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Kantha stitch: From passion to profession

Shehnaz Rokeb
04 May 2024 22:57:09 | Update: 04 May 2024 22:58:40
Kantha stitch: From passion to profession
— Shehnaz Rokeb

Saju, in the renowned poet Jasimuddin’s “Nakshi Kanthar Math” (1929), weaves through intricate tales of her life as she languishes in separation from her husband.

Long before, the poet had popularised the term (Nakshi Kantha), kantha stitching was being practised among women folk in rural areas.

Women particularly rural ladies after completing their household chores would engage in pursuing different kinds of stitching, crochet work, pitha-making etc. to make their lives effective and fruitful, beyond the mundane.

They not only nurtured their children and managed the household but had made a significant contribution to our culture; Kantha stitching is one such traditional art form in Bangladesh.

Nakshi Kantha, a source of Bangladeshi pride and recognition bears testimony of the immense contribution of women.

“Nakshi Kantha” or the embroidered quilt is a fundamental art form enriching and vivacious culture and heritage of Bangladesh. The roots of nakshi katha could be traced back to the medieval past of Bengal.

The art form developed as a means to recycle rags or clothes. Women used running stitches to hold onto the layered fabric, mostly using old sarees on top and layering it with varied old clothes befitting their needs.

Choosing the fabrics and layering them was vital as they were used to wrap it around for light cool evenings to bed. To ensure comfort and beauty they would pay special attention to layering the fabric.

Though quite strenuous and time-consuming, the ladies of the household would layer old clothes like sarees, lungis, etc, spread them in a veranda, ready to sew. The ladies of the household often gathered after finishing their household engagements to sew kanthas.

They would draw the line on the layered cloth to facilitate their stitching. The sewing, not only recycled old clothes but was a break from mundane activities and a way of socializing.

Through sewing they could vent their feelings, weaving their hopes and magnifying their aspiration and creativity in every piece of kantha.

Over the period, the simple art of the kantha stitching technique has been infused with intricate and sophisticated patterns into a variety of fabrics like cotton, silk, muslin making them into sarees, dresses, Panjabis, bedsheets, bedspreads, handbags, and tapestry which are being developed by small and large scale entrepreneurs.

As culture evolves, artisans and fashion designers are constantly refining the art form while reflecting and maintaining the rich, cultural and historical tradition.

Though kantha stitching is prevalent throughout Bangladesh; regions like Mymensingh, Bogura, Jamalpur, Bogura, Rajshahi, Faridpur, Jessore and Chittagong are noted for it. With the passage of time, the simple kantha stitch (running stitch) has incorporated a wide range of stitching to form “noksha” or design.

The resilience of these enthusiastic artisans has paved the way to incorporate multifarious motifs, colours, design borders etc. in their artwork. This shows the creative and open mind set of Bangladeshi artisans to imbibe innovations.

Documentaries like “Thread,” showcases an inspiring tale by Cathy Stevulak on Suraiya Rahman who have championed kantha stitch and empowered women.

It further enlightens us that our nakshi art is present in the permanent collections of Royal Collection Trust (UK) and in various museums of the world as they were presented as gifts to various dignitaries of the world.

There are countless Suraiyas in the making trying to overcome their hurdles within  their family, society, financial constraints, lack of education etc but now women have many options to choose from.

Our cottage industry is thriving under the initiatives of government bodies e.g. Bangladesh Small and cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC), Craft Council of Bangladesh (CCB), NGOs like, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Kumudini, Aarong and others.

Skill development programmes are being organised, access to e-market and various financial/microcredit assistance are provided to artisans. Apart from training programmes, exhibitions are also organised from time to time to create a platform and identity to the artisans.

Kantha stitching opens the door to a myriad field it touches upon; it ceases to be simply an outlet of women’s emotion but threads of financial independence for many. Nakshi Kantha as a shining example of traditional form of art holds paramount cultural and economic value for each and every Bangladeshi.

Its elaborate motifs and craftsmanship have garnered attention intentionally as well, making it a viable option for export. Transcending all barriers, simply by recycling old rags women carved a path for the fashion industry.

Nakshi Kantha stands as an epitome of refined culture, means of livelihood, preservation of tradition, artistic elevation, economic opportunity, employment, recognition and creation; leading to a world of fashion, bridging cultures and connecting people.

Shehnaz Rokeb, the author of this article, is a teacher by profession. She has a passion for promoting the culture, tradition and heritage of Bangladesh.