Kantha is part of the four thousand year old living legacy of quilting in India. A timeless textile tradition, it dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization of the Bronze Age. It is a technique central to the Bengali area, spanning several Indian states and Bangladesh. There is a myriad of stitching styles, patterns and themes that vary based on region.
A utilitarian yet intimate practice, Kantha is sewn for loved ones to keep them safe from harm. Kantha, meaning “simple stitching” in Hindi, has a long and honored tradition. It is defined by the running stitch that bonds two or more sari fabrics together. The name kantha can refer to both the running stitch as well as to entire textile patchworks.
[Kantha are] a work that gives wholeness to things that were of no use anymore, to fragments without any significance.Quilts of India: Timeless Textiles by Patrick J Finn
Kantha was born out of ingenuity. The repurposing of valuable leftover fabric scraps is part of deeply rooted socio-religious customs and ritualistic dynamics attached to the alteration of cloth.
Much of kantha’s history is not documented in writing, instead passed along as an oral tradition. The earliest believed depiction is carved into a sculpture from the Kushana period, created sometime between first century BCE and second century CE. Because kanthas have a long history, it is difficult to pinpoint their original intended use. It appears they were first used for utility and practicality; other ornamental styles came later in history.
In various regions, the patchwork style has its own connotations. Certain Indonesian and Indian patchwork is associated with the Buddhist vow of poverty, whereas patchwork coats worn by Javanese shamen are said to carry potent magical connections. Meanwhile, patchwork jackets worn by the sultans of the city Yogyakarta, Java, have been handed down from father to son since the early nineteenth century. The Javanese believe this jacket made from fragments of old, auspicious textiles harnesses supernatural protective powers.
The Sadhu & The Magical Kantha
There is a tale about a sadhu, or holy man, who offered his carefully stitched kantha to a woman named Gitali and her child. Having lost her husband during a dreadful monsoon, Gitali is searching for refuge carrying only a lamp, two mangoes and her feverish son Viraj. Feeling helpless, she lights her lantern while they rest for the night and prays for her son. The sadhu appears before her, asking to share her light and in return offering the safety of his fire.
After a night of mangoes, music from the sadhu and the warmth of his shared kantha, Viraj’s fever breaks and Gitali feels renewed hope. Though the sadhu is nowhere to be seen, his flute, water pot and kantha remain to confirm her mysterious visitor. The rest of her day is filled with small miracles: more fruit is found in her bag along with a new sari for her and later she discovers the kantha is lined with money. In honor of the sadhu’s assistance, Gitali uses white threads from her old sari to stitch images of the night the sadhu saved them onto the kantha he left behind.
Because of this tale, kanthas are often attributed with transformative properties. White threads became the traditional color of stitches in a kantha piece. Kantha making is seen as a ritual, an action intended to catalyze physical, emotional or spiritual change by interacting with the divine.
Read more about how kantha stitches reinvigorate textiles by visiting our most recent post – Mieko Mintz: The Transformation of Saris.