies using soft used cloth and beautiful Kantha, something I still treasure.
History of Kantha Embroidery
The word Kantha means ‘rag’ in Sanskrit, which is, of course, very appropriate, given that embroidery is a way of using old and ragged cloth. India has always had a tradition of reuse and recycle. It is not surprising that Kantha is one of the most ancient traditions of embroidery in India, dating to pre-Vedic times. It is mentioned 500 years ago by the poet Krishnadas Kaviraj in his book Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, where Chaitanya’s mother sends a Kantha to her son.
Evolving from E India, the craft, like Phulkari, was practiced by women of all classes, mainly rural, and like Phulkari again, knowledge was passed down through generations of women.
Sadly, it virtually disappeared in the 19th century. In the 1940s, the Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts in Shantiniketan revived it globally, only to suffer through the partition and its ensuing division of E Bengal. In recent times, Shamlu Dudeja has done much to support the craft through her organization SHE.
Technique and Motifs
The process of making a Kantha starts by cutting fabrics into layers, which are then loosely stitched together around the edges. The whole is then embroidered with various stitches, generally in parallel lines so that the layers are not warped. Traditionally, the stitches were done instinctively without a pattern, but nowadays, a pattern or a wooden block is often used to outline the design before embroidery starts. Interestingly, traditionally, even the thread used was recycled from old sarees.
Nowadays, of course, new fabric is used, mainly off-white, to enhance the embroidery.
The motifs in Kantha reflect its Vedic origins and often depict the cosmos, the sun, the tree of life, and the lotus. Other common motifs are the ubiquitous wheel and the swastika. As the craft has evolved, the motifs have grown to reflect daily activities which the women are surrounded by, including human figures, flora, and fauna.
The Kantha emanating from Murshidabad is done by Muslim women, and the motifs here are more geometrical, reflecting Islamic culture.
Types of stitches of Kantha Embroidery
The basic Kantha stitch is a simple running stitch, but as the craft has become more evolved, several stitches too have developed, especially in the elaborate Nakshi Kanthas, which often tell stories of religion and culture.
Prominent stitches of Kantha Embroidery
- Lohori or wave.
- Sujni or floral/ vine.
- Cross stitch introduced by British rule.
- Anarsi or pineapple.
Colors usually are red, yellow, green, blue, and black.
Uses that Kantha Embroidery is put to.
The embroidery has been traditionally used for quilts, sarees, dhotis, gamchas, coverlets, swaddling fabrics, purses, floor coverings, pillow covers, each woman stitching her memories into her particular piece. Nowadays, Kantha often appears on sarees and other apparel, accessories, and home.
Kantha Embroidery in current times
Though Kantha is exported in huge quantities, it has not resulted in fair wages for the women practicing it. It is up to designers to apply fair trade principles to their sourcing so that this beautiful craft form can survive.
Kantha Embroidery as art and in design
I just love the work of Bangladesh-based Suraiya Rahman, who has given work opportunities to hundreds of women in her country. Her Kantha-based pieces have elevated the craft to an art form. Ekta Kaul’s Maps of London, using Kantha, are fascinating too.
Several designers like Kinche, House of Wandering Silk, and Mahamaya Sikdar use the craft in remarkable ways. Of particular note is the 2013 collection based on the craft by Tarun Tahiliani.
We stand at a crucial crossroads in history today, particularly in light of the COVID epidemic. Our need for sustainable practices and the riches to be found in rags is more significant than ever before, given the carbon footprint of garment manufacture and rampant consumerism. Ancient crafts like Kantha and Sashiko have much to teach us about the value of recycling. After all, when all fashion ideas are eventually recycled, why not cloth?
Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury. She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft. She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.
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