Kantha, a popular style of embroidery that comes from West Bengal, is a significant symbol that displays the skill and talent of the rural women in Bengal. Kantha embroidery derives its name from the same word with two different meanings. ‘Kantha’ means ‘rags’ in Sanskrit, which reflects the fact that Kantha embroidery is made up of discarded garments or cloths. The second meaning refers to it as ‘throat’ due to its association with Lord Shiva, the Hindu deity who is also referred to as Neel Kantha which literally means ‘blue throat’ after he swallowed the poison that arose as a result of the churning of the ocean, in order to save the world.
The running stitch is one of the oldest and simplest forms of stitching, which is also referred to as kantha. The needle is passed in and out of the fabric in a manner that creates stitches of varying lengths. The underside of the fabric is also stitched; however, these stitches must be half the size of the stitches on the upper side of the fabric. Though the process may sound simple it is, in fact, quite time consuming and complex, requiring the utmost attention to detail. The heavy use of the running stitch and the artisans’ ability to manipulate the stitches in a complex manner give Kantha embroidery its characteristic wrinkly and wavy effect.
Traditionally this embroidery was used for quilts, dhotis and sarees, but over a period of time it has evolved and made its way right into the heart of Indian fashion. Today this kind of embroidery can be found on shawls, pillow covers, dupattas, and home furnishings as well.
There are 7 different types of Kantha stitches-
- The first kind is the Lep Kantha, which is used to make warm, padded quilts
- Sujani Kantha is used to make bed covers for ceremonial occasions
- Baiton Kantha is used on covers meant to wrap books and other precious objects
- Oaar Kantha is used on pillow covers
- Archilata Kantha is used for covering mirrors and usually comes with colorful motifs and borders.
- Durjani Kantha is small pieces used to make the insides of a wallet
- The last kind is the Rumal Kantha which is used to cover plates, and comes with a lotus motif right in the center.
It was not until the 1940s that Kantha embroidery was globally recognised. The 500-year-old craft was preserved by Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, part of the Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal, which was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In the 1980s, Shamlu Dudeja founded the Self Help Enterprise (SHE) whose initiative was, and continues, to sustain and empower the female artisans of Kantha embroidery. Kantha work has been around for centuries and still makes Indian fashion go around. With the current development in its technique and the different flavors of style that it brings to the table, Kantha embroidery has become a favorite form of stitch work with designers across the globe.