Book review: A journey through patches and stitches

Embroidering Futures, re-purposing the Kantha, explores an art form that has evolved over the years to become a style and status symbol, with humble beginnings in the environmental friendly practices of the women of Bengal.


This art form has evolved over the years to become a style and status symbol. But its beginnings lie in the environmental friendly practices of the women of Bengal.

Pranati Roy of the Lalgola zamindar family of Murshidabad reminisces about those days when her husband, Biremdra Narayan Roy, was gifted with hand-embroidered kanthas as tokens of love, respect and loyalty by the Muslims villagers of Panchgram, Nabargram, Jiyaganj and Jangipur, when he was elected as the Member of the Legislative Assembly for five consecutive terms. Similarly, Indranath Majumdar’s collections of two beautiful pieces – arshilata kantha and the 4/6 feet torn quilt, whose borders had been separated from the body through over-use, were constantly mentioned by my fashion-conscious friends of West Bengal. Less fashionable than my friends, I couldn’t realize their craze for the kantha nor the importance of Mrs Roy’s nostalgia or Mr Manjumdar’s priceless possession, till I laid my hands on Embroidering Futures, Repurposing the Kantha, launched by Sudha Murthy, chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, edited by Ritu Sethi and published by India Foundation for the Arts with support from the Infosys Foundation. Concise yet beautifully woven, the book brings out the fact about the closeness and informal relationship that existed between the giver and receiver of the gift of the kantha.

Embroidering Futures, Repurposing the Kantha, traces the journey of the kantha—a special form of embroidery mostly popular in Bangladesh and West Bengal–from the time it was born, to its present avatar. Mrs Roy and Mr Majumdar’s stories and their love for this art form further intrigued my curiosity to know more about kantha, its origin and what it meant to the people of that era. One amazing fact that I came across while reading this book was that, centuries before people across the globe thought about recycling resources, women in Bengal were far ahead of their times. They collected old and tattered sarees and stitched them together with coloured threads into usable bed linen, dust covers and duvets. This further strengthened my belief that our ancestors were more intelligent and creative than us, despite the lack of technical know-how and “sophisticated” knowledge.

The book took me through the journey of how this art form travelled from the homes of Bengali women to shops and high-end boutiques, and the shift and transformation it undertook to become one of the most expensive haute couture of Indian origin. Through the narrations and recollections of collectors, inheritors, designers and producers of this unique piece of embroidered cloth, the book explores and documents the evolution of kantha, something which every Indian should be proud of.  While exploring the needs to ensure its continued survival, the book elucidates not only the richness and the history of the kantha, which was widespread in undivided Bengal, cutting across social, economic and religious divides, but also touches upon the vulnerability of this aesthetic art form. The fragility of its existence, I personally thought could be due to the worn-out nature of the fabrics used in the making of the kantha. The tropical climate has influenced kantha as well.

The book compelled me to delve into the past. I was introduced to the existence of an entirely different type of quilt which was more lavishly embroidered and used as a bedspread or canopy; they were the pride of the wealthy patrons. The first reference to such a luxury textile is attributed to Vasco da Gama who stated that when he visited Melinde in East Africa in 1502, the ruler of the state gifted him a white embroidered bed-canopy and said that it was made in Bengal.

In the chapter The Changing Kantha, one can envisage that despite the political uncertainty and economic hardship, Bengal’s kantha invested itself with new significance on both sides of the border, thus becoming a symbol of cultural continuity and authenticity. Ruby Pal Choudhuri and Shamlu Dudeja, the two writers talk about their foray into the world of kantha, and in the process describe the efforts put in by organizations like the Crafts Council of West Bengal and Mallika’s Kantha in Kolkata to revive the fading tradition. Their thrust on the revival was so strong that today, it has generated employment for thousands of women. With their gripping narration, I could sense the contribution of kantha in solving the economic problems of rural Bengal to some extent.

But Ritu Sethi’s Repurposing the kantha, asks a pertinent question about the challenges that confront kantha embroiderers and the future of kantha.  Her findings reveal that the kantha has mutated and moved a long way from its original avatar. There’s no doubt about the fact that the ascetic parched quilts and garments, the simple darning stitch has occupied a special space in the wardrobes of urban Indians.

After a week, empowered with a renewed interest in kantha, and sipping a cup of tea, I looked down on the road from my balcony in the first floor of my rented apartment in Bangalore. To my surprise, I saw my neighbour draped in a crimson saree which was embellished with embroidered kanthas that enhanced her style and beauty. Never before had I noticed the colour and design of her saree.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A freelance writer, who has worked with some of India's leading newspapers like The Times of India, Deccan Herald and The Sunday Guardian. She is an avid reader and traveller. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A freelance writer, who has worked with some of India's leading newspapers like The Times of India, Deccan Herald and The Sunday Guardian. She is an avid reader and traveller. more
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