Kantha –Katha

Guest post by Parama Ganguly

Born in a Bengali household, my earliest encounter with this form of art was since my birth. My grandmother’s  old worn-out sarees were stitched in two or more layers and conjoined by a “run-stitch” running all over them. They were homemade substitutes for diapers and oil-cloths. Very interestingly, the piece of cloth and the embroidery on it are both called “Kantha” in Bengal. Some of them had embroidered patterns depicting flowers, huts, trees, sun, birds and mountains. The more creative ones had nursery rhymes, comic characters and fairy tales etched in needle work. I remember an author who had mentioned in her book, how her  mother used to give kanthas with their exact birth times embroidered  as a gift to every child born in their family. These Kanthas were passed on from generation to generation. 

Of all the things I have heard about Kantha, this one is the most fascinating: A documentary film showed young women being taught alphabets not on chalkboards, but on Kantha (fabric), with Kantha (embroidery).

Her-story

The history of needle art in India can be traced back to almost 3,000 B.C. It is in fact, considered to be the oldest of art forms prevalent in India. From the archaeological excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa to those at Behrut and Sanchi, it transpired that embroidery was prevalent even in those days. According to popular belief, Kantha, as an art form, owes its origin to Bengal. The ancient capital of Bengal, namely Saptagram or Satgaon was one of the forerunners in popularising Kantha embroidery. In their writings, John Irwin and Margaret Hall (Indian Embroideries, 1973) mentioned Satgaon and Hoogly as the two principal places where Kantha quilts were made. Popularly known as ‘Satgaon Lep’ they attracted the attention of the Portuguese traders who started exporting the quilts to Europe. The embroidered patterns on these quilts were a unique blend of Indo-European motifs. Hunting scenes, ships and underwater scenes, fishes, mermaids and stories from the Old Testament were very common. These designs were essentially Graeco-Roman in origin but were Indianised in their implementation. John Irwin points out,

The pictorial presentation of recurring scenes with a ship manned by Portuguese sailors, surrounded by fishes and various marine monsters, are clearly derived from conventional Vaishnava representations of the Great Flood in which Vishnu, in his Matysa or fish incarnation is depicted guiding Man’s Ark.

(John Irwin, Indo-Portuguese Embroideries of Bengal)

With its departure from the early to the late 16th Century, the Kantha motifs underwent a radical change from Brahmanical art to Vaishanava cult. The imageries on Terracotta temples of Bengal found their reflections in embroidered art.  Figured compositions with self contained narratives became predominant in this Bengal folk art form. 

In general, everyday objects find their expression in Kantha embroidery. From ornate alpona patterns to birds, animals, trees, flowers (with predominance of lotus), Gods and Goddesses, Kantha unfolds the stories of women folk of rural Bengal. In the words of Stella Kamrisch,

“……be it of a ritual or in restoring wholeness to rags; by joining the torn bits and tatters and by reinforcing them with a design of such a kind that when a kantha is spread out, it unfolds the meaning on which life is embroidered.”   

(Kantha, Journal of Indian Society of Oriental Arts)

Etymology

The term “Kawntha” in Sanskrit and “Kantha” in Bengali means old pieces of cloth, stitched in layers, for the purpose of clothing and/or bedding. The outer layers of such quilt are filled with embroidered images.  While reading about the origin of Kantha, these words caught my attention. It read that, the universe is a “woven fabric where everything and every human have a place at the meeting point of the warp and weft.” These words beautifully sum up the essence of Kantha. 

Kantha is predominantly a rural art form. Women in rural Bengal, recycles worn out, tattered sarees and dhotis. They pull out coloured threads from the borders of their sarees and with the help of those, laminate old clothes by ‘running’ stitches all over them. While making a Kantha, the four sides are pinned to the ground with the help of thorns of date palm trees so that the surface is free from wrinkles. Once the quilt is made, motifs are drawn with the help of charcoal and the four corners are released. Various patterns are then embroidered on the topmost layer.

 

Traditional kantha embroidery has various kinds of stitches. Run stitch, double run stitch, Tercha, Kuchi, Bhorat, Cross, Gnat, Pyaanch, Dal, Chain, Nishshoron, Rong and Dorokhha are some of them. Amongst these, the Dorokhha stitch has a particular significance. The specialty of this stitch is that the embroidery looks identical from both sides…the front and the back.

Motifs

The most prominent of Kantha motifs are Lotuses (considered to be the prime symbol of creation), sun, moon, fish, water, elephants, tree of life, conch shells, Paisleys, flowers, household objects like Lokkhir Jhanpi, Sheel Nora, Boti, wedding motifs like Palki, jewelry, Paan pata/Paan Shupari .

The last one (Betel Leaf) has a beautiful story behind its birth in Khasia tradition. There were two friends, one affluent and the other poor. The rich one used to feed the poor friend many things everyday. As a matter of good gesture, the poor decided to call his friend for dinner to his house. In spite of incessant tries, the man and the wife were unable to get any food worth feeding the friend. So a few hours before the dinner, giving up on hope, the couple hung themselves in their backyard, in shame. The rich friend arrived and when he saw his dead friend and wife, he hung himself too. That night a thief came to their house and finding absolutely nothing to steal, he hung himself in frustration and hopelessness.

