Kantha, Kanthas


The name “Kantha” or “Kanthas” has many regional variations Katha, Kheta, etc. It is a form of hand embroidery on a piece of cloth with the help of a needle. It is a ancient fold art of India, particularly popular in the Bengal region of India.

History of Kantha

The exact age of kantha design cannot be ascertained with accuracy. The tradition of kantha embroidery is very old. It is mentioned in the Sanskrit grammar written by Panini around the sixth century B.C and in the epic Ramayana written by Valmiki some two centuries later. The Ramayana  mentions Chandrabati’s Kantha stitching as one of the skills that Sita excelled.

Designed Indian clothes were requested during the days of the Roman Empire and eighth Century Central Asia. Art reached great heights during the days of the Mughals who were great lover of needlework and embroidery.

The first mention of Kantha Embroidery in Bengali literature is in the Charyapadas – oldest known verses in Bengali that prevailed from the 8th to 11th century AD.

Needle Work in India

India has a long and glorious tradition of needlework, hand-embroidery, sewing and weaving. Megasthenes and the Greek historian Herodotus were very impressed by the Clothing made ​​in India. Figures of Mohanjodaro excavated at Harappa provide evidence of beautifully woven and hand-embroidered clothes that used to be used in the early days.

Kantha Works – Folk  art of Women

Kantha work is essentially a folk art of women. Women give expression to their wishes through the needlework and thread designs of Kantha work. It is an art that is passed from one generation to another. The Kanthas design offered enough room to display the contents of the mind of a woman. The women also drew heavily on the life they saw around them, reflecting a social conscience. The woman would often narrate with needles,threads and stitches the various incidents of her, from her birth. Their numbers and symbols are associated freely and rhythmically assembled. The Kanthas, the quilt, the pillow covers and the small cloth bags all served to convert their home into beautiful art galleries.

The Kantha work designs made ​​by Hindu and Muslim women had some differences. The moon, the stars, geometric and floral motifs designs were mostly used by Muslim Women. Hindu women depend mainly of characters, stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, temples and idols as their cause. The rural woman of that time was happy with the joy of her own creation.

Kantha Designs – As a Source of Historic Evidence

Kantha Designs follow a definite system. These designs take often resemble symbols and current affairs. The mention of important dates in Kantha work serves as a source of Historic Evidence. These designs have served to acquaint the future generations with social and economic conditions of the time they were made.

Kantha – Guided By Local Customs

As a folk art, Kantha design has always been guided by local customs and beliefs. No woman works on Kantha design work at night, because it is traditionally believed that this will bring poverty to the family. Muslim women always Kanthas began work on Friday. Hindu women avoided Saturdays.

A woman will not stitch a Kantha during her pregnancy. No single girl should design a Kantha. It is believed that if a Pregnant woman dreams of designing a Kantha work then she will give birth to a girl.

Kantha stitching has traditionally been a seasonal an occupation during rainy season. During the rainy season, when it was not possible to visit neighbors to exchange gossip, women stayed at home and started doing Kantha Work Designs. The other women and children in the house came forward to help in various ways.

Kantha – As a Gift Item

The Kantha was also used as a gift item, often used to convey messages of an intimate nature. Generally women knitted their names on the Kanthas, sometimes going so far as to write even add the names of their parents and villages.

Though there were cases of Kanthas being sold. There is also evidence of  Portugues Traders buying  Kantha in bulk in the sixteenth century and selling them abroad.

Kantha, however, was extensively used as a gift item. Kantha Design Works were generally done to be used at home or as a gift item. Sometimes girls get Kanthas on her marriage as gift.

Kantha Stitches (Stitching)

Fabric For Kantha Stitching

Kanthas are made from old saris and dhotis. To make a Kantha thick enough, it takes 5-6 pieces of clothing. These are placed on top of each other and then the four ends are attached with pins. In earlier days, thorn of trees was used instead of pins. Next, the sides are stitched all around so that the clothes become one piece and the pins are taken out. The women of the village from the old days didn’t had iron to flatten the clothes.  So, they used flat heavy vessels to flatten the Kantha Clothes. The vessels were then heated and pressed over the surface so that no portion would be wrinkled.

For the Kantha Stitch design and borders, they used pieces of charcoal.  Later pencils were used to make the outlines of the designs of Kantha Stitch.

