A women centric craft which originated in eastern part of our country, Kantha is one such embroidery technique which started as a mere hobby for women by utilizing their old and worn out fabrics, has now become a heritage craft. It was started mostly by the women of West Bengal, Odisha and Tripura. The threads used for the running stitches were salvaged from used garments, thus the colors were muted.
Derived from the Sanskrit word kontha meaning rags, it has several tales linked to legends. One legend says, it has linkages to Lord Buddha and his disciples, who covered themselves with garments made from discarded rags that were patched and sewn together. Rags showcased at Indian shrines or tied to tree branches symbolize prayers and wards off the negative energy. The oldest existing examples of kantha, dates back to 1800s. The word kantha also means ‘throat’ and was named so due its connection to Lord Shiva.
It’s origin can be traced back to 2 A.D. But, Kantha embroidery as we know it today was found in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s 500 year old book, Chaitanya Charitamrita . Kantha was used for the purpose of cultural and religious significance, which came about as a result of Hinduism’s influence and was used in pujas to celebrate weddings and births. The various types of kantha stiches that are still prevalent are LepKantha ,SujaniKantha, BaitonKantha, ArchilataKantha, Thaliakantha, OaarKantha, RumalKantha and Dorokha. LepKantha is used to make warm quilts with running stiches while SujaniKantha for ceremonial bed covers; Exquisite book covers and other artefacts with elaborately colorful borders are made of BaitonKantha. ArchilataKantha uses colorful motifs to decorate a mirror or toilet accessories, on the other hand Durjani/ ThaliaKantha produces miniature pieces to line wallets. Oaar Kantha is used to create mesmerizing pillowcases ,Rumal.
Kantha covers handkerchiefs with beautiful motifs with Lotus as the centerpiece and Dorokha or the double-sided kantha that has either an identical pattern or sometimes a different pattern at the back of the embroidery. As traditionally natural dyes were used, thread colors were red, yellow, green, blue and black. In contemporary Kantha, an off-white base fabric is usually used to allow the embroidered colors of the threads to catch the eye. Early motifs were derived from ancient art. Folk scenes along with natural symbols like the sun, cosmos , tree of life were depicted. In Odisha, kantha motifs is visible in Pipli appliqued wall hangings and canopies commonly seen during Rath Yatra Chariot Festival. Hindu symbols like lotus motif, the wheel from Indian flag and swastika are used. Muslim artisans use geometrical patterns. A positive aspect of this needle craft being the eagerness of the artisans and their upcoming generation to continue the legacy of the profession .
A major favorable factor is that the next generation in most artisans’ families are getting basic formal education which is enlightening them about the present scenario. Another factor is that the craft does not need any expensive equipment. It can be performed in an informal way and can be a way of mingling with each other as a society. Thus , they are privileged of getting influenced by each others designs. Designs of several designers or organizations also influence them. If a new design comes into the market, it is interpreted across different artisanal groups next season. For example, a significant design which is dominating the market is the applique of multi-colored Kantha patches in a checkered form.
The artisans are highly impacted by their surroundings and culture as well like depicting village scenes on the saree pallu or depicting gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology . Since a large number of artisans from Murshidabad, West Bengal belong to the Muslim community , various geometrical motifs like star and pinch (tarachutki), stick (laathi) and mirror and hair buns (ainakhopa) or even Taj mahal has been depicted in kantha.
Due to mass market demand, it lost it’s personalized characteristic. The wholesale approach in the craft at the moment is ruining the quality and finishing of kantha. The craftsmen and women are completely unaware of their actual worth. The machine embroidered and printed designs are hindering this needle craft. It in not weather dependent like several other crafts. It can be performed anywhere irrespective of the time and place .Also no special arrangement of light or equipment is required. It is a self sufficient craft for uplifting the livelihood of women. The legendary craft is mixed with contemporary silhouettes to gain the ultimate grace and perfection. The innovation by the designer has led to the evolution of the craft. This resulted in a numerous eye catching new designs that are now getting showcased through modern accessories too like purse and ornaments.