A poet wanders off to a remote village and meets an old widow; her skin hanging loosely on a bony frame, eyes pale, mouth dry and wrinkled. She sits solitary in the uthon (courtyard) with an enormous rug spread beside her. The poet intrigued, sits down and takes a look at the rug. Mysteries unfold. The rug or the kantha isn’t simply a quilt, it is much like a diary containing scenes and snippets of the old woman’s life – all weaved and stitched, as if one someone has neatly and meticulously drawn her life on a white canvas.
This famous tale by Abadindranath Tagore talks of an 87 year old woman from Srihatta, Bangladesh, who seemed to have recorded her life story, a period starting from her marriage to old age, in the elaborate Kantha that she had crafted for years. But she is not the only one with a marvelous tale; she is a part of a sorority which has played big role in making kantha an indigenous cottage textile industry of Bengal.
Within the context of Indian embroidery, the kantha is a living tradition. Kantha making in Bengal is a ‘Women’s art’, that has flourished under the creative nuances of rural women of the state. Like cavemen’s depiction of their lives through painting, kantha is also related to story-telling – kanthas in Bengal tell the stories in the daily lives of women of Bengal, each kantha being a chronicle of an individual’s life story. Not surprisingly thus expressions are often personal and at times whimsical lending the art form a great diversity in terms of patterns, intricacy and structure.
Take for example the legendary Nakshi Kanthas which is one of the best examples of embroidery from kantha league, done with 50 different stitches. The chief idea is to recycle old and worn out cloth by sewing them meticulously and embellishing them with saree borders, motifs, ritualistic symbols or imaginative scenes. Similarly there is ‘Bostani’ which is the small size and square format kantha used as an all-purpose wrapper and which unlike Nakshi Kanthas uses only three kinds of stitches pattern-darning stitch, satin-stitch and button-hole stitch. It does not boast of intricate detailing but is simpler in design and stitching pattern – what is common however is the aspect of storytelling. The boundary of the kantha’s shape is perhaps the only constraint to the embroiderer, all else is left free to her imagination – to use language and imagery from the storehouse of memory. The kantha stitcher’s own dreams are patterned in the form of the diverse images that adorn the kantha.
Kantha quilting is first a domestic, utilitarian art intended for personal use. Whether as an ornate wedding quilt or a simple cover for daily use, the kantha remains one of the most illustrative quilts in India. Kantha takes a number of forms: as quilted bed covers; pillow covers, seats for guests, prayer mats or as padding in bride’s palanquin. The motive of kantha making traditionally was thrift and economy combined with aesthetics, the idea being to utilise old and worn out cloth by sewing them together meticulously with close stitches and embroidering them so that not a single piece of fabric was wasted.
Today, owing to rapid urbanization and lack of recognition this art of kantha making is a dying art. Under the aegis of Biswa Bangla however this near lost art form is being given a platform to be showcased so that the artisans finally get the recognition that they deserve. Various near extinct techniques of kantha making are being researched and restored – new techniques to use the kantha in an innovative fashion are being explored. Under the aegis of Biswa Bangla the untold stories of the kantha craft are finally getting to be heard.