Kantha work of West Bengal

Kantha or the embroidered quilt is one of the most renowned forms of folk art of Bengal. Kantha being the result of artistically decorated layers of quilting together of saris or dhotis, the old and worn out saris and dhotis of the household were preserved and recycled for this purpose. Due to the tropical climate of Bengal, there was hardly any requirement for anything warmer than these intricately embroidered pieces of quilted textiles. And, who would not cherish to envelope themselves to sleep under the dreams and fantasies lovingly and painfully embroidered by their mothers and grandmothers!

The most important aspect of the Kantha has been as a record of history, many of the designs and motifs refer to the socio – political activities of the day.  Since the motifs rested largely upon the scenes that got imprinted in the vision of the women doing the embroidery it has been very interesting to record the various modes of transportation, the religious notions of the day, the economic state of the region, the lifestyle of the people, the costumes and hair styles of that era, the quality of cotton woven during those times, and the designs and motifs used in the saris and dhotis of those times from the borders of the Kantha. 

The earliest reference to Kantha can be traced to the book, ‘Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita’ authored by Krishnadas Kaviraj some 500 years ago. It is mentioned in the book that the Chaitanya’s mother Sachi, sent a homemade Kantha to her son in Puri through some pilgrims. This Kantha has been preserved and is on display at Gambhira in Puri.

A minimum of three layers of saris or dhotis was selected. Then the hand-woven borders from the saris were carefully extracted. Threads were pulled out from the sari and the colorful borders. These threads were used to stitch the Kantha – both for quilting and embroidery purposes. Then these chosen layers of fabric were placed one upon the other. Weights were placed at the four corners to maintain the alignment of the layers. Then, the layers were loosely tacked together – this enabled the layers to be attached to each other for further stitching. The fabrics were stitched together with close running stitches that were fairly invisible. The stitching started from the middle of the quilt towards the edges. Earlier the background of the Kantha was stitched together in blocks so divided for obtaining a rippled effect. The stitching was such that both the reverse and the obverse sides had the same evenly spaced stitches- such Kanthas were generally more prevalent. They were known as Dorakhas. The most common stitch is running stitch and various gradations and variations of it. 
The Kanthas served various decorative purposes other than use in mere household activities. These ranged from: - 
Lep – warm winter cover
Casfin - large and rectangular spread, for ceremonial purposes
Bayton – for wrapping books and valuables. It had squares with wide borders of rows of figures – human and animal – with a lotus in the center and floral patterns in the corners
Pillow cover – it had mainly longitudinal border patterns
Small bags – mainly like the ‘arshilata’ for keeping combs, mirrors and other cosmetics (cosmetic bag)
Chalia - a wallet, it usually had a lotus in the center

Designs & motifs:
The designs that were mainly embroidered had very specific origins. Most of the symbolism of the motifs could be traced to Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. The symbolism was also based on local folk art traditions, scenes lived daily in the village, and those experienced with the presence of the foreign invaders in India – especially the East India Co. The designs from daily life included the vajra, chariot, palki, boats, mirrors, combs, snakes, fish and mostly local flora and fauna. The fish has been interpreted as a fertility symbol, the wheel represents the universe and eternity. The shankhalata (conch shell) can be a wish that the family grow like a rambler. The motifs could be used to narrate stories and tales of victory and valour. 

There were two types of Kanthas – those embroidered by Hindu and those by Muslim women. The Kanthas embroidered by Hindu women were made mainly from ‘dol’ or raw silk saris. They were made for personal use and were very soft and comfortable. There was less of quilting. They were generally made by one girl in one or two months. The most orthodox and traditional motif found is the Mandala. It is usually made in the center of the Kantha. The rest of the Kantha is covered with embroideries representing animal and human motifs. 

The Kanthas created by the Muslim women are traditionally kept in the family as heirlooms. They are to be used in festivities like marriages or for religious ceremonies. They are even used as a shroud. There are so many stitches used and the quilting is so intricate that the Kantha results into being very heavy and stiff. These Kanthas take years to stitch and embroider. The motifs are mostly geometrical or of flowers, creepers, and birds. There was never any use of human motifs in any form as Islam forbade any representation of living creatures and these Kanthas were to be used for religious ceremonies too. There was a profusion of motifs such as stars, moon, and the Masjid. 

End products today:
Now everything from a dupatta, stole, sari, furnishings to file covers are made out of a a form of embroidery that is popularly knows as ‘the Kantha stitich’. It has hardly any relation to the original stitches or the piece of textile. Earlier, the base fabrics used for the Kanthas were always old and worn out saris and dhotis, mainly of hand woven cotton, now the fabric tends to be ‘Tassar’ silk or any silk fabric of a very high quality. 

There is hardly anyone involved in the business of Kantha who cares for the future of the Kantha or the women involved in creating it. But, hardly anyone has the relevant insight, patience or foresight to grasp all that Kantha symbolized.