Kantha embroidery, indigenous to West Bengal, continues to be the dominant textile art and craft of the state. Expert artisans of the art of Kantha embroidery are predominantly female as it originated as a household craft amongst rural families, with techniques passed down from mother to daughter. It is still widely practised in the homes of millions of West Bengali rural women who reside in villages in the districts of Hooghly, Burdwan, Murshidabad, North and South 24 Parganas and Birbhum. For both locals and tourists, the most prominent location for the production and purchase of Kantha embroidery, particularly the Kantha saree and Nakshi Kantha quilt, is Bolpur-Shantiniketan, also simply known as Bolpur, located in the district of Birbhum of West Bengal. The Muslim population of West Bengal chiefly resides in Murshidabad, which is the central location for Muslim Kantha embroidery that feature geometric motifs.
Although Kantha embroidery is at its peak of popularity and has been practised by the rural women of West Bengal for over five centuries, recognition of its elaborate craftsmanship dwindled over the years. Revival of the craft in West Bengal can be attributed to three key periods and organisations. During the freedom movement of the 1920s, Sushen Mukherjee founded the Amar Kutir Society for Rural Development, or simply Amar Kutir, in the Birbhum district to sustain the livelihood of traditional West Bengali arts and crafts and its artisans. Amar Kutir remains an artisan hub for Kantha embroidery amongst many other indigenous crafts, including batik.
Kantha embroidered products on display at Amar Kutir
It was not until the 1940s that Kantha embroidery was globally recognised. The 500-year-old craft was preserved by Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, part of the Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal, which was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, part of the Visva-Bharati University
In the 1980s, Shamlu Dudeja founded the Self Help Enterprise (SHE) whose initiative was, and continues, to sustain and empower the female artisans of Kantha embroidery.
Master artisans part of SHE working on Kantha embroidery
In Odisha (Orissa), each of Pipli town’s 16,000 families is immersed in the art of Kantha embroidery. Pipli is particularly well-known for its indigenous craft Pipli applique, which can be seen adorning the streets all year round, and particularly during the Rath Yatra Chariot Festival. Professional artisans of Pipli applique, referred to as darjis, more often than not make use of Kantha embroidery in the creations of Pipli appliqued traditional canopies and contemporary products, alongside other hand stitched crafts such as mirror work.
Images: Wikipedia, Kriya Ashakt, Rachel Brocato