Home Culture Kantha: Women Embroidering Stories Of Bengal Across Borders

Kantha: Women Embroidering Stories Of Bengal Across Borders


Editor’s Note: This month, that is January 2021, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Work and The Workplace, where we invite various articles to highlight the profound changes that our workplaces may or may not have undergone and the effect that these changes have had on our personal and professional lives and ways of living in the time of the pandemic. If you’d like to share your article, email us at pragya@feminisminindia.com. 

Children of the contiguous plains of Bengal have grown up wrapped in the comforts of the humble kantha. The kantha is embroidered by hand, sewn from discarded rags, cast off dhotis and sarees into cotton quilts. They feature rich and vibrant imagery. Fabrics are placed carefully in a lasagna-like fashion and a tiny stitch runs through it. However, kantha is more than a simple bearing of nostalgia – it is the testament to devotion, labour and aspirations of unknown Bengali women across the border.

Before the multicultural kanthas became stellar collector’s items, a connoisseur’s dream – meant to be preserved and gawked upon in international museums, and even now, they symbolise thrift and utility in the average Bengali household. A quintessential Bengali article – it is passed down as a family heirloom for generations to cherish.

The kantha is embroidered by hand, sewn from discarded rags, cast off dhotis and sarees into cotton quilts. They feature rich and vibrant imagery. Fabrics are placed carefully in a lasagna-like fashion and a tiny stitch runs through it.

As language carries civilisation, so does textile. Unlike other works of textile, kantha has traditionally been a women-centric craft. Kanthas embody artistic aspirations and emotional, and social experiences. They become a site for a woman’s cultural expression through aesthetic means. It is the physical manifestation of creativity and intuition. These craftswomen, across religions, castes and classes, reflect their cultural conscience with the motifs and designs they choose.

The ordinary mother, daughter, sister stitches her story of longing, marriage, motherhood and happiness on the quilt. The pointillism of kanthas echo unsaid stories, secrets and desires. Hence, Niaz Zaman describes the needlecraft of kantha as a “woman’s art”. In his magnum opus Nakshi Kanthar Math, Jasimuddin imagines how a maiden embroiders her kantha:

“Spreading the embroidered quilt
She works the livelong night,
As if the quilt her poet were
Of her bereaved plight.
Many a joy and many a sorrow
Is written on its breast;
The story of Rupa’s life is there,
Line by line expressed.”

Image taken from Kolkata on Wheels

In modern times, stitching a kantha is no less than a selfless act. Primarily women from economically disadvantaged households are burdened with the task of stitching these quilts for the purposes of selling in textile markets. Besides, due to inadequate copyright protection laws, cheap imitations flood domestic and international markets. While the revival of kantha culture has empowered many to become financially independent, these women have little to no control on the prices they are sold for and they are paid lesser than minimum wage salaries for their hard work. Essentially, they are alienated from both the fruits of their labour. Yet, they continue to express themselves stylistically through kanthas – the motifs can be religious, secular or individual narratives of the women who stitch them.

Also read: Art Therapy: One Pastime At A Time Towards Recovery

Shantiniketan Kantha is a modern manufacturer of kanthastitch products and has diversified into sarees, dupattas, panjabis and bedsheets. In a conversation with Muskan from Shantiniketan Kantha, she revealed that the artisans are paid according to their working speed. They earn a meagre ₹1500 – ₹3000 per saree and a saree takes six months. On being asked if artisans play a role in fixing the retail prices of the sarees, she said, “No they can’t decide. They only work for the owner of the sarees.”

A paper titled, “Bhadralok Women Do Not Work Outside the Home: Caste, Class, Gender and Work in Rural West Bengal” by Amit Mitra communicated similar findings. In the study, sub-contracted kantha worker, Jaheda Begum says, “Where do we have the contacts and the resources to do what the contractor does? We know it’s exploitative but something is better than nothing.”

Like all industries, commercialisation has had a subversive effect on textile, handicrafts and handlooms. However, all is not dismal when it comes to kantha embroidery. With the advent of NGOs and impetus from the state government, female entrepreneurship has boomed tremendously.

In an interview with Creative Bengal, Bilkis Rabia of Murshidabad, West Bengal, reveals that she learnt needlework from her mother at a time when there was not a market for it. Soon after her marriage, she was encouraged by happenstance to start her business. She teaches the art of stitching kantha to numerous women. Once trained, she employs them and as of 2019, she provides for over 200 women. Furthermore, she thanks the West Bengal government for facilitating fairs and exhibitions to encourage traditional handlooms and handicrafts without which she would not have a livelihood.

Also read: A Needle With A Point: Singhleton Is Stitching Stories Of Dissent

Risen from rejectamenta, a kantha has the ability to narrate a story: a story that often goes unheard, a story that risks being forgotten, a story of women who dream despite despair.

Featured Image Source: Beyond The Taj


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