The Kantha Tradition
Sanaih pantha Sanaih
Slowly one stitches rags,
Slowly one traverses the path
And slowly one climbs to the top of the mountain.
- Traditional Bengali Sloka
The tradition of kantha begins with the thrift of the Bengali women.
In Sanskrit, the word kantha simply means rags.
For centuries, poor Bengali women have taken their discarded cloth and sewn them together with a simple running stitch to create something new. It is no easy task to create a functional quilt out of old, worn rags! The functional kantha dorokha ("two-sided quilt") was not a work of art, but simply what the poorest families used to keep warm. Kantha also had an aspect of intimacy. Old cloth in Bangladesh is said to keep the user safe from harm. Women stitched kantha for their loved ones--for their children, their husbands, their parents. The earliest known mention of the Bengali kantha is five hundred years old--in Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, he refers to a kantha sent to him by his mother. [Manjary Mohanty, “Quilt (Kantha) Art of Bengal"] .
For generations of Bengali women, kantha has been a form of quiet expression. Even the most practical kantha is creative and spontaneous in nature. Overtime, a more elaborate nakshi kantha tradition developed. Most kantha was made by illiterate women who would stitch stories into their quilts--which often would take years to complete. The same kantha is known to have been worked on by a grandmother, mother, and daughter. Many of the kantha motifs reflect the needlewoman’s desire for happiness, marriage, and fertility. These women would then "autograph" their pieces either with their name or by indicating their relationship with the person for whom the kantha is intended.
One of the potential risks of producing kantha commercially is losing the richness of this tradition. It is our desire at Hand and Cloth to cultivate a strong pride in the tradition. The high demand for kantha within India, Bangladesh and abroad has taught the owners of our kantha to value their kantha pieces, and has also taught the women in Bangladesh to take pride in their special skill.
Photographs by Sarah Aulie