The next day the neighbours found the four corpses and buried them in the backyard. On the ground of burial, four plants were born – on the wife’s grave grew a Betel plant (Paan), on the poor man’s appeared Areca nut plant (Shupuri), and on the rich man and the thief’s grave grew Khair and Choon respectively. ⠀

The idea behind this folklore was, no man should ever die of shame of not being able to feed his guest. There should be a universal food item which everyone, irrespective of their wealth, social status can offer to an ‘Athithi‘. It is believed that the tradition of welcoming guests with Paan Shupari owes its origin to this story. Thus these objects not only became a way of life but also found themselves in embroidered fabric.

In terms of patterns, there is a marked difference between the Hindus and the Muslims. While the motifs used by Hindus predominantly comprise of a lotus in the middle with trees on its four sides (punctuated with animals, flowers, fishes, boats, huts etc.), the Muslims generally depict the sun, moon and stars on Kantha instead of day to day objects.    

In accordance with their varied uses, Kantha can be grouped into various kinds, some of which are:-

  1. Suzni Kantha – 6’ X  3 ½’  – Used as a bedspread.
  2. Lep Kantha – 6¼’ X  4 ½’  – Used as a blanket, thick quilt.
  3. Bayton Katha – 3’ X 3’ – Used by children; used as cover for valuable items, as a tablecloth.
  4. Durjani Kantha – 10” X 6” – Used as a wallet or a pouch.
  5. Arshilota Kantha – 6” x 12” – Used for keeping mirrors and combs.
  6. Owar Katha – 2’ X 1 ½’ – Used as a pillow cover.
  7. Rumal Kantha – 12” X 12” – Used as a handkerchief.
  8. Jot Katha –  3’ X 4” – For packing objects. 

(Ref: Loksanskriti Kosh)

Borders

There is something incredibly fascinating about Kantha Paar or borders. In Bangladesh and in West Bengal there are endless patterns and nomenclature of Kantha borders.

In Bangladesh you’ll find borders named after Champa flowers, ribbons, cat’s eyes, teeth, betel leaf, sea waves, cornice, insects ~ the list is wide and interesting.

In West Bengal you’ll find different districts having different names. Shiuli phool, Tawgor phool, Kasturi, Piprer shaar (lines of ants), Kolmi Lata, Shankha Lata, Kankra (crabs). Interestingly each name would have a significance not only in terms of motifs but also what they try to convey. The rows of ant would mean joint family values. The Lahori Paar (waves) would mean propagation of human generations. There are many such stories behind Kantha borders.

One of the things that had fascinated me in older Kantha works, was our earlier generations pulling out threads from old sarees and using that thread to embroider motifs. 

Reference of Kantha in our literature:

Kantha being an integral part of the warp and weft of our existence, we find some intriguing references of it, in our literature of all forms. From Chaitanya Charitamrito, Annadamangal Kabyo to Baul Gaan to Dakshinaranjan Mitra’s “Thakumar Jhhuli” (most popular children literature), there is a reference of Kantha everywhere. In Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay’s “Pather Panchali”, Indir Thakurun (Apu-Durga’s aunt), even in her deathbed was clinging on to her only belongings ~ her tattered Kantha (blankets).

Present

Kantha, as I see it, is different from the other forms of hand embroidery. While Ari, Zardosi or any similar embroideries are done predominantly by men, Kantha is essentially matriarchal and done only by women.

At present, the art is preserved in all its essence by the rural folk of Birbhum, Bardhaman, Murshidabad and North 24 parganas. Under the patronage of Rabindranath Tagore, Kantha had flourished as one of the foremost art forms of West Bengal. Shantiniketan and its surrounding villages are pioneers in such endeavour. 

In Bangladesh, Rajshahi, Jessore and Mymensingh have their distinct Kantha forms. In addition, a number of NGOs are vigorously acting towards the preservation and revival of Kantha. Kumudini Welfare Trust, Aranya, Karika and Arshi are some of them.  

The Indian Museum, Kolkata, India has some exquisite Kantha work The Calico Museum of Textiles (Ahmedabad), Ashutosh Museum (Kolkata), Bangla Academy (Bangladesh), Bangladesh National Museum, National Museum of Scotland, Victoria and Albert Museum (United Kingdom), Philadelphia Museum of Art (U.S.A) and the Textiles Museum, Washington D.C. have some of the major displays of Kantha. 

About Kanthas we do at Parama

The first ever product by Parama was a Kantha saree. In these five years, we have done both traditional and quirky motifs on Kantha. We are trying to innovate every day. While our most popular motifs still remain Alpona-inspired Paisleys, lotuses and birds, we have also done scissors, cacti, tigers, elephants on Kantha which are not strictly traditional. One of our most popular sarees have been the Goynar Baksho Sharee, a six yards full of vintage wedding jewelry worn by a Bengali bride. 

 

 

While we started with Dhonekhali, Shantipuri, handwoven cotton sarees from West Bengal and Murshidabad Silk, we have tried to bring forth a union of this embroidery and various weaves from India. We have done Kanthas on Gawrod, Pochampally Ikkat, Mangalgiri, Kasavu, Sambalpuri and even on a plain Kanjeevaram. We have loved mixing this indigenous needle craft with weaves. 

Our work can be seen on: 

  • Whatsapp : +91 9830459687/ +91 9051852803/ +91 9073277246

We have a studio in Kolkata.