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Nakshi kantha, a type of embroidered quilt, is a centuries-old Bengali art tradition in West Bengal in India and Bangladesh. The basic material used is thread and old cloth. Kanthas are made throughout Bangladesh, but the greater Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Faridpur and Jessore areas are most famous for this craft.
The colourful patterns and designs that are embroidered resulted in the name “Nakshi Kantha”, which was derived from the Bengali word “naksha”, which refers to artistic patterns. The early kanthas had a white background accented with red, blue and black embroidery; later yellow, green, pink and other colours were also included. The running stitch called “kantha stitch” is the main stitch used for the purpose. Traditionally, kantha was produced for the use of the family. Today, after the revival of the nakshi kantha, they are produced commercially.
The word kantha has no discernible etymological root. The exact time of origin of the word kantha is not accurately known but it probably had a precursor in kheta (khet Bengali means “field”). According to Niaz Zaman, the word kantha originated from the Sanskrit word kontha, which means rags, as kantha is made of rags.
Like any other folk art, kantha making is influenced by factors such as materials available, daily needs, climate, geography, and economic factors. Probably the earliest form of kantha was the patchwork kantha, and the kanthas of the decorative appliqué type evolved from this.
The earliest mention of Bengal Kantha is found in the book Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita by Krishnadas Kaviraj, which was written some five hundred years ago. The famous Bengali poet Jasimuddin also had a very famous poem named “Nakshi Kanthar Math”
Traditionally old sarees, lungis and dhotis were used to make kanthas. Kantha making was not a full-time job. Women in almost every household were expert in the art. Rural women worked at leisure time or during the lazy days of the rainy season, so taking months or even years to finish a kantha was normal. At least five to seven sarees were needed to make a standard-size kantha. Today the old materials are replaced by new cotton cloths. Traditionally the thread was collected from the old sarees. That is rarely done today.
When a kantha is being made, first the sarees are joined together to attain the required size, and then layers are spread out on the ground. The cloths are then smoothed, and no folds or creases are left in between. During the process, the cloth is kept flat on the ground with weights on the edges. Then the four edges are stitched and two or three rows of large running stitches are done to keep the kantha together. At this stage, the kantha can be folded and stitched at leisure time.
Originally, designs and motifs were not drawn on the cloth. The design was first outlined with needle and thread, followed by focal points, and then the filling motifs were done. In a kantha with a predominant central motif the centre was done first, followed by corner designs and the other details. In some types of kanthas (carpet, lik and sujni, etc.) wooden blocks were used to print the outline. The blocks are replaced today by patterns drawn in tracing papers.
The following is how kanthas are categorized, according to the stitch type:
The running stitch kantha is truly the indigenous kantha. They are subdivided into Nakshi (figured) and par tola (patterned). Nakshi (figured) kanthas are further divided into motif or scenic kanthas.
The name was derived from Persian word lehr, which means wave. This type of kantha is particularly popular in Rajshahi. These kanthas are further divided into soja (straight or simple), Kautar khupi (pigeon coop or triangle), borfi or diamond (charchala, atchala or barachala).
Lik or anarasi
The Lik or Anarasi (pine apple) type of kantha is found in the Chapainawabganj and Jessore areas. The variations are lik tan, lik tile, lik jhumka, and lik lohori.
Cross-stitch or carpet
This type of kantha was introduced by the English during the British Rule in India. The stitch employed in these kanthas is the cross-stitch.
This type of kantha is found only in Rajshahi area. The popular motif used is the undulating floral and vine motif.
Influence of religion and folk belief
Main article: Kantha
The earliest and most basic stitch found in kanthas is the running stitch. The predominant form of this stitch is called the phor or kantha stitch. The other forms of stitches used are the Chatai or pattern darning, Kaitya or bending stitch, weave running stitch, darning stitch, Jessore stitch (a variation of darning stitch), threaded running stitch, Lik phor or anarasi or ghar hasia (Holbein) stitches. The stitches used in modern-day kantha are the Kasmiri stitch and the arrowhead stitch. Stitches like the herringbone stitch, satin stitch, backstitch and cross-stitch are occasionally used.
Kanthas generally denote quilts used as wrappers; however, all articles made by quilting old cloth may also be referred to by the same generic name. However, depending on the size and purpose, kanthas may be divided into various articles, each with its specific names. The various types of kantha are as follows:
Quilt (lep in Bengali): A light quilted covering made from the old sarees/dhotis/lungis and sometimes from sheet cloths.
