Bangladesh is a land that belongs to one of the richest civilizations of the world. It is heir to a legacy of folk art that dates back to ancient times. The first in depth notation of Bengal kantha is found in the book “Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita” by Krishnada Kaviraj and was written five hundred years ago. Kantha making has been a a practice of rural women of Bengal for many centuries and can be traces back to the early looms of the medieval Bengal. However the name “nakshi kantha” became popular amongst the urban literates after the publication of the poem “Nakshi Kanthar Math” by Jasimuddinmin in 1929. I would like to touch upon the consequential significance of artistic folk heritage of Bangladesh before elaborating on the ingenious textile tradition of kantha. Eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh, was colonised by great imperialist powers and subsequently subjected to Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian rulers. It is therefore reasonable to claim that the union of multicultural fusions derived from varied philosophical teachings influenced our folk tradition. Over the past centuries the vast primarily rural people of Bengal has continued to exercise folk traditions as a reflection of their living heritage. Certainly it is also fair to say that the pulsating poetic manuscript paintings of ancient Bengal were a great source of inspiration to the ensuing living arts in this region. Nakshi kantha is an imaginative original textile art form but it has been influenced by other brilliant rural crafts such as our terracotta plaques, Lakkhi shara, patachitro and alpona.
The origin of the word kantha does not have a distinct clear derivative root in Bengali.
Kantha may find its source of lineage from the word “khet” that means field in Bengali. The term kantha may have also originated from sanscrit “kontha” defining re-cycled fabrics as traditionally these are created with discarded materials. It may have also stemmed from “kotha” meaning words as decorative pieces on most occasions are like personal journal and a private memoir. It was not meant for public display. It was a beautiful art crafted with dedicated enthusiasm as some pieces may have taken years to complete. It was usually developed extemporarily and instinctively. It was obviously meant for personal use. Surprising made by all stratus of rural women from the landless to the landed gentry many women showed a keen interest to create their extraordinary piece on their leisure time. Probhas Sen has mentioned in his book that Kantha is described in the definitive Sanskrit grammar written by Panini around 6th century B.C. and also in the Ramayana of Valmiki about two centuries later. The earliest mention of kantha in Bengali literature is clearly found in the Charyapadas- the earliest known verses in an old form of Bengali that prevailed from the 8th to 11th centuries A.D.
Kantha has remained an integral part of our lifestyle just as Chandraboti, Nathgitika, Chaitennocharitamrito, Ramayana, Paddaboti and baul songs. The dreams and desires of a rural Bengali woman transcends in colour upon her needlework. It is a chronicle that narrates her story. It is truly her personal expression. It is a two-dimensional piece of textile but surprisingly the composition and perspectives have given rise to a unique juxtaposition of forms and figures. It may have close interrelation to potochitro or the depictions on the terracotta temples of Bengal. On a close introspection we come to realize that kantha motifs are hand picked purposefully depending on the end use of the product. The first kind is purely a documentation of her fantasy; her creative imagination is captured in stills of passing visions. The streams of thought are placed in a scattered or sprinkled fashion as in a dream planted in her field of illustration.
The second kind was developed for her personal utility. Recycled saris and dhotis were the only sources of material for kanthas. The coloured threads are pulled out of the borders to be re-sewn into the fabric in a desirable fashion that is original. Some of the commonly used coloured yarns were red, black, yellow, blue, and brown and as soon as the needle is threaded the rest is left to her imaginary mind's eye. Thus begins the kantha art quite spontaneously. The main purpose of kantha stitch is for the mere beauty of the formation and the second is to improve the binding strength of the layers of fabric. The stitches slowly develop the piece and this aesthetically enriches the surface pattern. The stitches are known as “fhor” but sometimes also called “taagas”. The kantha stitches are commonly called running, double running, tesra, bokkhea, bashpata, beki, leek, borfi, chatai, kuchi, bhorat, crochet, gaat, patch, chain, herringbone etc. These stitches are associated in the making of spreads and other home accessories such as winter throws, tableware, child wraps, cases for blankets, floor covering as an over-spread, satchel, knapsack, prayer mats, puja mats, purses, beetle leaf box covers, handkerchief, mirror covers and as casings.
The surface patterns are variant in decorative figurines but it also shows religious overtones and connotations. The illustrations of Sri Shoptorothi Abhirman's battle, Sri Ram and Rabon's battle scenarios, mythological characters, Devi Durga seated on her lion, Parboti Leela, the romance of Sri Krishno and Sri Radha and so on. It also common to find fantasy florals, the tree of life, ornamental paisleys and peacocks as exquisite motifs. We will locate other prevailing familiar stories of the time. Marching soldiers, nauch girls, musicians, seated female figures, secular or common devotional motifs such as sun, moon, lotus and wave ripple of infinite motion and swastika as a symbol of universal goodwill. Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu women illustrates with their unique origins and source of divine theologies. Household objects such as beetle leaf, hair comb, mirror, scissors, oil lamps, hand fans are all commonly used motifs. Women are not confined by motifs they are no limitation. The women of Bengal work with artistic freedom to make their kantha. It is also important to note that a figurative kantha may be viewed from any angle almost like a vista or panoramic bird's eye view. They epitomize and display their environment her paddy fields, rivers, mango and other fruit growing trees, rituals and festivals. It shows much symbolism as certain plants metaphorically represents certain Gods. Kadam flower for Krishna, rice stalks for Lakkhi, sun for Vedic Gods, bull for Shib, and lion for Durga. Many other motifs were as we might say today in vogue or all the rage such as elephants, horses, tigers, lions, parrot, cats, crocodiles, swans, butterflies and snakes. It can therefore be acknowledged that the rural women of Bengal used symbolism for faith as well as pictorials from their everyday life.
Finally it is important to mention that a third kind of kantha existed in Bengal. As early as the 18th and 19th centuries, commercial needle work in the style of kantha was in practice. The English and the Portuguese commissioned pieces to take home. These pieces depicted their experiences and lifestyle in India. Some of these kanthas are documented at the Victoria Albert Museum in London. One such piece was picked out from a market in Portugal. The authentication of signed values on these old pieces two hundred years ago is proof that they were sold in almost the same way we buy kantha today. This beautiful piece of textile radius in the region of Bangladesh and in West Bengal of India and it has been revived as a source of income generation for many rural women. We sincerely hope it will continue to empower and be an instrument of hope.
By Maheen Khan and Selim Ahmed
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Model: Airin and Tamona
Wardrobe & Jewellery (Tamona): Mayasir
Wardrobe (Airin): Kumudini