Kantha, derived from the Sanskrit word “kontha” meaning rags, is a classical type of embroidery and one of the oldest forms originating from eastern South Asia. Particularly prominent in Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha, Kantha Stitch tells a tale of creativity born out of necessity.
For centuries, impoverished Bengali women ingeniously repurposed discarded cloth pieces, stitching them together with a simple running stitch. This transformative process turned scraps into functional items, showcasing the resourcefulness and artistry of these women. Over time, Kantha evolved into a revered art form, passed down through generations.
In recent years, Kantha has undergone a remarkable transformation, finding a place in contemporary designs. Renowned designers like Tarun Thaliani have breathed new life into Kantha, infusing it with a modern touch. No longer confined to household items, this craft has expanded its horizons with craft innovations and collaborations with designers. Rich fabrics are now incorporated, adding depth and dimension to Kantha embroidery and catering to niche markets with innovative products. Silk saris, cushions, pants, jackets, and various home furnishings proudly bear the mark of Kantha, captivating hearts and becoming increasingly commercialized.
Variations of Kantha depend on the stitches employed. The most basic and earliest stitch is the simple, straight, running stitch. As artisans delved deeper into their artistry, intricate patterns known as “nakshi kantha” emerged. The term “nakshi” stems from the Bengali word for artistic or geometric patterns, reflecting the diversity of designs found in Kantha.
Traditionally, Kantha was crafted using worn-out saris and dhotis. Layers of these aged fabrics were stitched together to create Kantha products. However, as market demands shifted, Kantha embroidery found its way into fashion items like Tussar silk sarees, Bangalore silk sarees, and silk and cotton male kurtas. Utility and home decor items such as bed covers, cushion covers, and wall hangings also feature Kantha embroidery.
Today, Kantha stitch remains a popular thread-work craft, with Santiniketan in West Bengal serving as a hub for its practitioners. Women from rural villages engage in this art form, showcasing their traditional skills and entrepreneurial spirit. Elite and middle-class families, visitors, and tourists form the consumer base, with artisans reaching their customers through personal networks, agents, wholesalers, premium boutiques, and even e-commerce platforms.
However, despite the rising price of the final products, the craftswomen themselves often do not receive corresponding increases in returns, leading to dissatisfaction. Earning meager amounts ranging from Rs. 2500 to 4500 per month, these artisans juggle their craft alongside their household responsibilities, often straining their eyes with the meticulous stitching. It is crucial to raise awareness and promote the value of their hard work, ensuring that artisans receive fair compensation for their skills and dedication.
Government interventions, such as the assistance provided by DRDC (District Rural Development Centre), help artisans reach diverse customer bases.
Kantha stitch, with its rich heritage and intricate craftsmanship, has garnered recognition and admiration from renowned celebrities and designers. Here are a few instances where Kantha embroidery has captured the attention of the creative world:
Tarun Tahiliani: Celebrated designer Tarun Tahiliani showcased the traditional designs and techniques of Kantha embroidery in his summer/resort 2013 collection. By incorporating Kantha into his creations, Tahiliani brought global recognition to this art form and celebrated its timeless beauty.
Shamlu Dudeja: Kantha revivalist Shamlu Dudeja, a member of the Self Help Enterprise (SHE), has been instrumental in giving a fresh perspective to the traditional art of Kantha. With her works depicting Durga and exploring innovative designs, Dudeja has added a unique touch to Kantha embroidery, furthering its reach and appeal.
Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi, Anita Dongre, and Raghavendra Rathore: These eminent designers have been ardent patrons of Kantha embroidery, incorporating it into their luxury and couture products. Their creations have showcased the versatility of Kantha, infusing it with contemporary elements while honoring its traditional essence.
The recognition and patronage of celebrities have played a significant role in elevating the status of Kantha stitch and highlighting its artistic prowess. Through their support and collaboration, these influential figures have contributed to the wider appreciation and promotion of Kantha embroidery as a cherished form of craftsmanship.
A significant milestone in Kantha’s journey came in 2008 when “nakshi kantha” became the first handicraft from Bengal to receive a Geographical Indication (GI) tag. This recognition highlights the uniqueness and cultural significance of Kantha embroidery, cementing its place as an invaluable part of India’s handicraft heritage.
The timeless artistry of Kantha Stitch, born from humble beginnings, continues to captivate and inspire, bridging the gap between tradition and contemporary design. With each stitch, this exquisite embroidery preserves the cultural legacy of its artisans, telling stories of resilience, creativity, and the enduring beauty of handcrafted art.
NRETP (National Rural Entrepreneurship and Training Program) has been instrumental in supporting and promoting the Kantha Stitch Hand embroidery sector in Birbhum, West Bengal. Through its Incubator Project in collaboration with IIM Calcutta Innovation Park, NRETP has taken on the role of implementation partner for the West Bengal State Rural Livelihood Mission, which is a World Bank Funded project under the National Rural Livelihood Mission.
As part of this initiative, NRETP and IIM Calcutta Innovation Park have identified 16 enterprises operating in the Kantha Stitch Hand embroidery sector in Birbhum. The primary objective is to establish better direct market reach for these enterprises, enabling them to ensure fair and adequate payment to the first-line artisans.
By facilitating direct market access, NRETP aims to empower the enterprises and artisans involved in Kantha Stitch Hand embroidery. This support not only enhances the economic prospects of the artisans but also helps in preserving and promoting the rich cultural heritage associated with this traditional craft.