Kantha…A stitch in time beyond beauty
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 3 or 4 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 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 Malika’s Kantha Collection (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 section 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, and Sreelata Sarkar.
This is being kept alive by Shamlu Dudeja, who has given her heart and soul to helping hundreds of kantha crafts-women realize their potential. In 1998,
an informal initiative SHE (Self Help Enterprise) was formed under the chairmanship of Shamlu Dudeja. This was done to give some shape to the scattered Kantha community. In 2004, the SHE Trust 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 MKC and the kantha artisans scattered in the hinterlands, carrying textiles and designs to and fro and training women who wish to use their spare time doing kantha embroidery.
Role played by MKC / SHE
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.
Today, MKC has ensured that history is being kept alive in a special line of bedspreads, throws, cushion covers, canopies and wall hangings, by recreating central mandals with healing powers, village vignettes and flora and fauna, of the bygone eras.
Efficient product control by ten team leaders ensures that quality of kantha is being maintained, resulting in a greater appreciation of the work, and increased demand. It will not be long before kantha is recognized worldwide as a top fashion statement, with a social cause: empowerment of women against many odds.
Innovations by MKC
Change is the essence of life. MKC uses the kantha stitch, a stitch above the rest, in its new avatar as a decorative stitch on single-layers of natural luxury textiles. Often, contemporary geometrical nets and Moghul lattices embellish the base of the sari or dupatta, and are surrounded by a border and palloo worked in the more traditional style.
A quilting stitch used for a bridal outfit or for a sherwani for the groom? Unheard of….
Well, that is the change MKC has brought about. Kantha embellished shot silk lenhga-cholis, with brocade facing and a glitter of beads and sequins, for brides, and Bangalore silk sherwanis, with pearl decorations, every square centimeter covered in kantha, for grooms, are now a part of MKC collection. What started as a means of holding tatters of fabric together has evolved into a sophistication that appeals to the urban elite.
The latest addition to the vast range of MKC collection is patchwork kantha, where patterns on textiles are created by using strips of kantha fabrics, emulating the recycling concept of the era gone by.
Kantha …. Tomorrow
It is the positive vibrations instilled in these textiles, by the passion, the dedication and dignity of these women of rural Bengal, which give the kantha textiles such an amazing appeal. People touch Kantha and then take it to their cheeks to feel it … this is a frequent occurrence.