An Ode to Kantha

‘Kantha’. The word takes me back to my childhood, when the complexities of life had not arrived and altered the innocence of a little, small town girl. In those days, winter afternoons were spent on the terrace basking in the sun, lying down on a ‘kantha’ (the Bengali word for ‘quilt’) and eating oranges, carefully peeled by my grandmother. However, today most youngsters would not associate kantha with this visual.

‘Kantha’, as most of you now know, is a term used for a particular type of embroidery from Bengal which originates from this specific domestic form of craft – quilting. Women in Bengal used to stitch together old dhotis or sarees using the simple yet sustainable ‘running stitch’ to make a kantha or quilt, which came in all sizes. It was compulsory in those days for a newborn child to be gifted her or his first kantha by the paternal aunt. I remember my mother handing out old sarees from her stock that she would no longer wear, to the woman who would visit our house sometimes to lend a hand and chit-chat over tea; she had migrated from Dhaka once upon a time, perhaps when she was still a child. She had magic in her fingers, skillfully doling out lightweight yet warm kanthas every autumn, just around the time of Durga Puja, when the weather was a lukewarm cold and pleasant enough to wrap morning inertia. Over the years, however, with urbanization and other rapid changes of lifestyle and occupation, such traditions have fast disappeared or faded out from most homes. Yet, it would be unfair to generalize, since rural Bengal still keeps the tradition alive.

This dying art form caught the fancy of some designers and art lovers in the 40s and then in the 80s who made a colossal effort to revive this embroidery form on fabrics, especially sarees. Nowadays, you would also see stoles, dupattas, salwar suits and home furnishings with intricate kantha designs. These are handembroidered, the patterns could be floral, geometrical shapes or straight lines and this stitch can be done on both silk and cotton fabrics. You can see the traditional vertical lines of the stitch, which is its most crude form, while there are more intricate designs that take months for completion.

I am usually a quieter person on flights and fail to strike any conversation with my fellow passengers. However, on a very rare occasion in 2010, when I was flying back from Kolkata to Delhi, I started a conversation with a lady seated next to me. I went on to realize that she was none other than Mrs. Shamlu Dudeja, the heart and soul behind the Kantha revival movement in Bengal. ‘SHE Kantha’ (SHE standing for Self Help Enterprise), her organization, had been going places and provided thousands of rural women the opportunity to be financially independent and self-reliant by commercializing their already existing artistry of kantha embroidery. We talked on so many different issues that day but writing about it now in retrospect, I am reminded of her passion for Kantha, these women, her non-profit foundation and her love for Math. There was an immense inspiration that I imbibed from that one conversation. When I decided to start this series, I knew my first one would be on ‘Kantha’ – my tribute to this visionary and her persistent and tireless efforts over the years to revive a dying art of my native. I hope she reads this piece one day.

And oh! My wedding trousseau did include a Kantha.

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