sarees tell stories

when did the kantha become a saree

the simple run stitch. needle moving up, needle moving down, a stitch you see, a stitch you don’t, anyone can do this, of course, it’s not an art. it’s the everyday, good old run.

women untrained, housewives, aunties and grandmothers chatting together after lunch on a winter afternoon chewing their paan, they use it to make soft quilts with old sarees and dhotis. quilts called kantha. the “n” is a soft nasal one and the “a”s stretch long, and it’s “th” as in think.

kanthas are comfortable and light, layers of fine used cotton, even silk, held together by that one kind of stitch, in all sorts of patterns. usually, misshapen flowers and elephants and things or just rows of runs in many colours. babies are wrapped in kanthas, i had some made when my daughter was born. young women at ramakrishna mission’s matrisadan in calcutta, where a dear aunt of mine has been doing voluntary work for years, stitched them with white cotton fabric and red and blue thread.

kantha was not exotic or something to talk about. it was just a part of bengali life. a way of reusing good material, making soft things for tender skin. when did the swift, easy needle work become the kantha stitch, when did kantha become a saree?

i know the sarees didn’t exist when i was growing up. think it was around the late seventies that one started hearing about them. these beautiful pieces that were made only in shantiniketan, tagore’s university town. people would talk about the wonderful colour combinations of the threads. kantha makers were often playful with the yarn colours, the base being dull, since it was all used fabric. the women who saw the potential of this work and created the first sarees must have learnt a lot from the kantha makers themselves, who instinctively worked with threads and colours and motifs, making pretty quilts.

the motifs had a rustic, earthy feel. there were animals, birds, and flowers, scenes from villages. the fabric was more often than not tussar, and the stitch was mainly the run. most of all, they were known to be expensive. exclusive. so and so’s such and such knows a certain di in bolpur, shantiniketan, who’s also a member of the crafts council, and she got this saree specially made for so and so.

the kantha saree talk was always interesting. till it came along, bengal never had an embroidery to show off. we had the best of fabrics and weaves… don’t let me drone on about the muslin or the bishnupuri silk. but embroidery? alas, we had no kashmiri stitch, no phulkari, no mirror work, none of the several gujarati stitches, certainly no gara. and then suddenly, here was the simple run creating gorgeousness on a fabric.

over time, the boutique nature of kantha evolved. it became more easily available. but apart from the embroiderer’s dexterity, it really did need the eye of the designer to create the beautiful ones. you could go horribly wrong with the colours. or the motifs could get restricting after a point.

i was not to mad about kantha really. everything started looking the same soon. and often the colours were too loud or too dull. fifteen years ago, just before my fortieth birthday, i was in calcutta. those days i was not into buying sarees. i was at my aunt’s place, another dear aunt, who had been running a boutique for several years. i saw this kantha there and absolutely fell for it. it was on tussar, which had been dyed a richer shade of brown with a border of blue grey, the floral “jaal” was in similar shades with touches of olive, white, and black. my mother gave it to me for my birthday, relieved that i was beginning to show some interest in wearing sarees again.

wore the saree a couple of evenings ago. everyone asked me about it. and most of them were not indians. i have quite a few kanthas now. almost all from my aunt. a couple of them i bought elsewhere, not from large shops though, from some nice little boutique in calcutta.

i was thinking, the run because of its very simplicity perhaps is such a perfect stitch. it’s sound, it’s easy, it doesn’t overwhelm you, and it can be used to create almost any design you want. it doesn’t get in the way of your creativity, in fact it takes a back seat and lets your imagination take the lead.

my aunt says even now mainly women stitch the kanthas, often working from home. of course, there are middlemen and other stakeholders involved. sometimes the sarees are called nakshi kanthas (pronounced nokshi kantha if you’re bengali), from the word naksha, which means pattern or even map in hindi/urdu.

i know in bangladesh you get really outstanding nokshi kanthas. some have single thread work and the finest of little stitches. for the amount of work that goes into these sarees, you really pay very little. it seems almost unfair, it possibly is.

back to the run stitch, sorry, the kantha stitch. one on, on off… just two options. isn’t that a bit like the binary number system, which is used to write all computer codes and language everywhere in the universe, from the simplest to the most complicated? from the most cumbersome to the most clever and beautiful? okay, i don’t get computer language, coding, etc., at all, but let me go and get another kantha i’m thinking.

chhilo rumal, hoye gelo ekta beral!

was a hanky, became a cat!

~ sukumar ray, ho jo bo ro lo ~

while writing this, i was reminded of these lines from satyajit ray’s father sukumar ray’s delightful book of nonsense and fantasy.

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sarees tell stories | kantha sarees from raya’s boutique, calcutta, bought between 2000 and 2012.

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