The idea of ‘Kantha’ stitch is to take something old and turn it into something new and beautiful. The word ‘kantha’ comes from ‘kontha’ meaning rags. Earlier, women in Bengali households used to take old pieces of cloth and sew them together with simple running stitches forming a collage of sorts. The pieces were sown together by thread taken from the ‘zari’ or other borders of the sarees or dhotis they had earlier worn. These stitched pieces of cloth were one of the first forms of up-cycled products to be widely used in the region of Bengal.
Kantha, pronounced ‘Kahn-thaa’, is one of the oldest forms of Indian embroidery. Kantha is characterised by the quintessential waves and wrinkles on the cloth made by the detailed stitches. It embraces simplicity with usefulness. Women used take 4 to 5 layers of cloth, mostly sarees, bed covers or dhotis and stitch them together creating running stitches on them. These were used as blankets to cover with during colder months. Often these otherwise boring items were embroidered with motifs of birds, animals, folk scenes, fishes and imagery that depicted different views of livelihood of the people living in Bengal.
Some of the earliest mention of Kantha is found in "Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita", dating back to approximately 500 years. Kantha even finds its place in Tagore's “Ebar Phirao Morey”where Budhha is depicted to leave behind the materialistic sphere of life with nothing but a tattered ‘kantha’ draped on his shoulders.
Kantha was used by women in all households across Bengal irrespective of religion as a means of story-telling, giving it the nomenclature ‘nakshi kantha’. It has been noted that Hindu women tend to embroider the cloth with themes based on their daily activities centered around a floral imagery telling tales, whereas Muslim women mostly used geometric and floral patters. These geometric patterns are indicative of kantha originated from Murshidabad region.
Kantha has always been seen as a personal expression of the makers. They depicted the thoughts of the makers, much like writing in a diary. There are roughly seven forms of kantha stitches. There is ‘Lep Kantha’ which roughly translates to mean stitched quilts. These are warm, multi-layered quilts which are padded for comfort. These were used by the elderly women of the family as gifts for a new born. These quilts were mostly made of a few layers of dhoti. Old sarees were not considered pure for the new born since they were worn during the women's menstrual cycles. The lep kanthas had intricate embroidery on them depicting a mother's or a grandmother's love for the new born. The thickness of these kanthas depended on the climate of the region. If it was required for mildly cold weather, 2 - 3 layers of cloth would be sufficient. In colder climates, 6 layers would be sown together to keep the body warm. ‘Sujani Kantha’ are kantha embroidered bed covers used to decorate a room for festive purposes. Stitched pieces of cloth used to cover items like books, etc are called 'Baiton Kantha'. If such cloth is used for covering plates, they are known as 'Rumal Kantha'. These are usually recognised by the floral motif embroidered in the middle of the cloth. These motifs are usually that of a lotus. When such cloth is used for covering mirrors, they are called 'Archilata Kantha'. These are usually long and covered with colourful embroidery on the boundaries with a catchy centre-piece. When the cloth is repurposed and stitched to make pillow cases with beautiful embroidery, they are called 'Oaar Kantha'. And sometimes, the insides of a leather wallet is lined with beautiful running stitches. These are termed as 'Durjani Kantha'.
There were no measures taken to market such pieces of art before 1970s. With the advent of textile mills, the art form started declining at a steady rate. It was only in around 1970s that trusts were formed to revive and expand the art form through products into both domestic and international market. Rural women of Bengal were inspired to commercialize this art by taking the art form more seriously and training more women in it. This made for a strong foundation popularizing the art form which ultimately took the fashion industry by storm. Since then, these women have been trained in accounting, management, handling of raw material, etc. However, most of these women work for the traders in the cities who give minimal fees for their hard work. It has become important over time to impart proper training and form channels in order to ensure financial independence to these women and help flourish this art form.
Ever since the commercialisation of Kantha, new cloth is used in layers to recreate this old art form. New and contemporary designs are included to add to the 'oomph' of one's home. This kind of embroidery can be found in clothing apparels, home decor and wall hangings amongst many other products as per the needs of the consumers. Kantha stitch on all products are made with love and care and we show the world the beauty it holds within its warm and rich interior.
Sometimes 'kantha' is associated with Lord Shiva's throat. It is said that when Lord Shiva consumed the poison while stirring up the ocean, he trapped the poison in his throat which turned his throat blue, therefore giving him the name 'neel kantha'. 'Kantha' can also mean 'tales' or 'stories'. Kantha is also used as an adjective to describe a style of necklace that lies close to the throat, open at the back.