Large spread (Naksi Kantha in Bengali): An embellished quilt embroidered in traditional motifs and innovative style
Puja floor spread (Ason in Bengali): Cloth spread for sitting at a place of worship or for an honoured guest.
Cosmetic wrapper (Arshilota in Bengali): A narrow embroidered wrapper to roll and store away a woman’s comb, mirror, eye kohl, vermilion, sandal paste, oil bottle, etc. Often, a tying string is used to bind the wrap, as in later day satches.
Wallet (Batwa thoiley in Bengali): Small envelope-shaped bag for keeping money, betel leaves, etc.
Cover for Quran (ghilaf in Arabic and Bengali): Envelope-shaped bag to cover the Quran.
Prayer mats (Jainamaz in Bengali): Mats used by Muslims to say prayers.
Floor spread (Galicha in Bengali): Floor coverings.
Cloths wrapper (Bostani, guthri in Bengali): A square wrapper for books and other valuables.
Cover (Dhakni in Bengali): Covering cloths of various shapes and sizes.
Ceremonial meal spread (Daster khan in Bengali): A spread for eating place, used at meal time.
Pillow cover (Balisher chapa or oshar in Bengali): A flat single piece pillow cover.
Handkerchief (Rumal): Small and square in shape.
Modern-day articles: Today newer uses are found for nakshi kanthas, such as bedspreads, wall hangins, cushion covers, ladies’ purses, place mats, jewellery boxes, dress fronts, skirts border, shawls and sharees.
Motifs of the nakshi kantha are deeply influenced by religious belief and culture. Even though no specific strict symmetry is followed, a finely embroidered naksi kantha will always have a focal point. Most kanthas will have a lotus as focal point, and around the lotus there are often undulating vines or floral motifs, or a shari border motif. The motifs may include images of flower and leaves, birds and fish, animals, kithen forms even toilet articles.
While most kantas have some initial pattern, no two naksi kantas are same. While traditional motifs are repeated, the individual touch is used in the variety of stitches, colours and shapes. The notable motifs found in naksi kantha are as follows:
The lotus motif is the most common motif found in kanthas. This motif is associated with Hindu iconography and thus is also very popular in the kantha. The lotus is the divine seat. It is also symbolic of cosmic harmony and essential womanhood. The lotus is also the symbol of eternal order and of the union of earth, water and, sky. It represents the life-giving power of water, and is also associated with the sun for the opening and closing of the petals. It is also the symbol of the recreating power of life. With the drying up of water, the lotus dies and with the rain it springs to life again. The lotus is associated with purity and the goddess Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune and abundance. There are various forms of lotus motifs, from the eight-petaled astadal padma to the hundred petaled satadal. In the older kanthas, the central motif is almost always a fully bloomed lotus seen from above.
The solar motif is closely associated with the lotus motif. Often, the lotus and the solar motifs are found together at the centre of a nakshi kantha. The solar motif symbolizes the life giving power of the sun. The sun is associated with the fire which plays a significant part in Hindu rites, both religious and matrimonial.
The moon motif has a religious influence, and is popular amongst the Muslims. Mostly it is in the form of a crescent moon accompanied by a star. This motif is particularly found in jainamaz kanthas.
The wheel is a common symbol in Indian art, both Hindu and Buddhist. It is the symbol of order. The wheel also represents the world. The wheel is a popular motif in kanthas even when the maker has forgotten the significance of the symbol. The motif is relatively easy to make with chatai phor.
Su asti in Sanskrit means it is well. As a motif in Indian art, it dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization. It is symbol of good fortune. It is also known as muchri or golok dhanda. With the passage of time, the design is more curvilinear than the four armed swastika of the Mohenjodaro seal. The symbolic design has significant influence in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Tree of life motif
Contemporary Nakshi Kantha (used as a wall hanging) with animal, fish, butterfly, tree and human figure motif
The influence of this motif in Indian art and culture (as with kantha) may be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. It is likely that the Indus people conceived the pipal as the Tree of Life…with the devata inside embodying the power of fecundity. During the Buddhist times, the cult of the tree continued. Pipal is sacred to the Buddha because he received enlightenment under its shade. It reflects the fecundity of nature and is very popular in Bengal. Vines and creepers play an important role in kanthas and they contain the same symbolisation as that of tree of life. A popular motif in Rajshahi lohori is the betel leaf.
