Unique weaves of the East – III
There are days when I shuffle my cupboard, take out old clothes which are of no use anymore, pack them in a box and give them away. I do feel bad for my old clothes. Let’s be honest, we always want to keep everything that we buy, with us, forever. But sooner or later we have to give them away. On one such cupboard cleaning experience, a thought brewed in my mind. Why can’t I recycle my old clothes? There are so many ways in which we can still use them. For example, take an old dupatta, do a tie and dye print on it, add some mirror work embroidery and you have something new! I remember long ago, my angry mom had told me how beautifully rural women would recycle old pieces of cloth and I should learn something from them! Apparently, they used to stitch different cloths together, rather rags together, to make quilt, shawls, dhotis for their family. That running stitch was known as Kantha embroidery. After that I looked upon Kantha embroidery and since then I am completely in love with this beauty. It is by far the most popular form of embroidery in West Bengal 🙂
Through my earlier posts, you are well aware that my Bengali genes just makes me lucky enough to have inherited all the beautiful fabrics of the East. Thankfully, mom had a Kantha sari which looked magnificent. I read up more on the art and decided to blog about it.
This time, I have collaborated with the talented team at Vivarang: www.vivarang.com. They are a powerhouse of beautiful Indian Handloom with expertise in – Kantha, Ikkat, Madubani and Kutchwork. They were kind enough to send me across their beautiful Kantha stitched sari and stole. I was so overwhelmed to see the beautiful handwork that I wanted to buy all that they had. Check out their website and you will know what I am talking about.
It is so difficult to believe that this beautiful embroidery was born out of necessity to drape or protect against the cold. The word “Kontha” in Sanskrit means rags.
A little background:
Kantha is perhaps the oldest forms of Indian embroidery as it can be traced back to the first and second A.D. The thought behind this needlework was to reuse old clothes and materials and turn them into something new. This is what makes kantha embroidery one of its kind. Kantha work is approximately 500 years old, and there is a myth surrounding it which points out that Lord Buddha and his disciples used old rags with different kinds of patch work to cover themselves with at night. This gave the kantha embroidery its origin. Traditionally women would take four to five sarees, layer them together and create different running stitches on them which they then used as blankets to cover their children with. The fabric used is discarded cloth, usually from worn out cotton saris, the thicker the cotton or number of layers, the coarser the embroidery.
Since I got to work with a sari and a stole, I could bring forward the influence of this art form in the modern world while keep its ethnicity maintained. The stole was used to show the modern trend of mixing western with an age old Indian embroidery and the sari was used to enhance the beauty of the art form in its quintessential Indian avatar.
Since day to day life was the biggest source of inspiration behind this craft, I decided to use the stole for the regular working woman. The woman who goes out to work everyday and has so much potential to become the style icon at her workplace. The stole which has gorgeous and unique kantha embroidery details, was used with an orange crop top and paired with loose flared pants. The entire outfit was elevated because of the stole.
About the design and motifs: Motifs is the winner in Kantha embroidery. The designs may be roughly divided into illustrations of epic and folk stories, ritualistic motifs, luxuriant vegetation of woods, with animals roaming and deer running, peacocks dancing, houses with balconies filled with peoples, temples with friezes, articles of daily use like caskets, baskets, nutcrackers, hukkas, beds, umbrella, pitcher, comb, mirror, candelabra, personal items like costumes and jewellery, vehicles like chariots, palanquins, elephant with howdahs, horses with saddles. An unusual fact to note is that figures of deities are rarely done in Kantha.They seem to be represented by their vahanas-vehicals-which have a significance of their own. These are nandi the bull, peacock, swan, elephant, lion, cat, mouse, garuda-theeagle, owl etc. Lotus is the most important amongst motifs and usually fills the centre of piece. An overall lotus pattern is sometimes built up by alternating red and black petals.
The technicalities of the art: The real Kantha embroidery is doorukha- double faced- a style in which the stitches are so skillfully made that the details of each design appear identical on either side. ordinarily however, when the stitch is of great length, it is broken one or more times by making a short stitch on the reverse, giving a dotted appearance, thus making the forms and designs that appear on one side become complementary to those on the other side.
