Bangladeshi Crafts: Nakshi Kantha

Known alternatively as kheta, kentha or sujni, nakshi kantha is an embroidered quilt made from offcuts of cloth and discarded clothing items, such as saris and dhotis. The craft of nakshi kantha is said to have originated in Bangladesh, with the quilts often being used as everyday items, while at other times being intricately embroidered and treasured as heirlooms. Even when made for everyday use, each kantha is a work of art and displays the skill and dedication of the maker.

Between three and seven saris are used to make a kantha, depending on the thickness required. They are layered and joined with a running stitch, giving the fabric a rippled look. While in the past it was traditional to use the threads of saris to embroider motifs on the kantha, today embroidery cotton is more commonly used. The running stitch is often used simply to hold the layers of fabric together while embroidery is done, but in some cases the running stitch actually becomes the pattern as it is used in various forms to create motifs and borders. Some kanthas from the 19th-century have scenes from myths and legends, or depicting daily life at that time, all made with running stitch.

Kanthas are most often used as wraps and bedding, ranging from heavy winter quilts to light summer covers. Babies are often swaddled in kanthas, the soft fabric of the saris being perfect for their delicate skin. Kanthas may be used as a floor covering (dastarkhan) for dining; a prayer rug (jainamaz); a quilt for sitting on (asan); or a decorative wrap for clothes and valuables (bastani or gatri).

In addition to being seen as an indication of thriftiness, many believe that the old cloth from which the kantha is made has properties to ward off the evil eye. As is the case with alpana, the maker of the kantha may include motifs that reflect her wish for something dear to her, such as marriage, fertility, happiness or prosperity. Some kanthas may include words of proverbs or blessings, while others have animals, scenes from legends and myths, and even household items such as kitchen utensils. The majority of kanthas will have a lotus motif at the center, and may include tree-of-life motifs and kalka – a pattern dating back to the Mughal dynasty.

Possibly due to political upheaval in the country, coupled with the availability of relatively inexpensive ready-made items, the decorative kantha appeared to lose favor for a time, although they continued to be made for practical purposes. It has been noted, however, that there is a resurgence of interest in the traditional crafts of Bangladesh and the decorative kantha is becoming popular once again.