Kantha literally means rags. Old sarees stacked together and stitched over with a running stitch. Super soft, mother’s sarees, sarees with all the careworn smells and emotions of a mothers love filters through. Children know surely and instinctitively, their mother’s touch, her breath, her heartbeat. My sister always slept with my ma’s saree clutched in her hands. Once when my parents were travelling we stayed at my aunt’s place. We forgot the saree. No other saree pacified her till we got the original, a tattered piece.
The power of mother’s love sewn together for generations. It was like the patchwork quilts of many cultures of many communities since the days of yore, an intimate together activity in many narratives. The simple running stitch exists but also with it are variations overlapping, intertwining threads to create a cross patch, water, grains, fish, eyelets, diamonds.
Motifs of the nakshi kantha are deeply influenced by religious beliefs and culture. Even though no specific strict symmetry is followed, a finely embroidered nakshi kantha will always have a focal point. Most will have a lotus as focal point, and around the lotus there are often undulating vines or floral motifs. The motifs may include images of flowers and leaves, boats, footprints, Raths, Mosques, birds and fish, animals, the moon, kitchen implements, even toilet articles like a comb or mirror.
The beautiful motifs from nature and mythology adorn this piece of art. Lullabies, family lineage even socio-political histories are intricately embroidered. The sheer personality, belief, thought processes, even history of each person and family stitched together. It is made for Hindu prayers as well as reading Namaz. As an art form, it is truly secular.
While traditional motifs are repeated, the individual touch is retained in the variety of stitches, colours and shapes. Some allegorical motifs found are the lotus as the symbol of the recreating power of life, it is associated with purity and the goddess Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune and abundance. The Wheel represents order and the world. The tree of life symbolises the God within, embodying the power of fecundity. The Pipal is sacred to the Buddha because he received enlightenment under its shade. The kalka or paisley originated in Persia and Kashmir and has now become an integral image of the subcontinental decorative text.
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. Quilt (lep in Bengali), Puja floor spread (Ason in Bengali) Prayer mats (Jainamaz in Bengali) , Cosmetic wrapper (Arshilota in Bengali) , Wallet (Batwa thoiley in Bengali) , Cover for Quran (ghilaf in Arabic and Bengali) Cloths wrapper (Bostani, guthri in Bengali) , Cover (Dhakni in Bengali), Ceremonial meal spread (Daster khan in Bengali), Pillow cover (Balisher chapa or oshar in Bengali), Handkerchief (Rumal)
References to Kantha are first found in the book "Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita" by Krishnadas Kaviraj, which was written five hundred years ago. Today the Gurusaday Museum, housing a single man’s personal collection of Bengal art has a phenomenal array of Kanthas, embroidered intricately. The rule of the British, scenes from nature and home. Most of these signed by the creator. These signatories are Muslims depicting the love of Krishna, a Hindu woman embroidering a gilaf for the Quran. Harmony, inclusion, secular togetherness much needed in our lives. A living testimony of those times. One wonders about how these artists lived, these incredibly talented women albeit in name only.