Kantha : Stitching Bengal's Past to its Present
With one deep horn blast, the local train lurched away from the station. It jostled us ever so gently side to side as we gazed out the open doors and windows and saw the dusty high-rise buildings of Kolkata, India and its early dawn roads coming to life. A kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and smells filled our senses from outside, above the rhythmic clickety-clack of the train. Fish vendors were laying their fresh catch out on blue tarps on the ground. Rickshaw wallahs were cycling into prime position. Streetside sellers were opening their stalls and spreading water from used Thums Up bottles to dampen down the dust. Bicycle bells jingled above the bellowing of a wandering cow, the long, distinct sound of the morning Puja horns, and the distant barks of a street dog.
Soon the buildings became progressively lower until the grayish, tan hue of the city gave way to lush green farm fields, tall palm trees, and organized rice paddies. Now, the only sounds we heard were those of the train. Heading away from the city, our train was practically empty by Indian standards. We all were able to avail seats. But every so often, a train heading towards the city would whoosh by on our right, and for a few, brief seconds we could see it bursting at its seams with people – the braver souls holding on with one arm and hanging out of the open door, a mere meter it seemed from our train.
After about an hour, we got down from the train at a small station where we were met by our local friend. After a ten-minute ride on the back of a wheeled wooden slab pulled by a tractor and a short walk deeper into the village, we arrived at his house made with a mixture of brick and bamboo and hardened, mud floors. We were greeted with a warm welcome, and as we slipped off our shoes, entered his room, and sat on his bed, we were greeted with even warmer homemade tea (chai, or “cha” in Bangla). As we sipped, our eyes were drawn to the brightly colored saris and kurtis that his wife, mother, and sister-in-law were wearing – and to the vivid fabric we saw strewn about his home.
“I made that,” our friend’s wife said in Bangla with pride as she noticed us admiring one particular blanket’s stitching and intricate design. “My mother taught me how. It’s kantha,” she added.
One. Simple. Word.
So. Much. Meaning.
Kantha is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word, kontha, which means “rags,” and it can mean both the distinct running stitch and embroidery style that is used (sometimes called kantha stitch) as well as the final blanket or product that is sewn – traditionally a new item handstitched together from rags. It is a centuries-old sewing tradition that is stitched into the very fabric of Bengal, which consists of West Bengal (India), Bangladesh, and the surrounding area. Travel to any rural home in the region as we did and chances are that you will find kantha – and its beautiful artisans. Who are these artisans? The women of Bengal. Mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers and aunties making handmade magic in their free time – learning kantha from their elders and then passing it down to the next generation. It is not uncommon that several generations of women could be working on the same kantha piece at the same time – or that a piece could be passed down and added to throughout the years.
Originally, kantha began out of necessity as Bengali women would take the thread from the edges of their own colorful saris and use it to mend tattered and torn clothing. They would also take rags and various used material and handsew them together, using the kantha stitch, to make a new item such as a baby pad, scarf, shawl, or whatever was needed at the time. Other women would take used saris, layer several together, lay them out on the bed or floor, and then sew them together, again using the running kantha stitch, to handcraft a blanket. Some sewers use straight, tight stitches to make a uniform straight-line pattern that adds durability and sturdiness to the blanket. Other sewers use the kantha stitch to make intricate designs, spell out words, and create art-like landscapes. What began out of necessity eventually developed to where some artisans could begin to sew and sell kantha commercially as the market and demand for handicrafts continued to expand. And it continues to grow. More and more people today are becoming aware of the beauty of this age-old practice and the skill of its artisans, who, with every kantha they make, stitch their past to the present – and beyond.
Kantha. It’s more than simply sewing. It’s a culture. A history. A tale. Each stitch, each product, telling a story – a story as unique as the hands holding the needle.