The thread used for embroidery – white and colors are taken from the woven border of the basic fabric. These are then used for stitching and embroidery. Five and six threads put into the needle, to cover the entire surface. The threads are drawn so close across the surface in one direction that the edges of several pieces are practically imperceptible, and they give a wavy rippled look to the surface. Mainly traditional colors like black, deep blue and red which symbolize the three basic qualities and also correspond to the three aspects of nature earth, sky and space.
As mentioned earlier, motifs play an important role in creating a beautiful piece. The gorgeous black saree from Vivarang has used the peacock and flower illustrations all over the sari. One look and you know it is something to keep for a lifetime. I did not want to mess with the sari by adding bling to it. The conventional blouse was kept aside. I used a turtle neck top (black of course) to place against the heavy work of the sari. This helped bringing forth the beauty of the work. In addition to this a chaand bali earing and a golden cuff was used to accessorize the look.
It is great to know that people are helping in saving this age old art form from dying. For decades Kantha embroidery has been the source of income for the rural women living in West Bengal. However, the literal face behind the revival of this skill and technique is Shamlu Dudeja, who is a revolutionary and teacher, and more importantly the one who realized the importance of this craft work. She took great initiatives in the early 80s’ to empower the rural women of Bengal who practiced the art of Kantha embroidery and encouraged them to take it more seriously and professionally which then helped to lay a strong foundation in making this stitch work more popular and sought after. Source (http://www.utsavpedia.com/)
The different varieties: There are 7 different types of Kantha stitches. Which makes it so admirable.The first kind is the Lep Kantha, which is used to make warm, padded quilts. Then there is the Sujani Kantha which is used to make bed covers for ceremonial occasions. Baiton Kantha is used on covers meant to wrap books and other precious objects. Oaar Kantha is used on pillow covers, while Archilata Kantha is used for covering mirrors and usually comes with colorful motifs and borders. Durjani Kantha is small pieces used to make the insides of a wallet, and the last kind is the Rumal Kantha which is used to cover plates, and come with a lotus motif right in the center.
The current scenario: Kantha embroidery has definitely taken the fashion industry by storm. Sharbari Datta, an Indian fashion designer, has displayed beautiful ensembles of Kantha work, along with other Indian traditional embroideries, in several of her fashion shows. She took the traditional Kantha embroidery and gave it a unique twist by including it on, dhotis, kurtas, sherwanis and even hot pants! Moreover, Hillary Clinton, on one of her visits to India, was greatly impressed by the rich cultural display in Bengal, especially through its embroidery and handicraft. In one of the fashion shows she attended, she fell in love with the exquisite displays of Kantha embroidery. This kind of embroidery truly marks a flair for style in any individual who wears it, while maintaining the appeal of comfort and leisure.(http://www.utsavpedia.com/)
One of the coolest things about an ancient art form is how one can keep innovating them. Kantha has been one of the most favourites amongst the fashionistas who have always taken fashion to a different level.
Earlier, Kantha work mainly used to be birds, animals and florals, but with time and modernization, the work has evolved. One can now see Egyptian motifs, cave art and also pop done in Kantha embroidery. This is how beautifully you can make the weave survive till the end of time.
The best part about Kantha embroidery is it’s wear ability quotient. And that is exactly what I have done in this post. This embroidery can adapt to any occasion, work, party, wedding, festival and so much more.
Kantha embroidery is not just limited to garments. They have made their way to bed-sheets, cushion covers, durries, floor mats, table covers and curtains.
Another fabulous insight which made me happy was the maintenance part of it. Maintaining a kantha garment/household item is no rocket science. It is good with a normal hand-wash or machine wash (unless specified otherwise).
I am glad, Vivarang gave me a chance to write about this. It is so nice to see Indian embroidery taking the fashion world by storm, internationally. I hope many of us will give Indian handloom a chance to survive by inheriting our mother’s, grandmother’s closet or just buying them so that the coming generation do not get lost in an era of westernization.
Black Kantha Saree and Stole by: Vivarang
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/vivarangindia/
Other outfits and accessories: My own
Sameer Lodhi – https://www.facebook.com/sameer.lodhi?fref=ts
Priyadarshini Mitra – https://www.facebook.com/priyadarshini.mitra?fref=ts