Ruby Palchoudhary showcasing elaborate kantha work
Ruby Palchoudhary showcasing elaborate kantha work

From a humble beginning as a homegrown handicraft to today’s high fashion statement kantha stitch has come a long way, writes RANJITA BISWAS.

Soft blankets for the baby made from old cotton sarees, folded into layers and held together with itinerant running stitches with threads picked from the borders, that is kantha which literally means a quilt in Bengali. From that humble beginning as a homegrown handicraft to today’s high fashion statement is an astonishing journey for kantha.

Today, sarees, salwar kameez sets, men’s kurta, stoles, batuas embellished with kantha stitch are prized by connoisseurs at home and abroad. Designers use the craft in various ways too for household items like bedspreads, cushion cover, etc.

It would be wrong to assume that the humble quilt designs are dull in theme and colour. As would be obvious from the display at the recent exhibition ‘Eye of the Needle: Kantha, the Quilt Embroidery of Bengal’, at Kolkata’s Birla Academy of Art & Culture to celebrate the Golden Jubilee year of the Crafts Council of West Bengal.

Designs both simple and complex

Even though the stitches themselves were simple, rural women of Bengal, including Bangladesh, could create anything from simple patterns to complicated designs. Confined to the home and hearth, they gave free rein to their imagination creating colourful designs – the flowers they saw, the pond they went to bathe in, or the conch shell they blew in the evening. From an ordinary stitch it morphed into the beautiful nakshi kantha design to the delight of connoisseur.

The so-called ordinary women’s power of observation is also reflected in many of the works which show off contemporary motifs. Some of them even display influence of colonialism. For example, among the flowers and traditional motifs suddenly appear a sahib in a palki or a memsahib with a parasol.

Some of the best kantha quilts made in Satgaon, the old capital of Bengal, using unbleached silken threads were turned out under Portuguese patronage. The Portuguese had come as traders to the Bay of Bengal coast and some of them stayed back to settle down there. A piece in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has concentric circles along its borders, with the centre filled with Portuguese coats-of-arm and sailing ships.

Stitching stories: The journey of kantha stitch has been an incredible one

A revival story

But it is also true that like many Indian handicrafts during the British rule, kantha suffered too relegated to the back bench. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s daughter-in-law Pratima Devi tried to revive it, but it was not a commercial success. In the post-Independence period, particularly under freedom fighter Phulrenu Guha and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (the force behind the Cottage Industries), kantha made a comeback.

But its present popularity can be traced to the ’80s. Samples of kantha work at the Birla Museum exhibition, there were about a hundred on display, and elsewhere like at governments Cultural Research Institute also showcase the evolution of the concept of quilting.

Designers have also been constantly trying to innovate. Shamlu Dudeja, who has long been involved in augmenting kantha work in rural homes, informs, “Original kantha, that is, nakshi kantha, was a multi-layered sewing method to produce coverlets and small asanas (floor mat) for the deity of the house, in spontaneously chosen colours, depending upon the threads available. Now, kantha is being done on single layers of new silks and tussars, and is being done on fabrics.”

She also points out that creating new kanthas means a lot of experimentation and payments to artists, especially from the semi-urban areas. One has to pay the supervisors to visit the interiors and find women who have some spare time which they can devote to an income-generating project. “All this adds to the cost. So kantha-worked fabrics, sarees, etc. are not cheap.”

At a seminar held alongwith the exhibition, Niaz Zaman, an authority on kantha from Bangladesh, gave valuable insight into the motifs used in her paper titled The Sacred and the Secular in the nakshi kantha. “It’s interesting to find depiction of deities juxtaposed with human activities. In the women’s everyday life both figured prominently.”

The other reason why women used to make kanthas from old clothes, apart from economic reasons, was an element of superstition. “They believed that using old material, like worn-out sarees, staved off the ‘black eye’ harmful for the new baby,” said Zaman. She also pointed out that kantha is different from the American quilt style.

Commenting on the exhibition, Paola Manfredi, an Italian author with a deep interest in Indian art and crafts, observed, “It is really a fantastic arrangement as it gives the opportunity to see the different styles and tradition of this piece of art work.” In her presentation at the seminar, she talked about how the ‘tree of life’ motif repeatedly occur in the kantha works by the women.

The popularity and introduction of the kantha among American connoisseurs was due to Stella Kramrisch, who curated the kantha exhibition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With years spent at Santiniketan as a teacher, she grew to love the kantha and later used it extensively in her home in America. The resurgence of kantha stitching style has meant economic independence and empowerment to hundreds of poor Bengali women. Today, many girls train in the craft after their schooling.

Stitching stories: The journey of kantha stitch has been an incredible one

Need to keep the authenticity

But like everything else there is downside too. Ritu Sethi, chairperson, Craft Revival Trust cautioned that over commercialization can also submerge the authenticity of the craft. If it is to be preserved for posterity, designers and entrepreneurs must keep an eye with due responsibility.

Dudeja agrees, “There is a lot of kitsch kantha, produced by those who have no concern for the quality of fabric, design and the colours.” Ruby Pal Choudhuri, advisor, Crafts Council of West Bengal, informs that they have plans to take this exhibition to other parts of the country as well which is good news for connoisseurs as it will offer an opportunity to people in other parts of the country to admire the beautiful kantha works of rural women of Bengal.

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