Imagination taking form of colorful embroidery
It was a unique piece of sari – on an off-white tussar silk base; embroidery was done using bright multi colored threads all over the body. The patterns were simple; floral patterns and birds, with easy straight stitches. The dense thread work with so many bright colours made the patterns come to life. It looked very different from all the other types of traditional saris I had seen so far. It was extremely elegant yet lively and vibrant; traditional yet contemporary. It was my first encounter with a Kantha stitch sari, hand-made by some girls from an NGO I used to frequent in my college days. The girls enthusiastically informed me that it was the latest trend in the world of saris and a must have for all Bengali girls.
Origination of Kantha Stitch: A tale of innovation from the rural homes of Bengal
Kantha embroidery is a type of embroidery typical of Bengal . Today Kantha has become synonymous with the specific embroidery that used to be done on a Kantha – a handmade soft cushion-like mattress. Old saris are stacked on each other and hand-stitched to make a relatively thin piece of cushion. It is normally used as a soft and comfortable mattress for a new born to sleep on. It is spread on top of a bed and the baby is laid over it. To make the handmade piece more attractive, women made various figures and motifs on it with simple straight stitches. The motifs on the Kantha drew inspiration from the day-to-day village life and nature (e.g. peacock, parrot, tiger and flowers). The elaborate use of threads of multiple colors made the end-product extremely colorful, attractive and beautiful.
Kantha stitching is also used to make simple quilts, commonly known as Nakshi Kantha. Women in Bengal typically use old saris and cloth and layer them with Kantha stitching to make a light blanket to be used in winter, or bedspread.
Keeping pace with time
With changing time, the ‘Kantha’ is not in use so much. However, the embroidery known as Kantha stitch survived and flourished. It has moved out of the rural Bengal and caught the urban imagination. Today it is found in a variety of forms; on exquisite saris on tussar and other silk/cotton bases, on designer kurtas for men, dupattas and salwar kurtas for girls.
Preserving the art of Kantha Embroidery
Not surprisingly, the “Kantha embroidery” has been mentioned in literature 500 years back. Rabindranath Tagore established the Viswa Bharati University at Shantiniketan, Bolpur in 1940. The Kala Bhawan Institute of Fine Arts played a vital role in reviving the art of “Kantha Stitch”. Subsequently Bolpur became a hub for this craft. Currently several NGO’s and self-help groups in Bolpur are engaged in this trade. Most of the self-help groups are comprised of women working from home. Their imaginations take the form of attractive and fascinating patterns on cotton and silk. The traditional silk used for this is the off-white Tussar. However, Bishnupuri and Bangalore silk are also used for the more vibrant and colorful base. While experimentation with modern patterns and colors are on, appreciation and demand for traditional designs like fish scale, birds and floral patterns continue.