Weaving a story: Nakshi Kantha Embroidery from West Bengal


Weaving a story: Kantha Embroidery

Every art form has a story to tell. But none can narrate better than Kantha Embroidery. Known since time immemorial, Kantha work is the best form of personal and artistic expression. What started as a hobby to utilize old and waste fabrics by the rural women of West Bengal became one of the most sought-after crafts of all times. From apparels like sarees, suits, dupattas, shawls, scarves, and skirts to home décor items like the cushion and pillow covers, bed sheets, curtains, tablecloths and mats, rugs, quilts, and blankets, Kantha work creates a perfect blend of the traditional and the contemporary.

The embroidery done on discarded clothes derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘Kantha’ which means ‘rags’. ‘Kantha’ also means ‘throat’ and thus the embroidery done in earlier times began by telling the mythological tale of Lord Shiva (NeelKanth) consuming poison.

The gorgeous Kantha embroidery involves the simple running stitches done mostly on the cotton and silk fabric with beautiful and colourful motifs of flowers, animals, birds, and basic geometrical shapes. Over time, more elaborate patterns from mythology, folklore, and everyday life scenes developed, which came to be known as ‘Nakshi Kantha’ after the Bengali word ‘naksha,’ which means artistic patterns. The entire piece of fabric is covered with multiple lines of straight, running stitches giving a slightly wrinkled and wavy effect to the cloth. To cater to the modern demands, Kantha embroidery has expanded its reach beyond cotton and silk fabric and is now done on different fabrics like Crepe, Georgette, and Chiffon as well.   

Based on the use of the fabric, Kantha is divided into seven different types:

Lep Kantha

This type of embroidery is done on a number of sari layers, placed on top of each other to be used as a quilt during winters. Simple geometrical designs are made with straight running stitches using coloured threads.

Sujani Kantha

This is the most popular and beautiful Kantha. Mostly done on blankets or clothes used for special functions and weddings, sujani Kantha has diverse patterns like the lotus flower, scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, folktales, dancing girls, men riding on horseback, birds, animals, bees, a procession in motion, etc.  A border with geometrical patterns at both ends of the fabric is a major characteristic of sujani kantha.

Baiton Kantha

This embroidery is done on the fabrics that are used to cover books and other valuables. The motifs of lotus, pots, conch shells, trees, plants, flowers, birds, elephants, chariot, human and divine figures are generally made using red, yellow, green, and blue coloured threads.  It is elaborately patterned with borders of colourful designs. This kantha is often carried while traveling and is presented as gifts to family and friends.

Oaar Kantha

In this type simple designs with decorative borders are done. They are generally found on pillow and cushion covers. Simple designs like trees, plants, creepers, birds with a decorative border are made around its four sides.

Arshilata Kantha

Arshilata is used as a cover for mirrors, comb, and other toilet accessories. It has a wide border and the central motif is depicted from the scenes of Krishna Leela or Radha-Krishna Raas. The lotus flower, trees, creepers, spirals, inverted triangles, zig-zag lines are some of the other used motifs.

Durjani/Thalia Kantha

It is a square piece kantha that is used to cover the wallet. It has a lotus motif in the center with an elaborate border at the sides.

Rumal Kantha

This is the smallest among all the kanthas. Like most of the other kanthas, lotus remains the main theme of this embroidery. At times motifs of plants and animals are also embroidered.  

This exquisite art of Kantha is passed down through generations and is mostly practiced by the women of West Bengal wherein the intricate stitches are woven using just a needle and thread on the fabric. The flourishing art saw a decline after the partition of India and Pakistan when most of the Bengali artisans migrated to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). But in recent times, with the efforts of many art connoisseurs, Kantha embroidery is revived and resurrected. To prevent the imitation of this precious embroidery and to preserve the rights of women workers for whom this art has been a major source of living for decades, Nakshi Kantha is awarded Geographical Indication (G.I.) tag in the year 2008.