Friday, September 25, 2009

Kantha -The folk embroidery of Bengal

For centuries, Bengali women used a Kantha, a light quilt or sheet to drape their babies to protect them from cold.

The Kantha used to be made from old Dhotis or Sarees. The soft worn out cloths were not abrasive and were gentle on the baby's skin. A woman would lay the worn cloth in layers and stitch them together. The thread for stitching was drawn out from the edges of the border itself. 3 to 4 layers of cloth were embroidered in small running stitches and formed a quilt.
The women made Kanthas in the afternoons, when they were free. Depending upon the time available and their moods, the motifs on the Kantha varied. Some times the designs were, figures of birds and animals, scenes from their daily lives.

Sometimes the motifs were simple geometrical patterns. Considering there were no diapers and a new born baby needed frequent Kantha change, a woman needed a lot of kantha for her baby. As the baby grew, so did the size of the kantha.

In the 1980s, some NGOs mobilised women from the rural areas and made them self-reliant through the Kantha stitch. To alleviate poverty from the hinterlands, these NGOs taught the women the art of Kantha, provided them with raw material, gave them the designs and forever changed their lives. They introduced these simple run stitches on Sarees, dress materials, stoles and bags and sold them in boutiques and stores. The Kantha stitch Saree became an instant rage. This embroidery done on Tussar ( raw silk) became' a must have item' in women's closets. Many economically backward women have been empowered by this cottage industry. A lot of them have been able to contribute substantially to their family income and send their children to schools.

Kantha is now a very popular form of embroidery and many Indian designers have exposed this folk art of Bengal to foreigners through their outlets abroad.

Posted By Aparna.


  1. This is beautiful! I have got 3 sarees with this type of work. I got it from Kolkota, last year, when I visited that place.

    Keep writing about our traditional skills, Aparna!

  2. Wow that is so nice!

    Beautiful designs and great pics as usual. Thanks for all the details. Your post made me recalla friend of mine who gave up IT profession to dedicate herself to become one such hand craft embroidery specialist!

  3. Awesome! I, myself, would not be able to do that much stitchery -- hard on the eyes, hard on the fingers, and hard on the neck.

    Interesting to read that there were no diapers. That must have been inconvenient for the baby's mother!

  4. Looks so beautiful and good those women go the support of NGO's.

    Thanx aprana for sharing with us this wonderful embroidery :)

  5. I really enjoyed this post.
    The designs that are shown here are very beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing!


  6. Beautiful Designs !! They are so lovely and work is so neat !! Great..Unseen Rajasthan

  7. Sandhya, India is so rich when it comes to traditional art and craft. I would try to write on these aspects in future. Thanks for your appreciation. The orange floral motif in fact is my saree.

    Mohan, thank you.

    Gigi-hawaii, this work is definitely not easy. One saree takes more than a month to complete. Diapers came very recently to India, about 14-15 years back. Till then, we all used these soft cloths for our babies.

    Varunavi, thank you.

    Margie, thank you. I am glad youl liked the post.

    Unseen Rajasthan, thank you.

  8. fascinating, kind of like quilting in our pioneer history

  9. son interesting and informative
    thank you for sharing

  10. more than the beauty of these ... the fact that you thought of sharing such things with us amazing ..
    one more wow!

  11. That was a great post, loved the designs, traditionally kantha work is done on tussar material,since then many have tried it on other silks, with varied colour schemes, but the original kantha in the butter colour tussar fabric really brings out the work at its best I think.

  12. Very informative and well-supported by pictures.

  13. Very interesting write, Aparna. Why don't you target such writings to some good print magazine? I am sure they will grab it. Afterwards you can put them on your blog.

  14. kavita, Suj, Aparna...hey u folks..u people were out of sight but not out of our mind..thanks for all your encouragement thru out..happy My Room has come alive again after the great shock from Kavita, my highly respected friend..take care all of u..

  15. Good to see MY ROOM lives on...

  16. I tried in my book "Traditional designs from India" of Pradumna Tana and drawings of photographs
    somewhat resemble to those
    Traditional of Northwest...
    Are really wonderful traditions
    and I hope that all nations recognize beauty
    of these fabrics!!!

  17. Aparna,
    this is an awesome post,i love Kantha-work but had never known all the history attached to it...your pictures are great and the post very informative...this makes me want to buy few more Kanthas.

  18. Hi every body, thank you for your comments.. Sorry I was late in respondind but I was busy with the Durga Puja celebrations.

    Lin Floyd, you are right this is a lot like quilting. All over the world, women have had similar lives, only the customs and traditions vary a bit.

    Sujata, to be honest, I saw a woman wearing kantha stitch done on crepe silk and it looked gorgeous. The colour was muted saffron.

    Magiceye, thank you.

    Deeps, thank you. I am glad the post touched your heart.

    Onkar, thank you for your appreciation.

    Kay, thank you. Glad you liked the post.

    P. Venugopal, I never thought about writing for magazines. I just love connecting with my blogger friends.

    Ramesh, thank you. I know we can always count on your support.

    #167 Dad, thank you.

    Amatamari, thank you for your encouragement and appreciation.

    Kavita, thank you. A woman can never have enough of Kantha. But it is better to buy from the artisans directly. We then know the money has really reached the right people.

  19. I love katha stitch and my Mom is having katha stitch sarees. Nicely described with lovely photos. Wish you a Happy Dussehra. If time permits visit my blogs.

  20. I really like the patterns and designs on this cloth.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting there.

  21. बहुत सुंदर
    हमारे यहाँ इसे पेच वर्क के रूप में थोडा अलग तरीके से किया जाता है किन्तु हमारे लोक की समझ आज के वैज्ञानिक ज्ञान से किसी भी तरीके से कमतर नहीं थी, उपयोग में लिए जा चुके कपड़े, बेहद नाजुक त्वचा के लिए बहुत उपयोगी होते हैं. अपर्णा जी बहुत बढिया लिखा है.

  22. Thank you Babli,
    Abraham Lincoln

    I am glad you all liked the post.

  23. once again BEAUTIFUL.
    Thank God you came back from your retirement very quickly. LOL

  24. The making of a katha is so strenuous.I get neck pain if am looking at my laptop continuosly for an hours, and they do it sitting, bending their neck forward and that too day after day.And after 1 month of hard work, they only get paid few hundreads of rupees.

    And not only as diapers, in rural areas, these are also used as another form of quilts. We use it in our house and it is so comfortable,so light and one can be used for years..

  25. Wow...i didn't know this was the story behind Kantha.Great post.Thanks for sharing this.Interestingly, I have a kurta which uses Kantha work on Warli designs(from Maharashtra).An exquisite marriage of two folk arts.

  26. I am sandhya venugopal i am intrested in hand work and even i tried to do my suits, i have taken kantha saree from exibition i liked it very much. I liked the first design and also the colour combination.