Kantha – Reclaimed Art

Sanaih kantha, Sanaih pantha 

Sanaih parvata langhanam.

Slowly one stitches rags,

Slowly one traverses the path

And slowly one climbs to the top of the mountain.

–       Traditional Bengali Sloka

IMG_3505Kantha is a kind of embroidery popular in West Bengal and Bangladesh. The traditional form of this embroidery was done on soft dhotis and saris. The thread for this was drawn out of the borders of used cloth. It is a simple running stitch made on the edges. When five to six layers of the cloth were embroidered together it formed a quilt. Fewer layers of the cloth are used to make clothes for other purposes. The outer layers of the cloth comprises of white or light colored clothes which made the embroidery perceptible.

For centuries, poor Bengali women have taken their discarded cloth and sewn them together with a simple running stitch to create something new. The functional kantha dorokha (“two-sided quilt”) was not a work of art, but simply what the poorest families used to keep warm. Kantha also had an aspect of intimacy. what_is_kantha

Women stitched kantha for their loved ones–for their children, their husbands, their parents. The earliest known mention of the Bengali kantha is five hundred years old–in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, he refers to a kantha sent to him by his mother. [Manjary Mohanty, “Quilt (Kantha) Art of Bengal”] .

The unique thing about the Kantha is that it is made entirely from re-used cloth; threads removed from it are used to secure the layers together. The sari borders that are removed are often re-introduced as stripes which form the borders of the quilt. The density and direction of the running stitch creates a unique tonality and rippled effect.

Types of Kantha

IMG_3596There are seven different types of Kantha:

  • Lep Kantha: rectangular wraps heavily padded to make warm coverlets
  • Sujani Kantha: rectangular pieces of cloth used as blankets or spreads on ceremonial occasions.
  • Baiton Kantha: square wraps used for covering books and other valuables. They are elaborately patterned with borders of several rows of colorful designs.
  • Oaar Kantha: rectangular pillow covers in simple designs with a decorative border sewn around the edges.
  • Archilata Kantha: small, rectangular covers for mirrors or toilet accessories with wide, colorful borders in assorted motifs.
  • Durjani/thalia Kantha: small rectangles with a central lotus design and embroidered borders. Three corners of the rectangle are folded inward to form a wallet.
  • Rumal Kantha are used as absorbent wipes or plate coverings. They also feature a central lotus with ornamented borders.