Kanthas are essentially made from layers of old materials, sarees etc and embroidered in running stitches. It has a number of traditional patterns based on religious symbols, tales from epics, scenes from villages, flowers, birds, animals and plants in enchanting colour schemes.
Since ages hand embroidery has been used to decorate textiles and garments. Excavations have revealed bronze embroidery needles dating back to 2300-1500 B.C. as also figurines wearing embroidered drapes.
Similar embroidered textiles can also be seen in the Buddhist sculptures of the second and first century B.C; Kushan sculptures and the frescos of Ajanta. In India every region has its distinctive style of embroidery.
The most popular Indian hand embroideries are Phulkari of Punjab, Chikankari of Lucknow, Kasauti of Karnataka, Toda embroidery of Tamil Nadu, Mirror work of Gujarat and Rajasthan, Kasida of Kashmir, Chamba embroidery of Himachal Pradesh, Appliqué work of Orissa, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu and Kantha of West Bengal.
Kantha was essentially worked by women and it is still carried out only by the women folk of Bengal. Women work on Kantha in their leisure time. A number of worn-out and old sarees are layered and sewn together. To keep the layers uniform and straight, weights are placed on the four corners and the layers are sewn together using close-running stitches.
There are a variety of Kanthas to serve different purposes. Rumal is a handkerchief. Rumals generally have a lotus design in the centre with other motifs around it. Arshilata in Bengali means a wrap which is used for wrapping ceremonial books, valuables etc. It is square in shape, with wide borders of rows of figures, of humans and animals with a lotus in the centre and floral patterns in the corners.
They also prepare specially designed pillowcases which have longitudinal patterns of straight lines, conventional trees and birds. Besides these, they prepare a most decorated Sujni, used as a bedspread. It is rectangular in shape and has a variety of designs and borders.
In the Sujni design, there is a lotus in the middle is surrounded by a variety of motifs of creepers, animals, birds, flowers etc. Sometimes the embroidery is worked right through with cotton yarn, the ornamentation done in chain stitch while the background is filled with running stitch in a scale pattern. Quilt is also just like Sujni but it is always padded and thick, well designed and decorated with many colours. It is just like a blanket and is used in the winter season.
Sujni and Quilt give full freedom to embroiderers to utilise their skills in using motifs, making patterns and selecting colour schemes. If the embroiderers wish to have a traditional design, then the motifs are tracked on the surface.
The ground of the motifs is filled up with close, long and short running stitches, using thread drawn out from the border of the old sarees. Here it is important to mention that Bengali cotton sarees have beautiful borders in many colours. Kantha embroiderers are very fond of motifs of lotus, animals – especially elephants and horses, birds – particularly peacocks, flowers – lotus from five petals to hundred petals.
They love to make a variety of designs with the help of planted sand flowers. They also make patterns on popular themes such as wedding scenes, an entourage of musicians, harvest scenes, bullock carts, hunting scenes, and scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Hindu epics. Sacred symbols such as fish, conch, shell, lotus flower, tree of life, mandala and kalash are also widely used. In general, embroiderers take full liberty to introduce innovation in design.
Though Kanthas have endless motifs and designs the “Mandala” and “Kalash” designs are especially made on festive occasions in fulfilment of certain vows. Whenever the embroiderers use the motif of a lotus, they always start from the centre and work around in a circular shape. In other designs, it starts from the corners, like the tree of life and reaches towards the centre. At times, the stitches are made so cleverly that the design appears the same on both sides and it is almost impossible to distinguish the right side from the reverse.
The most popular colours are blue, yellow, red, black or brown and white. Nowadays embroiderers are using many colours on different coloured backgrounds. Traditionally they used only white or off-white old cotton sarees. Many Kantha items are now prepared with cotton, silk, cambric, semi-cotton materials, terry cotton and even synthetic fabrics in many beautiful artistic colour schemes. Embroiderers use both traditional and modern designs. Many fashion designers are also using Kantha embroidery with a combination of mirror or sequin work. (Bilma Verma/India Perspective – Photo:123rf)