Kantha is a special type of embroidery/textile craft in the eastern regions of the Indian subcontinent, specifically in West Bengal, Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Tripura and Odisha. Traditionally Kantha embroidery is made up of discarded garments or cloths. Kantha is one of the oldest forms of embroidery work that originated in Eastern India. Its roots can be traced back to the ancient pre-vedic time. Typical motifs found in early Kantha works include many symbols & pictures that were derived from ancient form of art. These symbols depict mostly nature, such as the sun, flower, tree and the Gods. Kantha embroidery was also used as a medium of religious importance, mostly as a result of Hindu influence and was used in ceremonies and pujas, including to celebrate weddings and new births. These traditional motifs can still be found today as these symbols remain closely related to nature and culture. Kantha embroidery is not restricted within Hindu community, it is done by Muslim women in rural West Bengal heavily with geometric shapes and designs. These types of Kantha can be predominantly found in the district of Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan, Hoogli.
Rural housewives & ladies in West Bengal played a significant role in the evolution of Kantha embroidery works. It was customary for these women to make use of Kantha’s widely used running stitch and embroidery techniques to create quilts for their families, as well as embroider personal fabrics and garments such as sarees, dhotis and handkerchiefs with simple running stitches along the edges. For centuries, these beautiful techniques of the hereditary craft were, and still are, passed down from mother to daughter. Though it continued to be practiced amongst rural women & families, recognition of the craft faded over time, until it was revived in the 1940s by the renowned Kala Bhavan Institute of Fine Arts, Shantiniketan, West Bengal.
Having said that, Kantha needs serious attention in order to maintain its heredity and culture. The new age hindu families are not using this Kaanthas now-a-days and also the making of kaanthas are also decreasing day by day as this craft is time consuming and tough to work with. Still Muslim community continues to work on this craft more as they have a ritual to gift kaanthas during Weddings and on burial ground.
We have been working on this Kantha embroidery work for last 1 year to identify the motifs, document the Kantha makers and their tradition & history. We traveled Howrah, Hoogli, Birbhum, Burdwan, Murshidabad, Nadia, South 24 Pargana and Kolkata districts of Bengal where we tried to find out the Kaantha Artisans – be it professional or domestic, be it Hindu or Muslim, be it traditional or contemporary, be it simple or elite. We took help from Kala Bhavan, Craft Council of WB, Gurusaday Museum etc. to get more details and information around this art.
Special thanks to Mrs. Anjana Somani, Mrs. Bishakha Shome and none other than Mrs. Ruby Paul Chowdhury for their support and help.
** This was a commissioned project funded by Craft Council of West Bengal (West Bengal chapter of Craft Council of India)
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