Among the things to miss about India for a lifetime of not being there are her textiles. Below is an example of kantha.
Kantha (‘rags’ in Sanskrit) is a traditional Bengali embroidery hand craft, a form of quilting, made by women to repurpose the cotton from worn out fabric, usually saris. How old this craft may be is not known beyond that the word seems to have been written for the first time a half millennium ago.
Old fraying cotton fabric, laid one on top of each other, is sown together with a tiny running stitch used both as embroidery and as basting. The thread for sowing was itself pulled from the old fabric. Nor is running stitch the only stitch used for embroidery.
The process of growing cotton and processing it – by hand – to make fabric is embedded in the culture (agriculture) of these communities. This process itself, almost as ancient as this civilization, carries its own vast weight in symbolic and functional importance.
So painstaking and time-consuming a craft form inevitably evolved aesthetic and ritual functions.
Kantha was an expression of individual and group creativity. Subjects portrayed are taken from religion and folklore and from the natural world. Abstract patterns with symbolic value are also used.
Kantha is used to wrap and protect precious objects, to wrap and protect babies, a gift from mother to daughter on the occasion of the latter’s marriage. Kantha was also used to cover the dead.
Today the word kantha has become a commercial term for textile goods in which two fabrics have been sewn
Old silk saris sown together with running stitch. Rajasthan, 2010
together with running stitch to make a quilt, a wall hanging, a scarf. Beautiful as these pieces often are, they are not strictly kantha.
Kantha, cotton plain weave with cotton embroidery, late 1800s. Bangladesh (Panjia, Jessore district) or India (West Bengal). Philadelphia Museum of Art
Kantha is a term for a skilled craft by women to recreate and preserve material for uses which stretch beyond the functional. The primary stitch used is running stitch but that stitch is short, tiny, and shorter than that customarily used today for commercial goods sold as ‘kantha’.
Kantha are the magnificent pieces interspersed through this text which are in the holdings of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pieces which come from West Bengal and Bangladesh and date from approximately 1880 to 1950.
Kantha, cotton plain weave with cotton embroidery. Late 1800s. Panjia in Jessore district, Bangladesh. Or West Bengal, India. A bequest from Stella Kramrisch to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.