As threads used in Kantha were traditionally taken from old sarees and dhotis and the colours found in Kantha embroidery are colours commonly seen in everyday life in India - red, yellow, green, blue and black. As dyes were traditionally made of natural substances, these were traditionally used in a wide range of Indian arts and crafts. In contemporary Kantha, an off-white base fabric is usually used to allow the embroidered colours of the threads to catch the eye.
Modern Kantha embroidered using traditional techniques
Day to day folk scenes were often the source of inspiration for embroiderers of Kantha. Motifs in the early form of Kantha embroidery depicted nature symbols that were found in ancient art such as the tree of life, the sun and the cosmos. These traditional motifs can still be found today as these symbols remain closely connected to nature and historic culture.
Kantha embroidery with traditional motifs of a human sitting in the tree of life surrounded by tigers
The lotus motif is also commonly found in Hindu Kantha. Lotuses are a sacred flower in Hinduism, often representing the power of life that water and the sun has to offer. The central lotus motif is commonly found in Kantha pieces used during special occasions, such as wedding ceremonies, births and the prayer ritual, puja. The wheel, which can be seen on the Indian flag, is a common motif in Indian arts and crafts, and can be found on Kantha designs. An important symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, it represents order in the world. Another common motif in Kantha is the swastika. Representing wellness, this common Indian motif dates back to the Indus Valley Civilisation.
A central lotus motifs
L: The wheel motif
R: The swastika motif
Kantha embroidery done by Muslim women in rural West Bengal heavily feature geometric shapes and designs. These types of Kantha can be predominantly found in the district of Murshidabad, where more than half the population are Indian Muslim. Many common motifs in Muslim Kantha are geometrically abstract shapes of an Indian folk scene, passed down from mother to daughter. Some of these motifs are known as star and pinch (tara chutki), stick (laathi) and mirror and hair buns (aina khopa).
Some traditional geometric motifs in Kantha
Other motifs commonly found in both Hindu and Muslim Kantha embroidery include human figures, flowers and leaves, all of which are naturally part of the landscape of a typical rural India. The most renowned craft from Odisha (Orissa) is applique, more specifically, Pipli applique, which originates from the town of Pipli. Pipli applique is known to incorporate more than one traditional Indian textile craft. For instance, appliqued wall hangings and canopies commonly seen around Pipli town and Puri city, especially during the annual Rath Yatra Chariot Festival, make use of mirror work and Kantha embroidery to create motifs and designs in Pipli applique.
Pipli appliqued and kantha embroidered products
Images: Nikkei Asian Review, Indus Ladies, Katna Kantha, The Other Home, India Mike