The Bengal Region
Bengal is a region in South Asia of shared historical, cultural and linguistic heritage which is defined by the Ganges river delta. This low lying region where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers enter into the Bay of Bengal is the largest river delta in the world. It is also one the most fertile places on earth with evidence of rice and cotton cultivation going back at least 4,000 years. In antiquity, it was known to the Greeks as Gangaridai and was regarded as the place that produced and exported the world’s finest woven cotton cloth. It was in Gangaridai where Alexander halted his expansion upon meeting an army of war elephants. The arts and culture of the region would be strongly shaped by the indigineous practices of first Hinduism and Buddhism and later influenced by Islam which would arrive via trade with the Abbasids. In addition to a common language, the Hindus and Muslims who now dominate the region have many shared narratives, rituals and concepts.
What is Kantha?
Kantha, which comes from “kontha” meaning rags or patched cloth in Sanskrit, is a Bengali folk tradition of embroidering textiles using recycled cloth. Traditionally, multiple scraps of white cotton cloth from old saris or dhotis (mens trousers) would be quilted together and embroidered using a variety of stitches but most notably the running stitch. In early pieces, the embroidery thread was carefully unraveled from the borders of older saris. Sometimes sari borders were even cut off and reattached around a finished Kantha. Planning and stitching a Kantha usually took months. It is a carefully considered and expressive art which symbolizes the experience and aspirations of its maker through the labor of craft.
The tradition of Kantha dates back at least to the 16th century with the earliest mention found in “Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita” a written account of a Hindu saint. The oldest surviving Kantha date only to the early 19th century, which is still considerable when taking into account their construction from scrap material and their functional purpose. Traditional forms of art in Bengal culture tend to be much more ephemeral. Alpona are temporary drawings done in rice paste and are similar to the practice of making Rangoli throughout India. Both are often associated with rituals and done during festival times but can also be undertaken as wishes for protection of loved ones, a good harvest, dedication to a certain deity or as a celebratory gesture. It is thought that many Kantha motifs are derived from this practice.
Up until the later 20th century, Kantha were not produced commercially but limited to domestic and ritualistic use. They are subdivided into nakshi (figured) and para tola (patterned) and were made for household use, as gifts or for special ceremonies and festivals. Nakshi comes from the Bengali word, naksha, which refers to fine, aesthetic patterns and Nakshi Kantha were a vehicle for women to express themselves creatively. Using the cloth as a canvas they would carefully choose decoration steeped in cultural and religious symbolism to indicate their identity and social status as well as to illustrate their dreams and desires. It was an important and dignified way to express their ideas and opinions.
Global Trade & the Colonial Era
Beginning in the 13th century, Bengal would be ruled as a series of Islamic Sultanates. A large and powerful Hindu aristocracy would blend with the Muslim leadership to create a distinctive and syncretic Bengali culture with a thriving local and international trade. In 1576, Bengal was absorbed into the Mughal empire and was it’s wealthiest province. The empire conducted vast international trade which utilized both the silk road as well as burgeoning sea routes which connected directly with Europe. Foreign trading posts blossomed along the coast and domestic shipbuilding boomed. By the mid 18th century, Bengal was building ten times the number of ships that were produced in the American colonies. During this period the Mughals also accounted for more than a quarter of global GDP with better living conditions than Western Europe. Bengal itself was responsible for half of this amount and was the global center for cotton, silk and muslin textile production. This would prove to be a high water mark as Mughal power weakened following the sacking of Delhi by the Persians and the rise of regional powers.
By this point many foreign trading posts had become relatively autonomous and operated as fiefdoms controlled by militarized European corporations such as the British East India Company (The Company). While the Mughal Empire crumbled, European colonial powers became engaged in the Seven Years War. The conflict spanned the globe with direct conflict on the Indian Subcontinent and led to The Company opportunistically taking control of Bengal in 1757. This would begin the century-long reign of The Company as it spread throughout the subcontinent and began a period of unbridled resource extraction. As territorial holdings expanded The Company continued to center trade in Bengal. The region, which was one of the first proto-industrial areas in the world, would quickly de-industrialize leading to a period of widespread death, devastation and cultural upheaval. Financed by European and local Indian banking interests, The Company ran Bengal much like a large plantation and concentrated workers for indigo, silk and rice export production while neglecting domestic needs.
By 1769, Bengal experienced one of the worst famines in history leading to millions of deaths and the loss of up to one third of the population according to reports by Bengal’s Governor Warren Hastings. During company rule, centuries old artistic traditions disappeared as middle class marketplace became nonexistent. Tensions accumulated over the decades reaching a breaking point during the nationwide Indian Rebellion of 1857. The rebellion was suppressed but direct control of the country would be transferred to the crown as the British Raj.
The Division of Bengal
Though devastated by looting and famine under the reign of the British East India Company, Bengal remained a economic, cultural and educational hub under the British Raj. The end of the 19th century saw an intellectual reawakening in Bengal with advancements in science, literature and the arts. This led to many social and cultural changes with the growth of the middle class and a growing sense of cultural pride. In this backdrop the practice of Nakshi Kantha thrived and many surviving Nakshi Kantha date from the period. These imaginative cloths where invaluable in capturing aspects of the regions collective memory from the perspective of the average Bengali.
In 1903, the British Raj would partition Bengal into Muslim and Hindu sections as part of a divide and rule strategy. This led to widespread unrest and would ultimately be annulled in 1911. There was much damage done and the seeds had been sowed for both the national indepence movement and the later partition. Initially centered in Bengal, the broader movement against colonial rule was comprised of many smaller movements including some advocating for a separate Muslim state. British imperial power would decline during the two world wars as Indian autonomy and self determination strengthened. In 1947, Britian would grant India independence partitioning it into two countries along religious lines and without taking into account langauge, ethnicity or culture. Partition led to one of the largest population exchanges in human history as more than 10 million people migrated in both directions across the new borders in a matter of weeks. They was widespread violence, rape and choas with more than one million dead. Bengal would be split in two, with West Bengal joining Hindu majority India and East Bengal initially joining Muslim majority Pakistan. The new country of Pakistan separated geographically by one thousand miles, spoke different languages and had very distinctive cultures. After a brutal war of liberation causing further turmoil and resulting in half a million deaths, East Bengal would become the independent nation of Bangladesh.
The tradition of Nakshi Kantha had petered out and all but disappeared in the period leading up to partition. Soon after the founding of Bangladesh there would be a revival in the practice. Both non profit and for profit cooperatives were formed with some still active to this day. Most of the current production is created with new as opposed to recycled materials and are intended as artwork for commercial sale. Although these pieces have lost their functional domestic purposes they continue to be a medium that communicates the stories of the Bengali people.
We sourced our information from: The Art of Kantha Embroidery by Niaz Zaman, The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, Kantha: Recycled and Embroidered Textiles of Bengal by R. Sidner, C. McGowen, P. Pal & J. Gillow, Semiotic Study of The Motifs in Nakshi Kantha by Ruhee Das Chowdhury, Making Kantha, Making Home by Pika Ghosh, Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and the Stella Kramrisch Collections: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Chantal Jumel’s Eight post series on Alpona, Threads – a documentary about contemporary Kantha, The Ajam Media podcast and Hali Magazine