The Origins of Kantha and How to Modernize It

 

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Hi Guys and a happy Tuesday to you all! I hope you had a wonderful break and are ready to go back to work. I am taking a little break from working and filling it with traveling and blogging. Last year when I was reflecting on this month’s posts, I knew I wanted to do a Sub-Continent Embroidery Week. I love, love, love embroidery, any type of embroidery because it is not only a foundation of our historical culture, but because it is so versatile that it can beautify modern fabrics and silhouettes like no other crystal or sequins.

Today, I decided to kick-start Sub-Continent Embroidery Week with one of my favorite embroidery staples–kantha. Kantha embroidery derives its name from the same word with two different meanings. ‘Kantha’ means ‘rags’ in Sanskrit reflecting that Kantha embroidery is made up of discarded garments or cloths. The word also means ‘throat’ and was named so due its association with the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva. It is a running stitch done on light fabrics such as muslin and silk.

It’s Origins 

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Kantha is one of the oldest forms of embroidery that originated in Indian Sub-Continent. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Pre-Vedic ages, however, Kantha embroidery as we know it today, was found in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s 500 year old book, Chaitanya Charitamrita. Motifs found in early Kantha embroidery include many symbols that were derived from ancient art. These symbols depicted or were reflective of nature, such as the sun, the tree of life and the universe and were stitched on fabrics to use in ceremonies and pujas, including wedding celebrations and birthdays.

Rural housewives in West Bengal also played a significant part in the evolution of Kantha embroidery. 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, the techniques of the hereditary craft were, and still are, passed down from mother to daughter. Though it continued to be practised among rural women, recognition of the craft faded over time, until it was revived on a global scale in the 1940’s by the renowned Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, which part of the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. It was revived yet again by Shamlu Dudeja in the 1980’s when she founded Self Help Enterprise that helped empower women and their livelihood through Kantha embroidery.

Types of Kantha 

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The following is how kanthas are categorized, according to the stitch type:

  • Running stitch

The running stitch kantha is truly the indigenous kantha. They are subdivided into Nakshi (figured) and par tola (patterned). Nakshi (figured) kanthas are further divided into motif or scenic kanthas.

  • Lohori kantha

The name was derived from Persian word lehr, which means wave. These kanthas are further divided into soja (straight or simple), Kautar khupi (pigeon coop or triangle), borfi or diamond (charchala, atchala or barachala).

  • Lik or anarasi

The Lik or Anarasi (pineapple) type of kantha is found in the Chapainawabganj and Jessore areas. The variations are lik tan, lik tile, lik jhumka, and lik lohori.

  • Cross-stitch or carpet

This type of kantha was introduced by the English during the British Rule in India.The stitch employed in these kanthas is the cross-stitch.

  • Sujni kantha

This type of kantha is found only in Rajshahi area. The popular motif used is the undulating floral and vine motif.

How To Choose High Quality Kantha & Where To Get It

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In Karachi (since I am knowledgable about this Pakistani city the most), you can get Kantha from Gizri Market in Defence. I also researched and learned one can get it from other parts of the country as well as online. If you live in the United States or abroad, some of the online marketplaces with kantha work readily available are Etsy (See HERE) and Dignify (See HERE)

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you shop for kantha:

  • Look for Fabric Thickness : Each layer of fabric is very thin (imagine a soft muslin for a baby swaddle), so if there are only 2 or 3 layers, the item will be very light. This is the most common thickness in the native regions.
  • Stitching : How dense do you expect the running stitches to be? An item with very tight, close stitching will have a more stiff, substantial feel than stitching that is farther apart. The standard stitches on dignify’s kantha run approximately 1cm (3/8 inch) apart.
  • Edge Stitching : This is where a more inexpensively produced, lower quality kantha will reveal itself. A well-made kantha should have a straight edge, with a kantha stitch right up to the edge, preventing any fraying or interior cloth coming out.
  • Color / Fading : Keep in mind that if a kantha features faded or very pastel colors, it is more likely that the fabric has been more frequently washed, or is old; the fibres may break down more quickly than other fabrics. Women in Bangladesh (who are originally wearing these sarees) love color & vibrance, so these are what you will (should) mostly find with authentic kantha work.
  • Cost : Of course, we are all cost-conscious. But, there is a large amount of labor involved in producing even a single kantha item. Like everything, the more you pay, the superior the quality of the work.

How to Modernize it

I love, love, love when designers revive age-old embroidery and put a modern spin to it to fit modern women’s wardrobe requirements. For me that is the best way to keep the tradition fresh and timeless. It would be awesome to see kantha work on a heavy silk saree or used with zari or zardozi work. The Cut-work AND the hand-done fabric painting trends are so hot right now so why not do an amalgamation of them with kantha embroidery? How about putting a modern spin on the stitch by accessorizing it with a faux fur stole or some designer thong sandles? I think a bit of fusion hurts nobody. Happy Shopping!