Written on October 9, 2008
On the new postings on my website this week I am showing this magnificent kantha embroidered coverlet. Kantha is my absolute favorite of India’s folk textile traditions, and the high esteem in which I hold kantha is shared by a multitude of others. Kantha embroidered cloth is the province of women and its territory is that of West Bengal and Bihar in India and in Bangladesh, whose Bangladesh National Museum has a staggeringly good collection of their indigenous textile tradition.
Kantha’s origins are fascinating: women in disparate villages thoughout this eastern region of the subcontinent would take worn-out dhotis (men’s “sarongs”) and sarees–usually of white cotton with a simple, colored border: think Mother Teresa’s outfit–and they would remove the colored borders. They’d fastidiously flatten the cotton cloth and often they’d layer it. In old, traditional kanthas, the colored embroidery threads would be drawn out of the borders and would be used to quilt the layered, recycled white cloth in fantastic pictorial opulence.
Classic Hindu kanthas show a central lotus, usually with eight petals, and this represents the universe. The overall design of the kantha, which was often improvised, would grow around the center. The entire kantha is an intricate network of tiny stitches: even the white areas of the kantha are stitched and you can see how stitching is done in tight rows around the colored images, creating a kind of radiating effect.
Muslim ladies made kanthas and theirs would often be stitched with repeat patterns or non-illustrative images which is in keeping with their faith. I have a fantastic kantha which I believe was stitched by Muslims which I may show later on: the entire textile is a repeat pattern of intensely stitched triangles in formation, or, as they call the motif, the kautar khupi or pigeon coop.
It is said that kanthas are the outgrowth of traditional, ritual diagrams (called alpana) that women would draw on their floor using rice paste. Kanthas are of all sizes, from small to very large, and they are used for many purposes: they are used as book covers or as an envelope to hold the Quran, for storing jewelry, for seat covers, bed covers and for a kind of floor covering used for meals. Kanthas are diverse and highly prized by the communities that make them.
The great India scholar and curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Stella Kramrisch, collected kantha during her lifetime and has donated her collection to the museum. Her writings on Indian culture and Hinduism are some of the most profound in Western scholarship, and here is a long quote on kantha’s relationship to Hindu thinking from a catalog to her exhibition, “Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village” from 1968: “Textile symbolism in India is hallowed by tradition. In the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, the universe is envisioned as a fabric woven by the gods. The cosmos, the ordered universe, is one continuous fabric with its warp and woof making a grid pattern. Hence the importance of wholeness, not only of the uncut garment, like the sari or the dhoti, but also of the cloth woven all in one piece, on which a sacred picture is to be painted. Whether as a cover for the body or as a ground for a painting, the uncut fabric is a symbol of totality and integrity. It symbolizes the whole of manifestation. Inversely, rags are offered to the gods. Chindiyadeo, the Lord of Tatters, gives a new whole cloth if a rag is offered to him. There are rag shrines all over the country. Their goddess is Chithariya Bhavani, Our Lady of Tatters. The Buddha wore a patchwork robe (sanghati). Some of the reliefs of the Mathura school of the second century A.D. show him thus clad. Lord Chaitanya (1485-1533), the apostle and visionary, draped in a kantha the ecstasies which overwhelmed his body. The colourful patchwork of the robes of saints form part of miniature paintings of the Mughal period. The patched robe of the Buddha or of a saint belongs to him in his nature of Saviour. The rags are given a new wholeness. They clothe holiness.”