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Kantha – The intricately embroidered quilt of Bengal

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That soft and embroidered fabric with exquisite designs, that probably remind us of our granny’s love and our childhood winters. Yes, we are talking about Bengal’s quintessential quilt, Kantha, and the exclusively embroidered Nakshi Kantha. If you wish to see a plethora of such Kantha work under one roof, you must drop in at the Kantha Museum of Kolkata. 

The art of stitch-work has been practiced in Bengal for centuries. Krishnadas Kaviraj, a scholar from the medieval age had mentioned about Kantha in Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitramrita. Traditionally, materials that were used to make kanthas were old saris, lungis and dhotis. Ladies of the house in rural Bengal were expert in this art and still in some corners they make it before a newborn’s arrival.

While, Nakshi Kantha is an exclusive art form, that reached a literary height in poet Jasimuddin’s Nakshi Kanthar Maath. In Nakshi Kantha the weaving starts from a focal point where the stitching starts. Although there is no specific symmetry, the stitch-work spreads across the garment around this focal point. For example, many kanthas have lotus as a focal point. Around that point, floral motifs and undulating vines are stitched with impeccable accuracy. There are also other subjects covered through hand-made motifs, such as birds, animals, fish, or even personal articles.

One of the primary objectives of the Kantha Museum located at Ambedkar Bhavan, Salt Lake is to commemorate and acknowledge the contributions of artists who developed, nurtured and promoted the Kantha art in Bengal. This is evident from various Nakshi Kantha displays on its walls, telling stories through invigorating patterns. Even American art historian Stella Kramrisch regarded Kantha very highly. According to Kramrisch, the kanthas of Bengal are saturated with numinous power, reflecting the shakti of the region, expressed delicately through innumerable disciplined stitches.

The museum has a great collection of Nakshi kanthas, some of which are more than 150- year-old. Each of the kanthas sport a distinct aesthetic tone and unique stitch-work vocabulary. These vividly express the cultural heritage of old rural Bengal. One of the kanthas, spread about 6 feet wide and displayed, behind a glass pane, shows the rural scene with its signature warmth, via embroidery.  Ponds, little plants, village people, animals etc. dwell on Kantha work in simplistic yet engrossing designs.

This museum was built by state government’s Backward Classes Welfare Department to showcase the sheer beauty of this rapidly depleting art. Artworks of Swapna Khatun, Putul Das, Masuda Sultana, Sima Lohar, Najmin Khatun, Manju Das and others who are all from rural Bengal find an expression at the museum. So, if you are passionate about the dying art forms of Bengal, this is truly a place to dig through and learn more.