Needle and Thread for Kantha Stitching

The thread was obtained from the borders of the saris and dhotis used, thus avoiding the expense of buying. The yarn thus collected would remain around a wooden spool or around women’s own fingers. Then with the needle, thread is used to give life to the Kantha designs presented in various colors. The base of Kantha Clothes would usually be white to enhance the Kantha stitch designs.

Kantha Stitches

The most important part of a the work are the stitches of Kantha Embroidery. Not only do these have to be firm enough to hold together the different layers, they had to be good enough to make eye-catching designs.The Kanthas of Nababganj in Rajsahi district of Bangladesh are very famous. Known as Sujni, Lahari, and carpets, these Kantha Stitches are done over a red cotton cloth.

Commonly Used Kantha Stitches

The commonly used Kantha Stitches are

  • Running stitch,
  • Herring bone stitch,
  • Double running stitch,
  • Leak stitch and
  • Darning stitch,
  • Dorokha stitch.
  • Button hole stitch,
  • Bending stitch,
  • Stem stitch,
  • Back stitch,
  • Cross stitch,
  • Chain stitch,

Kantha Running Stitch is mostly liked by  Bangladeshi Women on both sides of the border.

Please read Compelete Notes on Kantha Stitching.

Types of Kantha

Kanthas were not only for the purpose of adorning households. Rural households use Kanthas for specific purposes. They are useful beautiful objects. The usage of Nakshi Kantha is not restricted to quilts. The Kanthas work is done and used for various purposes.

Various types of Kanthas are discussed below.

Kantha work on Betel leaf holder

These Kantha works were small in size and used to hold betel-leaf, betel-nuts and its ingredients. Designs of flowers, betel-feaf forms the motif. Other motifs were also used. In size about 16 inches long and 8 feet wide.

Rumal Kantha

Rumal means handkerchief. Made from four square pieces of fabric and measuring a foot in both directions, is used as a handkerchief. It is also used to cover the crockery such as plates, bowls etc.  Rumal Kantha is often gifted to loved ones. The artist writes his name in the corner as well as of the person who is being gifted. The motifs are  bird, lotus, rose and other varieties of flowers and vines.

Kantha work on Carry Bags

This is a square shaped Kantha Work. Its name suggests that it  is used as a bag to carry things. The two ends are stitched together with a piece of thread. Lotus is widely used as the central motif . Other designs of Kantha Work were also used.

Kantha work on wrapping clothes

These Kantha are long enough to wrap things wrapped around the house. Geometric patterns and  inter-twined motifs is widely used for Joth Kantha.

Kantha work on small cosmetic bags

Arshi means mirror.  Arshilata is used to hold small mirrors, hair pins, hair band and toiletries. It is made of a thin strip of fabric between 12 to 24 inch lenght and six inches wide. The predominant motifs are the peacock, flowers, the Kadam tree, moon and stars, etc. They must have felt the need to keep the combs, small mirror and other toiletries hidden in a small beautiful bag.

Kantha work on religious book holders

Used to keep religious books such as the Koran, the geometric motifs dominate. Motifs based on plant life, trees and planets are also found.

Kantha work on curtains

Parda means curtain. Parda Kanthas are used in palanquins, bullock carts and boats to keep the inside hidden from view. The motif designs include butterflies and flowers.

Kantha work on furniture covers

Dhakni means covering and this is used to cover the furniture in the house to protect it from dust. Geometric patterns and other motifs patterns were found.

Durjani kantha

These Kanthas are ten inches long and six inches wide. It is often used as a carrying bag. Three ends are bent in the middle, upper fold slightly shorter than the other two. It can be used as a purse or to carry small items such as betel leaves etc. The religious people also use it to keep prayer beads. Geometric Patters, leaves, plants, flowers form the motif.  It is commonly known as durjani in West Bengal.

Hanging Kantha

Hanging Kantha are decorative pieces of art of various sizes. Their beautiful designs and motif patterns reflects the rich artistic mind of rural women.

Dastarkhan Kantha

These very large Kanthas, are about ten feet long and eighteen inch wide. Dastarkhan is used as a spread between two rows of people sitting at meals. The dishes with food are placed in the circular motifs of the Kantha work. Dastarkhan is widely used in Muslims homes.

