A unique traditional art that originated in Murshidabad, Kantha Work was once embroidery work done on old sarees, dhotis and other apparel to make them look new. Today it is part of designer fabrics. Popular and practised in Bengal, especially in Bholpur, and Bihar, it consists generally of a running stitch on the sarees in the form of motifs such as animals, birds, flowers, simple geometrical shapes and scenes from everyday life. In other words, Kantha work once embroidery done only on used or discarded apparel, transforming them into extraordinarily renewed creations with extended life, is today the rave of the fashion world.
The flavours of Kantha embroidered sarees at Unnati Silks
Unnati Silks has very recently introduced a new range of Kantha embroidery sarees spread over several varieties of Mangalagiri cotton and pure south cotton. Certain distinguishing features of the new range are:
- You have designer prints in the sarees with certain parts like flower portions of floral scapes, within large evenly distributed motifs on the field, wavy and zigzag patterns, temple designs, other noticeable areas on the large expanse wide borders, re-iterated at their outlines with Kantha embroidery. The effect is not only captivating to mesmerizing but creates an effect of ‘design over design’ that is sensational.
- The borders are wide and the colors chosen are nicely contrasting with the vibrant colored fields with field-border combinations like turmeric yellow-parrot green, violet-magenta, sky blue-pink, bridal pink-orange etc. Added to that you have selective portions embroidered with Kantha, sometimes major portions re-iterated with Kantha and then you have the tasseled ends in dual color contrast. It brings out the ‘wow’ from within!
- There are certain sarees that have a major portion of Kantha work done on them in lattice spread or wavy line patterns with temple design borders that create enchantment.
- Then you have the large dimension motif magic with shapes within shapes within shapes and Kantha worked from outer to inner portions that provides for an exotic appearance. Very, very stylish indeed!
- Themes like images of two dancers, designer vines, and such wide spread depictions with the Kantha embroidery is both novel and unique to the fashion-friendly and the stylish individual. The wearer gets gazed at with admiration and envy alike.
From pure cotton handloom fabrics, and woven with the devotion of the skilled craftsmen of Southern India, the Kantha worked sarees have yet again found new avenues to exhibit the charm and charisma of an age old tradition that never ceases to amaze.
Let us travel back in time to explore a little of the wonderful world of Kantha.
The use of Kantha
Kantha work is applied to a wide range of garments such as sarees, dupattas, shirts for men and women, bedding and other furnishing fabrics, mostly using cotton and silk. Women use old sarees and other cloth, layering them with the Kantha stitch to make small blankets and bedspreads, for children. They serve well in rural places for small babies to lie on. In fact you have wedding Kanthas made by mothers and gifted to their daughters even today. In a particular village in Bengal, Kantha is found present on the ceremonial cloth meant for funeral rites.
Stitches such as darning stitch, satin stitch and loop stitch are commonly used in Kantha work.
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How did Kantha originate?
Kantha originated from the way in which Bengali housewives mended old clothes by taking out a strand of thread from the colorful border of their saris and making simple designs with them. The traditional form of Kantha embroidery was done with soft dhotis and saris, with a simple running stitch along the edges. As finished products they were known as Lep Kantha or Sujni Kantha, where the entire cloth was covered with running stitches, giving it a slight wrinkled, wavy effect. Kantha was and is still made by women of all rural classes in Bengal, the rich landlord's wife making her own elaborate embroidered quilt in her leisure time; the tenant farmer's wife making her own thrifty, coverlet, which is also equal in beauty and skill to that of the former.
The Kantha in its simplest form was invented out of necessity and made in varying sizes and layers, starting with small pieces of cloth spread in the courtyard to lay new born babies on while they were massaged with mustard oil, to the light covers that adults use at night, and wrap over their shoulders in winter mornings.
Types of Kantha
There are different types of Kantha made for articles of different uses, with the Lep and Sujani being the most popular and well-known.
1) Archilata Kantha - Covers for mirrors or toilet accessories with wide, colorful borders.
2) Lep Kantha - Wraps which are heavily padded to make warm quilts.
