Bengal has an old tradition of Kantha embroidery. Kantha Embroidery of Bengal has enjoyed international repute for the fineness of the muslins woven in Dacca. With exquisite names like Running Water these were woven plain or patterned with thicker threads of white cotton providing opaque patterns on the fine ground. The jamdani again white on white, was woven by a brocading technique. The embroidery of Dacca followed the same process. The pallus and borders of Kantha sarees were finely embroidered with the same motifs of the cypress, leaf and stem used by the weaver. In addition to the white on white was the natural colour of wild silk thread to provide richness and a light and shade effect to the work. Silver-gilt wire was sometimes used to enhance the effect.
The Bengal Kantha Embroidery is done on Shawls, sarees, coats, girdles in this way. Stem stitch, running stitch, long and short stitch, chain stitch, laid work of silver gilt wire over a padded foundation of yellow cotton thread all went to augment the woven design of the fabric for Kantha embroidery was done on both plain and patterned materials creating effects of subdued richness and elegance.
The bedspreads and hangings that found so much favour with Western clients were made of fine cotton cloth filled with finely ginned cotton and were embroidered with yellow silk on the entire surface. The Kantha embroidery was done with Tussar, Muga or Eri yarn which was unknown in the West which was cognisant only with fine cultivated silk yarn.
The fascinated buyers were very close to the folk art of Bengal. Along with indigenous, mythological and secular themes are those that show the Portuguese engaged in various activities, including the hunt, with their own countrymen as well as with Indians. In the old Indian tradition of painting the narrative unfolds in self- contained panels; the hierarchical character of the work reveals itself in enlarging the most important figures so that they dwarf the entire landscape.
The Kantha workwas done at Satgaon, the old mercantile capital of Bengal, which from 1537 onwards lost its pre-eminence to the port of Hughli founded by the Portuguese.
The tratition Kantha stitches can be found in modern Kantha Sarees. Chain stitch, back stitch, knot stitch, open work produced by lines of back stitch pulled to produce small holes are all used in the natural colour of the silk.
The same tradition of quilting and embroidery, though in a more folkish form has persisted in Kantha Quilts of Bengal. The Kantha used as quilt, shawl, handkerchief, pillow cover, cover for mirror, combs and toilet articles, is made entirely by women and is a marvellous example of the recycling of waste material towards the production of artistic goods. Old, worn out sarees and dhotis are placed one above the other, the best ones on top, the rest providing the filling. The borders have previously been unpicked to yield the thread which would be used for the embroidery. The word Kantha itself means patched cloth.
The Kantha embroidery in Bengal is usually done in simple running and darning stitches worked through all the layers of the material to form a pattern both at the front and the back, is started at the centre usually with a lotus medallion. From this the work proceeds outward covering the whole surface with a variety of designs.
The surface not covered by the embroidery is often quilted with white running stitches made with five or six threads put into the needle to hold the material firmly together. The border is closely embroidered to provide a firm edge to the quilt. When the Kantha is finished it becomes a thick covering and it appears to be one piece of thick material rather than a number of fine ones welded together.
Herringbone, chain, satin, straight, double running, double darning, blanket stitch (for edges), couched are used in various combinations in different pieces.
The Kantha designs are a blend of religious and secular. Gods and Goddesses, human beings, lions and tigers, trees, flowers, nut crackers, hoodahs, beds, chariots, palanquins all blend cheerfully with a host of other motifs in various permutations and combinations.
A special kind of kantha has for its inspiration a weave that has long been discontinued. It exists now only in the kantha. By reproducing the same pattern in each row on a circular or linear arrangement by flat running stitches, the Kantha embroiderer skillfully creates an impression of a woven material. This perpetuation of the Kantha design could perhaps be explained by the fact that the original design was woven by women and when, for some reason, it lost its popularity as a commercial commodity other women came forward to keep it alive though in a non-commercial garb.
Applique also appears on Bengal kanthas, though rarely. Thin strips of colored cloth are stitched with tiny invisible stitches to form various designs. In large pieces the designs are bold and well defined while on items of personal use they are proportionately small and finely worked.
The making of the kantha provides the bengali women with an outlet for self-expression. Although the themes are similar, it is in the working that individuality shows through as in other places. This healthy competition brings liveliness and exuberance to what could easily become a lifeless and static craft.