Baby Kantha

These Nakshi Kanthas act as towels for babies. Baby Kanthas were often used as a gift item at the birth of a chile. These are small in size and often used to cover the pillow covers.

Kantha work on Utensil covers

Bartan means utensils and it is used to cover the plates containing foods and are designed with motifs of flowers and plants.

Kantha Quilts

The Kantha quilts have been discussed below. Please read the complete article on Kantha quilts.

Kantha Quilts

Kantha quilts are good example of high quality handicraft of India. Kantha quilts are blankets or bed-spread consisting of two or more fabrics tied together through the stitches of Kantha. The technique of making these Kantha quilts is referred to as Kantha quilting. The fine needle work consists of various pattern and Motifs of India.

Types of Kantha Quilts

The different types of Kantha quilts are discussed below.

Lep Kantha

These larger Lep Kantha quilts were during the cold winter season. Some Lep Kantha consists of seven layers.

Sujni Kantha

Sujni Kantha quilt is used as spread over bed for guests to sit or lie on. It is also called as Kantha Paarer.  The wooden block prints of Sujni kantha are its distinctive feature.

Asan Kantha

Asan Kantha, also known asare used during religious functions. The motif patterns of Asan Kantha are generally based on religious belief.

Shawl Kantha

It is used to wrap the body, and has only two layers of fabric. It is also referred to as Chader Kantha.

Please read the article on Kantha Quilts.

Motif of Kantha

The designs of Nakshi Kantha are very often symbolic and suggestive of expression. Lahari or waves are intended to indicate expansion. Also, the Chokh or eye in the design is intended to protect form evils. Scorpion is used to ward off this deadly insect.

It is believed that the banyan leaf motif is associated with Buddhist religious ceremonies. These motifs indicate the influence of different cultures, Hindu, Buddhist, tribal, social life in rural Bengal. All these expression of Motifs helps us to understand Kantha in totality.

Types of Motifs Used in India:

  • Palki motif
  • Solar motif
  • Moon shaped motif
  • Star shaped motif
  • Boat shaped motif
  • Kalka motif
  • Lotus motif
  • Motifs based on Hindu Mythology
  • Chakra motif
  • Sankha motif
  • Swastik motif
  • Rath (chariot) motif

The origin of various motifs is different. The betel leaves came from the  Khasi Hills of present Bangladesh where these leaves is grown in abundance, and has a prominent place in the tribal tradition.

Please read Complete Articles on Kantha Motifs – Motifs of India.

Border Motifs of Kantha

In West Bengal borders of sarees are often cut and stitched to the Kantha to become its border. This cannot be found in the villages of Bangladesh and West Bengal of India.

The palki or palanquin, a common mode of transport often found its place in Kantha Border Motifs.

A large variety of Border Motifs have been used in Bengal such as :

  • The betel-leaf motif
  • Barfi shaped motif
  • The fly motif
  • Marigold motif
  • Flower motif
  • The Mosque motif
  • Motif of rows of large ants is to be found in the borders of Kanthas.
  • Scorpion motif
  • Motif of waves of sea
  • Spiders Motifs

Please read complete notes of Border Motifs.

Present Status of Kanthas

With the passage of time the Kantha has ceased to be as essential an item in the household as in the past.  Today it is made more as an art object enjoying commercial prospects.  To the red, blue, yellow (not so much) and black threads have been added the green, majenta, mustard-yellow and orange. The Kantha today is used to make shawls, saris, kurtas, curtains, bags and such other items also. The Kantha Sareesand Kantha Quilts are excellent example of Modern Kantha Works.  There are Kantha pillow covers and bedspreads and pictorial wall hangings resembling old Kantha Motifs.The Crafts Council of West Bengal has is trying to uplift the Kantha tradition.  The traditional Kantha continues to be made at villages of Malda, Barasat and Burdwan district.

Some enterprising entrepreneurs and voluntary organizations devoted to the uplift of women, mostly based in Calcutta and Santiniketan, have organized units to produce what may be called non-traditional, commercial Kanthas. BRAC has four centers all devoted to the making of the Nakshi Kantha.

Even today a needy women can earn a little by doing Kantha Works such in saris, cushion covers, bedcovers, kurtas etc.