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.

Batik – The beauty of broken lines

Batik is an ancient art which uses wax and dyes to create a visual magic on fabrics. The word Batik is of Indonesian/Malay origin. It is believed that the term is a derivation from the word `Ambatik’ which when translated literally stands for a piece of cloth with small dots or writing with wax or drawing in broken lines. It is an art appreciated all over the world in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, USA, Egypt, Central Africa and India.


Evidences of Indian batik dating back over two thousand years have been found. Indians knew the wax resist method of printing designs on cotton fabrics long before any other country had even tried it. Indian cotton and dyes were very popular in those days. The indigo blue was one of the earliest dyes to be used. Batik tapestries were elaborate illustrations of the art, culture and traditions of the days of yore. The elaborate process of dyeing and waxing was ironically one of the very hitches that caused the art to decline.

Batik art received an impetus when it was introduced as a subject at the famous Visva Bharati University,located in the twin towns of Santiniketan and Sriniketan in the Indian state of West Bengal.

matea_MainA Batik creation involves 3 basic steps – waxing, dyeing, and scraping (removing). The the wax is used for creating designs on certain pre-defined areas on the fabric. The fabric is then dyed and then the wax is removed by scraping or by boiling the cloth so that the wax peels off. When the wax is removed the contrast between the dyed and undyed areas makes the pattern. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis three-stage process of waxing, dyeing and de-waxing is repeated many times over in order to achieve a desired design. The characteristic effects of batik are the fine cracks that appear in the wax, which allow small amounts of the dye to seep in. The result is a beautiful piece of cloth with some very unconventional designs.

maxresdefaultTraditionally, Batik is used on cotton or silk fabrics.

Apart from the fabric used and the diversity in designs, there are four different techniques of making a Batik printed piece of cloth:

  1. The splash method – In this process, the wax is splashed over the fabric in a random fashion and then the dye is poured. This results in a virtual explosion of random designs and colours.
  2. The screen printing process – This method involves the use of a stencil to etch the designs in an orderly and defined manner.
  3. The hand painting method – This process essentially uses the art of Kalamkari to draw the designs and separate the wax.

A fourth method used is the scratch and starch resist method.

Today, traditional and contemporary batik are equally adored by both the East and the West. Batik prints can be found on traditional items such as sarees, dupattas and wall hangings, and on contemporary products, including dresses, bags, accessories and home furnishing….exquisite!