Close view of Kalka motif
This is a latter-day motif, dating from Mughal times. The kalka or paisley motif originated in Persia and Kashmir and has become an integral image of the subcontinental decorative motif. It can be compared with a stylized leaf, mango or flame. The kalka is an attractive motif and number of varieties are experimented. Similar motifs can be found in traditional kashmiri shawls.
Panja or Open Palm Motif:
Borders from the top:rice stalk, scorpion, pea, eye, wavy or bent, amulet
From the top: shamuk taga, eye border, wrench border, miscellenious borders, wave border, diamond border
Most nakshi kanthas have some kind of border. Either a sari border is stitched on or a border pattern is embroidered around the kantha. The common border found in kanthas are as follows:
From the top: necklace border, ladder border, gut taga, chik taga, nose ring border, fish border, panch taga, bisa taga, anaj taga
The Paddy stalk or date branch (dhaner shish or khejur chari)
The Scorpion border(Biche par in Bengali)
The Wavy or bent Border (Beki in Bengali)
The Diamond border (Barfi)
The Eye border (chok par in Bengali)
The Amulet border (Taabiz par in Bengali)
The Necklace border (mala par in Bengali)
The Ladder Border (Moi taga)
The Gut taga
The Chick taga
The nolok taga
The Fish border (Maach par in Bengali)
The panch taga
The Bisa taga
The Anaj taga
The shamuk taga
The wrench border
The anchor (grafi par in Bengali)
The pen border (kalam par in Bengali)
Nakshi Kantha (Bnagla Pedia)
Nakshi Kantha embroidered quilt said to be indigenous to Bangladesh. The term nakshi kantha, popularly used in Bangladesh, is found even in medieval literature. The name nakshi kantha became particularly popular among literate people after the publicaton of jasimuddin’s poem Naksi Kanthar Math (1929). In west bengal, all kanthas, both plain and embroidered, are referred to as kantha. In East Bengal dialects the kantha is also variously referred to as kheta or kentha. In Bihar and parts of West Bengal, the kantha is also known as sujni. Made from old cloth, discarded saris, dhotis, and lubgis, kanthas range from utilitarian quilts to exquisitely embroidered heirlooms.
A typical nakshi kantha
Depending on the thickness required, three to seven saris are layered and quilted with the simple running stitch, which typically produces a rippled effect. Traditionally, thread drawn from coloured sari borders would be used to embroider motifs or border patterns imitative of sari borders. At present, embroidery skeins are used for motifs and border patterns. Yarn used for weaving is also used for kantha embroidery, particularly in the Rajshahi-Chapai Nawabganj area where the quilting is heavy.
Kanthas serve primarily as bed pallets and as light wraps. Small kanthas are used as swaddling clothes for babies. Depending on their size and use, kanthas range from lep kanthas (winter quilts) and sujni kanthas (spreads and coverlets) to one-foot square rumal (handkerchief) kanthas. Other kantha articles include the asan (a spread for sitting), the bastani or gatri (a wrapper for clothes and other valuables), the arshilata (a wrap for mirrors or toilet articles), the dastarkhan (a spread laid out on the floor for placing food items and plates for dining purposes), the gilaf (an envelope-shaped kantha to cover the quran), and the jainamaz (prayer rug).
Most kanthas are utilitarian, with the running stitch being used to hold the layers of cloth together. A large number of kanthas, however, show ingenious use of the running stitch for working motifs and border patterns. Some 19th-century kanthas, for example, have vivid scenes drawn from contemporary life or myths and legends, all worked with different forms of the running stitch. Manipulations of the simple running stitch create ripples, expanses of colour, pointillistic designs, and textures that appear woven rather than stitched. The running stitch also has two particular forms, called the chatai or pati (mat) stitch and the kaitya (bending) stitch, which are used either for motifs or for border patterns. Occasionally, by varying the length of the stitches taken, the running stitch can replicate woven sari border patterns.
Kanthas exemplify thrift, as pieces of old cloth are put together to make something new. However, old cloth also has a magical purpose, as it is believed to ward off the evil eye. The kantha made of old cloth is thus supposed to keep its user safe from harm. Kantha motifs, many of them common to the alpana, also have a magical purpose and reflect both the desire of the needlewoman for happiness, prosperity, marriage, and fertility as well as wish-fulfillment.
