India, a land of spices, bright colors, and hidden treasures, is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Kantha, a symbol of India, celebrates the lifestyle and handiwork of the women, preserving the art of the Indian ancestors.
The traditional form of Kantha embroidery, where a running stitch along the edges layers soft dhotis or saris together, is known as Lepkantha or Sujni Kantha.
Historic Tales of Kantha
Kantha originated in the Vedic Period and arose from the need to cover the body or objects in the household.
- A 500 yr old history book relates an incident where the mother of Lord Chaitanya asked pilgrims to take him a Kantha while he was staying in Puri.
- In her book, The Art of Embroidery, writer Niaz Zaman tells the story of an older woman who used Kantha to embroider all her memories from her wedding day till old age.
- When he set off in a quest for the Truth, Prince Siddharta covered himself with a tattered Kantha.
- The Love Poem: Nakshi Kanthar Math by Jassi Muden (1928) relates the sad story of Sadu, whose husband, Rupai, abandoned her. While she waited for him to return to her, she poured all her grief and pain in a Nakshi Kantha. On her death, her mother covered her grave with the Kantha.
During British rule in India, other stitches started making an appearance. Cross stitch, herringbone, and satin stitches filled in the shapes outlined by the traditional running stitches.
Kantha as Functional Art
The Kantha is functional, as well as an expression of beauty. There are different names for Kanthas according to their use:
- Nakshi Kantha: simple quilts
- Lep Kantha: a thick and warm wrap used as a blanket
- Arsilata Kantha: to cover a mirror
- Bayton Kantha: to cover food plates
- Durjani Kantha: a handbag
- Sujni Kantha: big bedspreads in Bihar where the motifs are outlined in black and filled with colorful stitches. The GI Act of India protects this art form.
The women employ different motifs, drawing inspiration from the natural world of flowers, regional animals, birds, themes from everyday activities, geometrical shapes, and things with symbolic significance.
In Bangladesh, waves serve as inspiration, while the Bengali people revere fish as a staple food symbol. The Star is a popular Muslim motif, whereas, for the Hindu, the Lotus is a symbol of birth and life from Water and Sun.
Other motifs include the ancient Svastika (happy beginnings), Tree of life (fertility and prosperity), and Chakra or wheel (continuation of life and discipline).
Kantha (also spelled Kanta, and Qanta) is still in daily use and is very popular with tourists.
KanthaUSA offers a large a variety of Kantha products to take home the art of the Indian ancestors. It is impressive how this ancient artform has retained its allure even to today.
Reference (History of Embroidery): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpbJEq4zarM
Article by Elsa Dixon, Ph.D