Kantha, an old ingenious art form originating in Bengal, is slowly emerging again from the edge of extinction. It is said to be over 1000 years old and has been mentioned in Vedic and pre-Vedic literature. Kantha originated as an art form where stories (katha) of the villages and the people were woven on cloth. Believed to have had religious importance, it is now a source of livelihood for thousands of rural women and men.
This unique art is passed down through generations and it involves an utmost labour-intensive process as each individual needs to use their bare hands to weave the intricate stitches.
Farah Khan, reviver of Katha embroidery from rural Bengal, says, “This art-form would have been on the verge of extinction but for a few individuals who helped revive and re-revived multiple times in history. From something that would merely fuel the local economy, it has become of great commercial value and has manifested demand nationally and internationally.”
Talking about her love for Kantha, Khan says, “I had read fascinating stories about Rabindranath Tagore and about the rich culture and artistic heritage of West Bengal. I wanted to explore the so-called rural paradise. As my journey began, I was sad to see that the indigenous art form of Kantha was on a decline. The products made were not appropriate for the present market. The artisans used very old designs that had lost their charm to the new buyers. There were very few buyers as Kantha was not famous.”
Most artisans didn’t know the value of their own crafts and lived in remote areas, thus they were not connected to buyers in the cities. There were hundreds of them--skilled yet unemployed. Khan explains, “I felt that their skill was so much better than the run of the mill, machine-made clothing. Kantha hand embroidery is as intricate and as interesting as Kashmiri embroidery but it was nowhere in popularity as compared to Kashmiri products. An embroidered Pashmina shawl would cost one lakh rupees but a very similarly embroidered Kantha dupatta would be sold for maximum eight to nine thousand rupees.”
In general, Bengal textile was going through a slump. Khan could see all the techniques were available but there was not much experiment done apart from the making of traditional kantha saari. The market for Kantha saaris at that point was also shrinking as there were few Bengali women who would buy these saaris. In other cities, the fashion conscious women considered Kantha as outdated and boring.
Khan explains, “The history and craft of Kantha made me fall in love with it, and I decided I would bring it to the world and ensure it gets the recognition it deserves. I strongly felt that there was a need to support the local craft communities, promoting indigenous craft and preserving their heritage.”
Khan’s love for Kantha makes her travel to deep inside remote villages to meet hundreds of elderly women artisans to find out how the art's decline happened and what could be done to bring back its lost glory.
Hurdles in Kantha world
This indigenous art form would have died if not for the efforts of a few individuals who were keen to revive and sustain it. In early 1940s, a revival of Kantha was spear headed by Protima Devi, daughter in law of Rabindranath Tagore, as a part of rural reconstruction programme. Unfortunately, once again after the partition of East and West Bangladesh, Kantha suffered and declined. Many master karigars moved from India to Bangladesh.
Very few women and designers are working in the field of Kantha. Due to this, very low quality of Kantha was available and eventually, people lost interest in this art form. "I was extremely surprised to note that there was not even a single store in Kolkata selling exclusively kantha products," Khan says.
Khan explains that the handicrafts sector is unorganised and has very poor exposure to new designs and technologies, absence of marketing facilities, poor infrastructure and institutional framework because of which the growth of the sector is paralysed. Faraway villages without proper transport facility make the business very difficult. Hence, very poor quality of kantha products was sold in the market.
“Some good Kantha that is produced was available in few boutiques was extremely expensive which could not be purchased by middle and upper middle class, leaving a huge gap in the industry. I decided to bridge this gap. My prime focus was to give Kantha a new look and a new identity. I dreamt of popularizing Kantha nationally and internationally,” adds Khan.
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