Kantha’s homespun charm, characterised by the humble running stitch, can be traced back to the rural women of Bengal.
Practical, austere and often celebratory—Kantha, in India is a textile tradition that first appeared in the 18th-19th century. This embroidery technique has strong links to Hindu mythology (it was found in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s 500-year-old book Chaitanya Charitamrita) and it is also one of the earliest examples of feminist art. In Bengal, rural women have kept this tradition thriving by repurposing and stitching together layers of soft saris and old dhotis.
Kantha has strong links to Hindu mythology
“It was a form of expression for women—an embroidery technique that wasn’t done for its commercial value but to tell their stories at a time when many rural women could not do it through literature. They would give Kantha saris, quilts or covers embroidered with protective and talismanic symbols, social commentary, messages to loved ones, or floral and figurative imagery —to one another on occasions like weddings, baby showers and sacred festivals,” says activist, author and Indian handicrafts curator Jaya Jaitly.
Yavï uses the simplicity of Kantha in vibrant outerwear
Textile curator and designer Mayank Mansingh Kaul notes how Kantha, which translates to ‘rags’ in Sanskrit, is a pan-national phenomenon, “It isn’t just found in Bengal; variations of Kantha can be found in Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and South India as well. In fact, Kantha embroidery used in home décor comes from Jaipur.” However, in Bengal, Kantha has its lexicon depending on its usage: a lep (quilt); nakshi kantha (a large spread), arshilota (cosmetic wrapper), ason (puja floor spread), batwa or thoiley (wallet), bostani (clothes wrapper) and galicha(floor spread), among others.
KANTHA 101: According to veteran designer Ritu Kumar, Kantha embroidery, simply put, is a way of patching and layering worn out garments with a running stitch to hold them. “In older days, fabrics used to be very expensive and a commodity that people would want to keep. Saris or their borders or fabrics were never discarded. Therefore, they were always recycled by placing one fabric over the other and handwoven with a very fine running stitch by the women who used to patch it all together,” she explains.
Anavila made a sari collection with Kantha
Modern interpretation: The simplicity and provenance of this labour-intensive technique has also given a fresh lease of life to the works of several Indian designer labels. Abraham & Thakore contemporarised it for overcoats and dresses, Bodice has used it for breezy overlays, and 11.11/eleven.eleven has given a modern twist to it by using it on handspun indigo dresses. Delhi-based Indigene has also worked extensively on Sujni Kantha embroidery with a group of women artisans in Delhi’s urban slum areas, while taking inspiration from the Japanese technique of Boro. Furthermore, Saaksha & Kinni, Yavï, Anavila, Swati Kalsi, and Tulsi by Neeru Kumar, among many others have also used it in their body of work.
Delhi-based Indigene works with Sujni Kantha embroidery
Kantha embroidered jacket by Bodice
By Walid makes one-of-a-kind pieces with Kantha embroidery
Internationally, designers like Emily Bode of Bode has made the art of repurposing quilts into her brand’s raison d’être. And, so have the easy, breathable dresses by Calico, a Japanese brand that empowers several indigenous craft communities in India. In 2015, Burberry used presented Kantha in a collection titled ‘Patchwork, Pattern and Prints’. Similarly, Darshan Shah, who owns Kolkata-based Weavers Studio, has been using the rich history of Kantha to uplift young Bengali women by employing and training them since 1993.
‘Patchwork, Pattern and Prints’ by Burberry
In addition to employing the communities in the grassroots, what makes Kantha truly relevant in the day and age of climate change is the fact that it’s sustainable. Designer Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango, known for his extensive work with Indian textiles, reasons, “In India, we truly believe in not being wasteful and using something for as long as possible. Kantha is absolutely sustainable! Old things, instead of being discarded, and wasted are preserved, upcycled and created into something new. Isn’t this the very foundation of sustainability?”