The Kantha is the passing of emotion and art, combining the love, fear, and hope of the homes in rural West Bengal. It is a distinct style of the Bengali embroidery of running stitches. Often used for a newborn, to wrap the child in a Kantha blanket and cover. The fragrance of an old sari of your grandmother or mother is reused with layers of soft cloth in between. It’s is a recycled form of embroidery as the thread used is pulled out of the old sari. All the women in Bengal villages learn this meticulous artwork of turning worn-out rags into beautiful blankets. This combination of frugal with the fabulous aesthetic is a sign that art resides in those nooks and corners of a poor home, where a child’s squall is treated with a lullaby because the jute or terracotta coin cache is empty. They wrap the child in a Kantha, praying to the spirit of the sun, moon and the skies above to keep her safe and healthy.
When the evening sets its crimson over the pond with the lotus and the moss. You find mothers wrapping their newborn in those covers and lighting the kerosene lantern signing the Laxmi hymn. Lest bad times fall on her baby and her home.
Often mothers start making a Kantha when the daughters have reached puberty to gift her during her marriage. It’s a ritual practised in rural Bengal. The dead are also wrapped in a Kantha before the cremation. I marvel, as I see this play of life and death with a form of embroidery that has been passed on through generations.
Today there are beautiful exquisite Kantha saris that one would wear with elan. The base is Tussar or cotton with the play of running stitches over it. Those running stitches have a story of flowers, peacocks, parrots, other birds and motifs over the fabric.
I spoke to Shabnam who hails from Murshidabad and she runs the Street Survivors endeavour in bringing women together who are creating different styles of Kantha embroidery to earn a livelihood.
She spoke passionately about the women who are returning what they learnt from their grandmothers and mothers.
The Kantha teaches us that old torn & worn out fabric has the softness and comforting feeling of a mother’s lap. As she shields you from the raging sun and the drenching rain. You know the cover that you create is one from your past. Of watching your grandmother stitch and sing even after losing her husband and watching her children abandon her. She sings into the needle with her old worn saris. Because those saris have a story and the scent of her transition from the matriarch to the woman shorn of colour, sexual longing, and any indulgence called living and life.
As she looks with her broken glasses into the spit softened thread to put into the needle eye. I see her surrender to her fading femininity and what remains is her acceptance that she is no longer needed, as much anymore.