Reuse & recycle. Centuries old kantha textile craft does it all

23 Apr '10
5 min read

Story of ancient kantha is the story of the ingenuity and the creativity of women, from rural Bengal. Centuries ago, they transformed wads of tattered cottons into unique works of art through reusing and recycling old saris and dhotis, and layering them for warmth. They carried in their minds, images of village vignettes, scenes from the Raj and pictures of deities. These images, they stitched on to a canvas of old layers of saris. They adorned the textiles, diligently, with stitches so precise that the reverse was, often as neat as the obverse. Each design had a different story to tell.

The drudgery of household chores forgotten, religion, status, caste and creed no bar, a tea break became a fun break: a break for social interaction, creativity and relaxation. Often three or even four generations of women would work on the same quilt, each following the images in her individual mind. The result was a unique stitch-painting: a nakshi kantha, which transcended the realm of needlecraft.

Kantha, has recently been catapulted to the hall of fame in the international ethnic textile industry by being the only hand – stitched quilts at the International Quilt Week in Yokohama, Japan. This coincided with the start of the 25th year of kantha revival by Shamlu Dudeja who, since 1985, has studied the world trends and has evolved kantha into an exquisite stitch, suitable for outfits and home furnishings. As a result, the vast range of kantha textiles produced by MKC, appeal to a large section of the socially conscious citizens of the world, and have created a greater acceptance of kantha, internationally.

Today, kantha embroidery is appreciated not only for its unmatched beauty, but also for the role it plays in empowering daughters of rural Bengal from weaker sections of society to lead a dignified existence, and be valued for their own attributes, as was obvious at the recent exhibition held in Paris.

The kantha revival movement started in Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, in the 1940s, as a rural reconstruction programme by Protima Devi, daughter in law of Rabindrath Tagore. This is being kept alive by MKC. Shamlu Dadeja has given her heart and soul in helping hundreds of kantha crafts-women realize their potential. In 1998, Self Help Enterprise Trust (SHE), an informal initiative was formed under the chairmanship of Shamlu Dudeja. This was done to give some shape to the scattered Kantha community.

In 2004, SHE was formalized and was registered with the West-Bengal Government. Under this banner, 8 team leaders were selected within MKC workers. Each of these leaders is an expert Kantha stylist and has training skills. These trainers commute between the kantha artisans in the hinterland and MKC, carrying textiles and designs to and fro and training new women who wish to use their spare time doing kantha embroidery.

Twenty-four years later, Shamlu stands by her belief, "I live to promote Kantha and the women behind it”. In 1985, SHE started with two team leaders, who visited villages, training women in finer points of kantha embroidery. To-date, training programmes in kantha embroidery, natural dyes and other related activities are being spearheaded by SHE supported by MKC in various districts of Bengal. The fabrics, skeins and designs are given to artisans, who produce amazing stitch art, in the same secure ambience of their homes, as they did centuries ago.

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