Kantha work, which is local to the Bolpur-Santiniketan regions of Bengal, has its origins steeped in the innate human desire to express oneself combined with the need to make adjustments that life so often asks of us.
In times gone by, the women of Bengal would layer two-three pieces of discarded sari or cloth together, use threads from the border of an old sari and embroider intricate motifs – birds, mythological figures, folk stories, personal feelings – on the layered garment to make a Kantha (embroidered quilt). Stitching a Kantha proved to be a good way to express oneself and also to avoid wastage. The designs on the quilt were more of a personal expression than a set of rules or patterns. Rich and poor women alike designed their personal Kanthas freehand and the work was intricate or simple depending on the artist’s inclination. The embroidery primarily consisted of the running stitch and its spin-offs (archilata, lep, ooar, sujani stitches) and thus ‘Kantha work’ came to be associated with this particular type of stitch.
Today the Kantha stitch is not only used to embroider sarees but it is also used to beautify quilts, various furnishings, shawls, salwar suits, among others. Though the designing is no longer free-hand (patterns and motifs are traced on the cloth), the essence of traditional Kantha is in no way modified or lost.
When it comes to sarees, it is the elaborateness and intricacy of embroidered patterns that indicates how ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ the saree is. This in turn determines its cost and also the jewellery that is to be worn with it. It is comforting to add that slowly but surely Kantha work is finding its due in domestic and global fashion markets.