Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo
A kantha is a great example of how you can upcycle your old clothes into something beautiful and functional. A handmade quilt, kantha is a long piece of cloth made of old rags - mostly old sarees - stitched together, carrying with it the essence of nostalgia and an old world charm.
In Sanskrit, the word kantha simply means 'rag', but the word has no confirmed etymological root. For centuries, rural women of Bengal stitched together discarded pieces of cloth, gossiping about all, and sundry as their hands were deftly and rhythmically engaged in the sewing process. Interestingly, the legendary kantha dorokha (two-sided quilt), which is considered as a priceless art form today, was what kept the poorest families warm during the cold months of winter.
For those living abroad, homemade kathas are a symbol of love, reminiscent of the beloved land and people left behind, carrying the scent of one's mother, the refuge that is hard to find anywhere else. Thus, it is interesting to note that the earliest known mention of a kantha can be found in Krishnadas Kaviraj's Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, a 500-year old manuscript, where he refers to the handmade quilt lovingly stitched and sent to him by his mother. A woman's artistic expressions, mostly hidden and suppressed by society, found their way in these handwoven quilts.
Eventually, a more elaborate tradition of creating nakshi kantha developed. Nakshi kanthas were originally made by women, who were not literate but wove stories into their quilts that would often take years to complete. A single kantha would be stitched by a generation of mothers, daughters and granddaughters; the motifs reflected the culture and traditions of yore, their legends and myths, upholding the essence of their womanhood while also asserting their untold desires of happiness, love, marriage, and fertility. The quilts would then be autographed by the needlewomen, as they either signed their names or indicated their relationship with the person for whom the quilt was created.
There is no particular grammar or symmetry to a nakshi kantha, but a finely embroidered nakshi kantha will always have a focal point. The central motif could be a lotus, or a reclining female figure, or animals, and surrounding them would be images of flowers and vines or saree border motifs. Because each of them presents a distinctive story of the kantha makers, no two nakshi kanthas are ever the same.
Each of these stitches creates a distinctive style and statement. Whether we use them as bed pallets or as light wraps, kanthas are a must-have for a Bangladeshi or a Bengali household.