It is important that we don’t lose sight of the roots of kantha, believes Ritu Sethi

Today it is so easy to walk into almost any handicraft store in India and buy a piece of kantha embroidery, points out Ritu Sethi, editor of Embroidering Futures: Repurposing the Kantha.

The book is based on the fact that kantha today, a significant part of the arts, crafts and textiles tradition of India, is an important source of livelihood for thousands of women in the country.

“And while we have emphasised the economic aspect of it, wherein it has become an object of commerce, there has been a gradual de-contextualization and a delinking from the cultural aspect,” she explains over telephone.

Ritu feels that kantha, which originates from West Bengal, has become a powerful brand around the world. The kantha is a tradition of embroidery where old saris and worn out pieces of cloth are layered and stitched together using largely running stitches to make blankets, quilts, shawls or other cloth items meant for everyday use.

“Today what was a phenomenal tradition of women recycling, restoring and reusing textiles with their embroidery for their loved ones now takes care of their home and hearth. Many NGOs and designers have played a role in creating these livelihoods. They are now coming out with so many designs that not only fulfil everyday needs but also suit the tastes of a modern home.”

The way Ritu sees it, the scope of kantha has expanded to include designer wear like saris and in its original form, has become a much sought after item for connoisseurs.

“These connoisseurs look for the old, high-end kanthas, which expressed good wishes, sometimes in the form of poems. The embroidery in some old kanthas is also made to look like a painting.”

Ritu finds that it has become necessary, today, to bring in a distinction between old kanthas and new kanthas since commercialisation and high-demand has begun to change the face of the craft. She explains that commercialisation has also brought in mass-production where any stitch, weave or design, or machine-produced work is being passed off for kantha, endangering the livelihoods of so many women. She also points out bringing in copyrights or GI patents only snatches away livelihoods.

“Through this book, we are trying to make people aware that we need to take a look at the roots of kantha, without stopping this movement of livelihoods because this tradition, that meets all of today’s requirements of ecological sustainability, has made a comeback after 60 years. The book brings in a contemporary point of view while flouting the original tradition at the same time.”

Interestingly, the book features several profiles, of NGOs, practitioners and collectors, which serve to offer insights into the history and evolution of the craft.

“The time has come to talk of the changing craft scene in India, to document Indian history over the last 60 years. It’s fascinating to look at the changing faces of the kantha and how it made its way across the country from rural Bengal.”

Embroidering Futures: Repurposing the Kantha has been published by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), in collaboration with the Crafts Revival Trust and the Infosys Foundation. The book is available for Rs 400 at the India Foundation for the Arts, Apurva Ground Floor, No 259, 4th Cross, Raj Mahal Vilas II Stage, II Block. For details, contact 23414681.