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.
The finished product they were known as LepKantha or Sujni Kantha. The entire cloth is covered with running stitches,the stitching on the cloth gives it a slight wrinkled, wavy effect Kanthas were made by women of all rural classes in Bengal, the rich landlord's wife making her own elaborate embroidered quilt in her leisure time, and the tenant farmer's wife making her own thrifty, coverlet, equal in beauty and skill...
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.
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 extant Kantha date from the early 1800s and is 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 tend to be muted.
Kantha hails from the regions of erstwhile East Bengal, present day West Bengal and Bihar. Essentially a woman's art, it is a form of patched, quilted and vividly embroidered textile made entirely out of used cloth.
The commercial development of Kantha
Kantha was almost never made for money, and the idea of using this embroidery commercially, originated more in urban groups where young women were trained from scratch, rather than from women who have done this work all their lives. There was a growing interest in this craft form in the 1980s and Sasha did a lot of research that culminated in several exhibitions. They also became involved in groups who started making Kanthas commercially for the first time. Most of these women did not have a formal education and rarely went out of their villages.
When these groups formed, they didn't need further training in embroidery, but they needed to learn accounting, management, raw material buying etc. Self-Help Handicrafts Society (a sister concern of Sasha's) was involved in the development of all these groups and shared their experiences and knowledge. Other things also changed with commercial work. They used frames to hold the fabric. The old way of several women working on one large piece of work however continued. They learnt about tracing designs (which they never did before, earlier, they just drew the designs straight on the fabric with a pencil) and money management.
Many women in rural Bengal do a lot of Kantha work for traders in Calcutta. But the women who work with Sasha feel that they are doing work of a very high quality and that is something they are very proud of. They feel they are specialists and their work cannot easily be done by anyone else. Also the feeling of belonging to a small and exclusive group is very important. Most of these women have grandchildren and they do all the housework, look after various domestic animals, children etc. So they often need to put in extra hours at night to complete a rush order.