The literal translation of the word “Katha” (Sankrit Word) is “rags” and the Kantha embroidery essentially consists of running stitch weaved on old and discarded clothes. Kantha is probably one of the oldest forms of embroidery that originated in India. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient pre-Vedic ages. Kantha embroidery has its roots in West Bengal, India. Traditionally, the rural women used this technique of embroidery to make quilts, infant mattresses and clothes using old rags. For centuries, this has been a family tradition, to pass on the techniques of this craft from mother to her daughter. Though it continued to be practised amongst rural women, recognition of the craft faded over time, until it was revived on a global scale in the 1940s by the renowned Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, which part of the Vishva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal.
What is Kantha Embroidery?
In traditional Kantha embroidery, the process begins with pieces of discarded fabric or rags. Several layers of cloth, either cotton or silk are sewn together with thread using successive rows of running stitch. Different patterns or motifs such as flowers, animals, scenes from village life are sometimes also included. Kantha stitch creates a rich, rippling effect across the fabric and adds a unique texture to the products.
The contemporary Kantha is not necessarily done on old multiple layered fabric. It can also be seen on the present-day clothing, bedding and other furnishing fabrics. For these fabrics and dresses the base used is cotton and silk.
Time to complete each project depends on the complexity of the design and the material used. It can range anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Some fabric is hard to work with such as silk, which is much more slippery than working with cotton and so takes longer. Kantha, has limitless designs, for every woman who works on it can make almost any innovations that she fancies.
How has it helped Empower Rural Women?
The craft is being practiced today by millions of women mainly in certain districts of West Bengal, India. It has become a mean of livelihood today and yet maintains itself as a household craft in many senses. Many of the women engaged in this craft continue to practice it from within their homes. In a community where women have many restrictions both socially and economically, kantha provides a regular, reliable source of income for the artisan. The strength of the craftsmen lies in their traditional skills, their understanding of materials and of course, their grasp of the design, form and decoration of their products, all acquired over generations. Most of the stitching is done by the women of the villages, at their homes after their daily chores are over.
With the support of few reputed non-profit organisations and field operatives, there has been a real change in the lives of the women of the communities. It’s interesting to note that some of the women artisans have no formal education and yet are masters of this beautiful embroidery. Having the opportunity to work and earn for themselves and their families, help these women freely live their life with a sense of self-worth, respect and dignity.
The modest kantha has now achieved somewhat of a celebrity status. The art of kantha which had reached it’s near extinction in early 1900s but it received a fresh breath of revival and now not only provides an income for the rural women but also is seen a collectible.
This art takes up various forms, from gorgeous silk scarves to dresses, from cushion covers to quilts. The kantha designs are also found in Vintage women’s coats, floor cushions, throws, bags & purses.
For generations of Bengali women, kantha has been a form of quiet expression. Even the most practical kantha is creative and spontaneous in nature. The high demand for kantha across the world has taught the owners of the kantha to value their kantha pieces, and has also taught the women to take pride in their special skill.