Kantha, At the Right Point

The Indian state of West Bengal and today’s Bangladesh were once both part of a single Indian state under British colonial rule. They still share folkloric cultural traditions, particularly in their ancestral textiles such as kantha embroidery and jamdani woven muslin.
One meaning of the word kantha is “patchwork garment.” It is a derivation of kontha, which means “hatch” or “chiffon” in Sanskrit. This hand-quilting technique was once quite widespread in India, reaching well into Odisha. The popularity of this woman-dominated artisanal practice was principally driven by the difficulty of finding fresh materials compounded by a need to protect the home from the cold. Embroiderers stitched their works together from fine pieces of cotton, mostly from old women’s saris, lungi and dhotis loincloths for men.
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Traditional kantha embroidery joins recycled fabrics together with a simple straight stitch; embroidery lines run all along the patchwork and the borders to hold all of the pieces together and reinforce the structure. White thread is used to connect the background while vibrant colored threads are used for surface motifs as well as to highlight the borders.
Kantha fabrics are used as bedding, wall coverings, cushions, prayer rugs, clothing and accessories. From a utilitarian function, these textiles have become choice gifts for religious festivals, engagement celebrations and weddings.
Much like the quilts made in knitting circles by American families in the 19th century, these kantha embroideries are the holders of a collective female memory, of stories transferred from one generation to the next. Each item is unique and carries the trace of those who produced it.
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The embroiderers use a rich vocabulary of motifs with symbolism borrowed from Hinduism: animals, the sun, the tree of life, lotus flowers, cosmological wheels and geometric forms. The density and diversity of the embroidery adds to the overall richness of the padded and ribbed textile.
This Bangladeshi and Indian patchwork has become popular and enjoyed success in the West. Cooperatives of rural women, such as the Self Help Enterprise (SHE India, which was founded in Calcutta 30 years ago by social entrepreneur Shamlu Dudeja), guarantee the preservation of this ancestral expertise while providing stable income to women living in the countryside.
Photo Credits: Philadelphia Museum of Art