Interestingly, Kantha embroidery derives its name from the same word with two different meanings. ‘Kantha’ means ‘rags’ in Sanskrit, which reflects the fact 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. The Samudra Manthan, a popular episode in Hindu mythology, describes that in order to protect the world, Lord Shiva consumed the poison that came about due to the churning of the ocean. Goddess Parvati was shocked by Lord Shiva’s actions and wrapped her hands around his neck, strangling Lord Shiva and stopping the poison in his throat, rather than allowing it to drop to the universe that is held in Lord Shiva’s stomach. The potency of the poison caused Lord Shiva’s neck and throat to turn blue, therefore giving him the moniker, Nilakantha; ‘nila’ translates to ‘blue’.
19th century Kantha embroidery on a bedspread known as Sujani Kantha
Kantha is one of the oldest forms of embroidery that originated in India. 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 depict or are reflective of nature, such as the sun, the tree of life and the the universe. It was not until later that Kantha embroidery was used as a medium of cultural and religious significance, which came about as a result of Hinduism's influence and was used in ceremonies and pujas, including to celebrate weddings and births.
19th century Kantha embroidery with harmonious motifs of humans, animals, flowers, the tree of life, the sun and the cosmos
Rural housewives in West Bengal 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 amongst rural women, recognition of the craft faded over time, until it was revived on a global scale in the 1940s 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 1980s when she founded Self Help Enterprise (SHE) that helped empower women and their livelihood through Kantha embroidery.
Modern artisan embroidering a Kantha quilt using traditional techniques
Images: Gurusaday Museum, Nancy the Other Home