Kantha embroidery is an indigenous household craft that is also considered a form of art, due to the uniqueness of individual creations, its ability to convey a story and its use as a form of personal and artistic expression. What sets this form of needlework embroidery apart from others is the wide use of the running stitch, also known as kantha. Yarn used for running stitches is often taken from old sarees or dhotis, and covers almost the entire piece of fabric onto which motifs and designs are embroidered. The repetitive use of the running stitch contributes to Kantha’s signature wrinkled and wavy effect on the fabric.
Kantha embroidered quilt depicting humans, animals, birds and floral motifs
Kantha embroidery began as a means of recycling old or unused cloths and garments, such as sarees and dhotis, in order to create items for household use, such as quilts and plate covers. One of the oldest and most popular forms of Indian embroidery, Kantha is predominantly practised amongst rural women in the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha (Orissa). Techniques used in Kantha embroidery are passed down from mother to daughter and are popular dowry traditions. In fact, rural housewives from West Bengal practiced the craft of Kantha embroidery throughout history, allowing the household craft to flourish into a well-known trend in Indian clothes and home furnishings.
Much like other age-old Indian arts and crafts, motifs found in Kantha communicate the identities of its wearers in terms of caste, village and status. Motifs in early Kantha embroidery were drawn from primitive art, such as illustrations of the sun. With time, Hindu Kantha embroiderers created religious motifs, such as of Gods, peacocks, tigers and lotuses, and auspicious colourful motifs that represent the lotus flower. Geometric designs were, and still are, commonly found in motifs created by Muslim Kantha embroiderers.
L: Peacock motif in Kantha
R: Geometric motifs in Kantha
The technique of Kantha embroidery is most popularly found in the traditional sarees of West Bengal and Odisha (Orissa), called Kantha sarees. In West Bengal, Kantha is also often used in quilting to create light quilts are known as Nakshi Kantha. For instance, rural Bengali mothers would hand stitch four to five sarees together to use as a child’s blanket. In the state of Odisha (Orissa), old sarees are sometimes stacked and hand stitched together to create a thin cushion. Contemporary Kantha does not necessarily utilise layers of multiple disused sarees or dhotis, rather a white cotton or silk base fabric is used.
Close-up of a Kantha saree with floral motifs
Today, the districts of Burdwan, Hooghly, Murshidabad and North and South 24 Parganas remain the key locations in West Bengal where Kantha embroidery is still practised amongst millions of rural women in their homes. However, the art is particularly prominent in Bolpur-Shantiniketan or, simply, Bolpur, located in the Birbhum district. In Odisha (Orissa), Kantha embroidery can be found alongside the popular applique work of Puri and Pipli. Kantha embroidery is today often used in other garments such as dupattas and shirts, and in modern ranges of bedding and house furnishings. The traditional designs and techniques of Kantha embroidery gained greater global recognition when they were employed in renowned designer Tarun Tahiliani's summer/resort 2013 collection.
A piece from Tarun Tahiliani’s Summer/Resort collection at Lakme Fashion Week 2013
Images: Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Craftsvilla, Sally Campbell, Vogue India