Kantha Ki Katha

Indigenous to the state of West Bengal, the word “kantha” literally translates to “rags” (Desai and D. Westfall, 1987).  Originally, several layers of white or light coloured cotton  cloth, such as old sarees and dhotis, were sewn together with  predominantly white thread using successive rows of running stitches to make a quilt. This was the original kantha stitch (As shown). 

Image: A simple running stitch 

The characteristics of the craft, the raw material, the purpose and most importantly the skill set required for Kantha have always been woman-centric, which makes it one of the very few crafts of our country to be so. Kantha embroidery is also known to be one of the oldest forms of crafts originating in India dating back to the early 1800s. In a five-hundred-year-old book, the Sri Chaitanya  Charitamrita by Krishnadas Kaviraj, we find the first mention of Bengal Kantha.

The Kantha-maker would casually embroider a motif which was usually inspired by her immediate surroundings, including the flora and fauna, items of everyday use and things she considered valuable. Flowers, leaves, birds and animals have been some of the earliest motifs depicting deeper meaning in a lot of scenarios - including the cosmos, importance of the Sun and the Tree of Life.  Day to day folk scenes were also often the source of inspiration for embroiderers of Kantha (Devi, Punia, Pruthi and Sisodia, 2017)

The process of making a kantha item adopted by the women, was quite simple. Discarded saris were placed, one on top of the other, until the desired thickness was achieved. The edges were then folded and sewn together and the entire expanse of fabric was quilted with a white thread. Coloured threads, drawn from the saris, were also used to embroider both the border and the surface designs. This was done by women across ages and economic stature, and the skills passed on by them to their next generations (Desai and D. Westfall, 1987).

The use of kantha, and the kinds of motifs could be separated into seven categories (Mandel, 2018):

 Arshilata Kantha are small covers for the mirrors and combs with wide and colourful borders, measuring 12" x 6" .

  Beton Kantha is square wrap used for covering books and the other valuables. They have elaborate borders, measuring 3' x 3'.

  Durjani Kantha or Thalia Kantha  are quilted wallets made out of square kantha pieces. 

  Lep Kantha is a rectangular wrap heavily padded to make warm quilts. The whole piece is stitched in a heavy pattern. Simple embroidery is done on the finished quilt, measuring approximately 6' x 4', and is used as a body covering during the cold winter months

  Oaar Kantha is a pillow cover with simple design and a decorative border

  Sujani Kantha:  This is decorative  quilted kantha used as  blankets or spreads during auspicious ceremonial occasions, measuring 6' x 3'

  Rumal Kantha is a handkerchief size kantha  made to be used as absorbent wipes or as coverings; they  also have a central lotus with ornamented borders.


Interestingly the original version of the kantha stitch was never meant to be used as a clothing item. But now with a modern uplift from craft revivalists and push from local NGOs to create employment opportunities  to empower rural women, the kantha stitch can be seen on a national and global level.

Predominantly it can be seen on cotton and silk sarees (especially tussar silk and Bangalore silk sarees). An off-white base silk fabric is usually used to allow the embroidered colours of the threads to appear brighter to the eye. Yarns of different colours are then drawn out from the borders of the saris, and the surface is embroidered with human and animal, foliage and floral motifs. This results in each piece being uniquely beautiful.  Multi coloured patches of various cloth pieces are also sewn together to make unique stoles and dupattas . The kantha stitch is also popularly used in home décor items such as bedlinen, table covers & cushion covers,  files and folders, coasters, table linen, notebooks etc . They can also be seen in blouse pieces which can be paired with contrast sarees for a uniquely beautiful look (Image below). Many also line up to get their plain bedsheets, curtains, table covers, even kurtis and dupattas to be enhanced with the kantha stitch throughout the entire length (Palit and Debnath, 2017) . The best thing about Kantha work is that it can be an accessory in itself, and does not need any additional embellishment to make it look better. 

The running stitch of kantha, can only be done manually - however, a machine anchor stitch is also being termed as kantha which is now commonly seen on block printed fabrics (Image below)

In some ways for the rural women folk sustainability by reducing and reusing fabrics was a way of life. This was fuelled either by force of religious beliefs or simply to pass time. Many myths revolve around the origin of the kantha. But most of them reinforce the same belief viz  the universe is a "woven fabric where everything and every human has a place at the meeting point of the warp and weft." The completed woven cloth is a symbol of wholeness and integrity.

The process of making something wholesome and new from old, discarded clothes not only did the environment a favour but also helped the poor families protect themselves from cold winters. Is it not wonderful that simple rural women folk can teach us so much about responsible consumerism?

About the author:

A happy-go-lucky person, Madhurima works in the banking sector in West Bengal but has her passions lying in the handicraft sector. Trying to promote handicrafts in the smallest of ways - this is a small attempt for her to learn, along with you & I, about various handicrafts of India!

References  :-

Desai, D. and D. Westfall, C., 1987. Kantha. ARS TEXTRINA, 7, pp.161-177.

Devi, S., Punia, P., Pruthi, N. and Sisodia, N., 2017. Development of Kantha Embroidery Motifs to Designs: Traditional to Contemporary. International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences, 6(7), pp.4479-4488.

Mandel, R., 2018. Ornamental Surface of Nakshi Kantha. Anukriti, 4(7), pp.35-38.

Palit, S. and Debnath, D., 2017. KANTHA EMBROIDERY-A WOMAN-CENTRIC PATH TOWARDS EMPOWERMENT FOR ARTISANS IN WEST BENGAL. Asian Journal of Science and Technology, 8(10), pp.6084-6089.

Image: First image (Google, free to share commercially), second and third owned by Sangisathi Charitable Foundation

Cover image: Wikimedia Commons, free to share and use commercially.