Sitting under a lamp after a long day, she picks up her needles and sews away. She ponders her day and jots it down, one stitch at a time. - Shantanu Singh
Asha, our master Kantha embroiderer, poses with a creation born out of her hands
For the longest time, historians and critics have mulled over old genre paintings, trying to peek desperately through the veil of time to unravel the world through the eyes of the greats. With a thirst that is perennially unquenched, we dig up tombs and scour cathedrals, but the search never ends. But in a search for truth so grandiose, so sophisticated, often the honesty in simplicity gets overlooked. Luckily, those who seek this candid simplicity can find it in the ancient textile art of Kantha.
The When. The Where. The Wow.
The roots of Kantha (pronounced “Kahn-taa”) can be traced back to the pre-Vedic ages within the rural communities of West Bengal. Kantha is considered to be one of the oldest embroidery techniques emerging from India. The term “Kantha” is used to refer to both the technique of the running stitch as well as the finished cloth.
The etymology of the name “Kantha” is still debated. While some say the name originated from the Sanskrit word “Kontha” meaning rags, others believe that it’s derived from the Hindi word "Katha” which means a story. We believe that both are equally fitting, and here’s why.
Kantha was a direct, make-shift response from Bengali women to address the rising cost of fabrics and a very human desire to own something beautiful. So instead of buying new fabric, at what they deemed was an exorbitant amount, the women decided to dismantle the old, worn-out articles of clothing down to their bare threads. Those threads from the tattered old clothes were then used to breathe life into the new ones.
India has been home to a plethora of hand-embroidered designs. The most prominent ones are Phulkari embroidery, Chikankari embroidery, Kasuti embroidery, and Zardozi. Then what makes Kantha so special?
Kantha was never commissioned by the royalties. It was neither as exotic as Chikankari nor did it have the elegance of Zardozi. Kantha was always the art of the thrifty—a craft that was passed down from mother to daughter.
The art of Kantha, which originally started as a straight running stitch, soon transcended the bounds of need and took on a life of its own—straight lines became curves, curves became patterns, and those patterns, stories.
Kantha became a medium of self-expression for the unheard, unknown, and impoverished women of Bengal.
Our Diamond Summers coverlet features Kantha stitch that has taken on a life of its own; it is not a simple straight line stitch anymore
Influenced by religion, culture, and epics, once the needles began clicking, thoughts most intimate began to pour out—a true, unfiltered insight into the minds of women and an outlook into a world long lost. An inherited Kantha was considered to be a prized possession within the family; it was a reminder of love and a medium through which the creator's thoughts would continue to live on.
Despite its simple origins, the process of Kantha embroidery is far more tedious than one would imagine. To begin with, a Kantha piece would comprise at least 4 to 6 layers of cloth, ranging from an old saree to any old garment lying purposelessly. These garments need to be layered tautly on top of one another to avoid creases. Weights would be placed at the corners of the garments in the houses where the members were either unwilling to pitch in or simply absent. Once sewn together, the base of a Kantha was ready. The garment could then be folded and embroidered upon
As embroidery was mostly a leisurely activity, the decoration of a Kantha would take months or even years. Occasionally, an incomplete Kantha would be passed down by a mother to her daughter. The daughter would then take her mother’s mantle and complete it, adding a little bit of herself to the piece. We couldn’t possibly think of an heirloom more memorable.
Kantha’s journey has been one filled with trials and tribulations. This traditional art was on the verge of extinction when the renowned artist and the daughter-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, Pratima Devi, recognized the significance of this homespun art. She launched a rural reconstruction campaign to raise awareness and bring Kantha back to life.
Though the effectiveness of her efforts was short-lived, the majority of the master karigars moved to Bangladesh during the partition in 1947. The quality of the craft suffered, and so did its demand.
Kantha, to this day, still survives, but barely. Due to increasing demand for this embroidery style in foreign markets, rapid commercialization of Kantha has taken place. Kantha, once a beautiful, culturally rich, time-consuming, handcrafted art form conceived in the homes of rural women with heart and care, is now being rolled out in a rather soulless manner. Oftentimes, machines try to replicate the technique, though Kantha is a human craft and machines will never be able to do it full justice.
This commercialization of Kantha has brought a new roster of problems, which now, on Kantha, force a threat worse than extinction, a threat of depersonalization. Factories have stripped Kantha of its human touch, making the essence of Kantha slowly fade away. The most glaring issue contributing to this ordeal is the unfair and unlivable wages earned by the artisans stitching true Kantha. A Kantha artisan earns a menial wage that does not do justice to their detailed, immaculate, and time-consuming craftsmanship.
At Studio Covers, we aim at reviving this ancient form of Kantha. It's such a beautiful art form, and it would be a pity to see it die. We have our own in-house team of Kantha women, all of whom have their own very unique stories to share. We’re using this traditional technique and contemporizing it, giving it our soft, minimal Studio Covers touch.
You can find our kantha coverlets (which are lightweight quilts and bedspreads in one) and cushion covers in soft pastels crafted with natural fabrics (pure cottons and linens) here. They are machine washable, prewashed, sustainable, and perfect for Indian summers.
At Studio Covers, we have always asked why before what. And that is probably also why we are choosing tradition and timelessness over trend. We are choosing motifs that are inspired by everyday India, the craftsmanship that defines our vibrant country and fabric that is quintessentially Indian.
Fall is the season of warmth, comfort, pumkin spiced latters, and just embracing the idea of staying in with a book! We love Fall as does our Creative Partner Rukmini (Trumatter), who has penned down ways to incorporate cushions into your home this Fall like a dream.
One of the oldest forms of hand embroidery, Zardozi craftsmen have been weaving poetry on fabric for over 3000 years. In this article, we will look at the history of this beautiful ancient craft. Explore the blog post by Studio Covers here.
Studio Covers is a designer furnishings brand that believes in creating sustainable luxury for those who appreciate the finer things in life. We started out as a soft furnishings studio in the 1990s and have worked on over 80 5-star projects and 500+ high-end residences across India and overseas. We strive to keep design and craftsmanship at the centre of everything that we do. Explore luxury cushion covers, bedspreads, throws, table runners, bedsheets, pillowslips, and body pillows that are meant to last for years to come. We ship across India.
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