3) Baiton Kantha - Square wraps used for covering books.
4) Durjani/Thalia - Quilted wallets made out of rectangular Kantha pieces.
5) Oaar Kantha - Pillow covers.
6) Rumal Kantha - Plate coverings.
7) Sujani Kantha - Decorative quilted Kantha used as blankets or spreads.
The commercial development of Kantha
The idea of using Kantha embroidery as a means of commercial earnings never occurred to the rural folk of Bengal. It originated in urban groups where young women were trained from scratch and this aspect was gaining interest in the 1980s when NGOs saw fit to have several exhibitions. They also became involved with rural groups who started making Kanthas commercially for the first time. Most of these women did not have a formal education and had hardly been out of their villages.
When these groups formed, they didn't need further training in embroidery, but needed to learn the basics of accounting, management, raw material buying etc. Some NGOs guided the formation of self help groups that then carried on further by sharing their experiences and knowledge. The traditional way of several women working on one large piece of work continued with individual women also working on cloth tightened between frames. They learnt about tracing designs that they had never done before, since they used to just draw the designs straight on the fabric with a pencil and stitched on the lines. Most importantly they came to learn the art of bargaining and handling transactions.
Today many women in rural Bengal do a lot of Kantha work for traders in Kolkata. The idea of working together as a group has given them more confidence of which they are proud of and some even feel exclusive that they are doing specialized work. Most rural women have children and grandchildren to look after, and yet manage to do all the housework, look after various domestic animals, children etc along with completing regular orders. Sometimes they would need to put in extra hours at night to complete a rush order.
The Sanskrit word kontha means 'rags.' One legend links their origins to Lord Buddha and his disciples, who used to cover themselves with garments made from discarded rags that were patched and sewn together. Rags displayed at Indian shrines or tied to tree limbs symbolize prayers and wards off the evil eye. The oldest Kantha known is from the early 1800s, one that had been embroidered with blue, black and red threads that were unraveled from sari borders. Because they were salvaged from used garments that had been frequently laundered, the colors tended to be muted.
Motifs used in Kantha embroidery are human and animal figures, floral symbols which cover the surface from the corner. Basically, the center motifs used are lotus. Different patterns like fishes, birds, mythological stories also figure as motifs and themes. The threads used are generally blue, green, yellow, red and black, but with time almost any color that suits does.
Kantha - Present Day Fashion
Kantha embroidery has definitely taken the fashion industry by storm. Indian fashion designers have displayed beautiful ensembles of Kantha work, along with other Indian traditional embroideries, in several fashion shows. One of them has even taken the traditional Kantha a unique twist by including it on dhotis, kurtas, sherwanis and even hot pants! Moreover, Hillary Clinton, on one of her visits to India, was greatly impressed by the rich cultural display in Bengal, especially through its embroidery and handicraft. In one of the fashion shows she attended, she fell in love with the exquisite displays of Kantha embroidery.
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Kanth goes Global
The demand for this type of embroidery is not limited to India alone. Designers in UK and Japan have also evinced interest in the artistic craft and reached out to local sellers and used this embroidery in their designs as well.
The best thing about Kantha work is that it can be an accessory in itself, and does not need any additional embellishment to make it look better. Being stitches arranged decoratively on cloth it can be put to diverse uses from creating a unique and fun looking table cover, to a funky border on a saree. It is the innovativeness of the creator of the design to evolve the magic.
Maintaining the quality of a Kantha blanket or even a Kantha saree is not complicated. Any special trick of the trade is not required to keep it in a good condition. Normal hand or machine wash would be adequate and would not ruin the longevity of the fabric or embroidery.
Kantha is not merely thread work creating a design, nor is it simply an adornment that enhances the look of a saree. It is not merely a tradition that has travelled in time to where it is today and it is not simply the present day darling of the fashion designers. Kantha is including all these and much more. It is the pride of Bengal and a country’s heritage, a novel way of re-designing the familiar to give it an extraordinarily new look, the dedication of the humble artisan on fabrics, whose imagination and innovativeness is nothing less than that in art.
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