Despite their variety, most kanthas tend to follow a basic pattern, the focal point being a central lotus motif with concentric circles of undulating vines or sari border patterns. In the four corners of the kantha, or in the four corners of the central square, tree-of-life motifs or kalka are embroidered pointing towards the central lotus motif. The empty spaces between the central and corner motifs are filled with motifs drawn from nature and the homestead or with scenes from real life or legends. Apart from floral motifs, recurrent motifs are the curvilinear swastika, kitchen utensils, ornaments, elephants, tigers, horses, peacocks, boats, palanquins, and the rath, the chariot of jagannath. Scenes from Hindu mythology juxtapose secular scenes of dancing, hunting, and boating. The areas left without motifs or scenes are quilted with the rippling kantha stitch. Other types of kanthas include the pad tola kantha, which is embroidered entirely with sari border patterns, and the lohori or lohira kantha, in which thick yarn is used for close pattern darning. In the most intricate of pad tola kanthas, there is no space between the concentric border patterns so that the entire kantha seems a piece of woven cloth.
While most kanthas are the work of illiterate women, many contain proverbs, blessings, and even captions of motifs and scenes in Bangla lettering. Thus, in one kantha, the kantha maker blesses her son-in-law: Sukhe thako (Be happy). Some kanthas are autographed, either with the names of the women who made them or indicating the relationship the kantha maker bore to the person for whom the kantha was intended. A few kanthas are inscribed with the names of the persons for whom they were made. A kantha in the Gurusaday Museum, Thakurpukur, West Bengal, for example, notes that it was made by Manadasundari for her father with her own hands. Another faridpur kantha, which contains scenes of the krishna legend, has the caption Bastraharan (the garment theft) under a scene of nude women sitting on a tree.
While the utilitarian kantha never ceased to be made, political upheavals, the availability of manufactured articles, and changing tastes led to a decline in richly embroidered kanthas in the early decades of the twentieth century. In recent years the interest in ethnic arts and crafts has encouraged a kantha revival in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. [Niaz Zaman]
Bibliography Gurusaday Dutt, Folk Arts and Crafts of Bengal: The Collected Papers, Seagull, Calcutta, 1990; Whitechapel Art Gallery, Woven Air: The Muslin and Kantha Tradition of Bangladesh, Whitechapel, London, 1988; Niaz Zaman, The Art of Kantha Embroidery, 2nd rev. ed., University Press, Dhaka, 1993.
About Nakshi Kantha
The word “kantha” originally suggests a light quilt of mild winters and cool monsoon nights. Though the concept exists in almost all parts of the world, the form of quilting that prevails in Bengal is unique and not only serves as a functional article but also represents the cultural identity and folk art of this land. It is essentially a women’s art since the development of kantha art emerged out of the creative expressions of rural women as gifts for loved ones. Several layers of used or worn out materials such as saris, lungis and dhotis are stitched together to make a single kantha. The colourful patterns and designs that are embroidered on these articles resulted in the name “Nakshi Kantha”- derived from the word “naksha” which refers to artistic patterns. Each of these kanthas represents the contents of a woman’s mind and is filled with romance, sentiment and philosophy.
Different forms of the running kantha stitch are named according to the pattern each creates. While each kantha has designs that are unique to its maker’s imagination, usually there is a basic traditional pattern. Some of the most common motifs used are: lotus, solar, moon, chakra or wheel, swastika, tree-of-life, kalka, water, mountain, fish, boat, agricultural items and animals (elephant, horses, peacocks, tiger, monkeys, etc).
Chok Par: eye border
Barfi Par: diamond border
Beki Par: wavy or bent
Nolok Taga: nose ring border
Maach Par: fish border
Chok Taga: eye motif border
Dheu Par: wavy border
Gaach Par: tree border
The revival of Nakshi Kantha has not only generated an interest and appreciation for this indigenous folk art of Bengal, but has also helped to provide a livelihood for thousands of rural women who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed. Aarong has played an instrumental role in reviving the kantha art since the late ‘70s by training and supporting thousands of rural women in its various centers, which focus specifically on the making of Nakshi Kantha and other products, made from this art. It has helped to make this invaluable art be integrated in Bangladesh’s cultural life and also promoted its value and recognition on an international level.