The stories hidden in an ancient craft

Most traditional kanthas had an image of the Sun or a lotus as the central focal point. But the motifs used in kantha varied enormously, with characters from folklore and mythology, to elements of nature such as oceans, birds, animals, the tree of life, rivers and sealife, and the things the makers saw around them, such as palanquins, chariots, temples, mirrors and everyday objects like umbrellas.

Along with Indian inspirations, kantha was also influenced by colonial rule and Portuguese traders. Kantha with silken threads was created under Portuguese patronage, with motifs like sailing ships and coats of arms. A 19th-Century kantha at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi has motifs of playing cards, sahibs and memsahibs, chandeliers and medallions of Queen Victoria, side by side with scenes from Hindu mythology in which Shiva looks like a Madonna in a Christian painting, and Rama and Lakshmana appear as European boys.

Kantha also often represented a family’s hopes and aspirations, from weddings and happiness, to family and fertility. The light quilts were useful in the monsoon and winter and some were used as prayer mats. More elaborate examples were gifted as wedding dowries, made by mothers and grandmothers with their hopes, wishes and family histories graphically weaved in.

Each piece of kantha was unique as there were no formal rules. Although some symbols and motifs were universal, each design depended on the creator’s individual composition, technique and colour scheme. It was a handicraft that belonged to communities, and was never something that was commissioned by the royal family or rich landlords. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, under British colonial rule, many Indian handicrafts took a backseat, though kantha continued to be practiced among rural women.

Many public figures have shaped kantha’s journey over the years. In the 1940s, a revival of kantha was spearheaded by Pratima Devi, the daughter-in-law of the poet and Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, as a part of a drive to empower women in rural areas. Unfortunately, the Partition of India in 1947 led to  kantha declining again, as many people left from India to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, outside India, one US institution that has contributed to the revival of  kantha is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which preserved the kantha collection of Stella Kramrisch, a US art historian and curator, who had acquired an extensive collection during her time in India in the 1920s as a teacher in Santhiniketan.

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