Exploring Nanoor, The 'Kantha' Hub Of Bengal

Women in Nanoor, a small village in West Bengal, have shown how this traditional embroidery art can lead to employment and income generation
Embroidered 'kantha' of Bengal  Photo Shutterstock.com
Embroidered 'kantha' of Bengal Photo Shutterstock.com

Long before the term recycling had emerged as a concept, women in Bengal (long before the province was partitioned between two newly formed countries) had realised that it could be one of the ways to reduce household costs. They would collect old saris and dhotis to stitch them together to make quilts or "kantha," which would be used by the family members during winter, as bedspreads or coverlets. To make the quilts attractive, they would use long running stitches to embroider floral and geometric patterns on them. They would even pull out the threads from the edges of the cloth. The patterns were simple, rustic expressions but with a beauty of their own. Usually women would work on the quilts after the morning chores were over. Sometimes, neighbours would get together and chat and gossip while they worked on their &lsquokantha&rsquo.

Gradually, the scope of the kantha and the embroidery expanded. Large pieces would be made where entire stories would be picturized through intricate stitching. Small pieces would be embroidered to be given away as gifts or framed to be used as a room decor. These would often have pithy saying, images of gods like Shiva or even the name of a loved one embroidered on them.

Nanoor houses more than 1000 practising Kantha artists
Nanoor houses more than 1000 practising Kantha artists banglanatakdotcom on Shutterstock.com

What started as a practice of thrift has now blossomed into a veritable utility art product. The simple stitch became known as 'kantha stitch' and is now used to embroider sarees, dress material for both men and women, bed covers, utility products like bags, etc. Making kantha-based products has also opened up avenues for rural women to boost their family income and to become self-sufficient.

A part of the credit of popularising kantha stitch as a fashion statement goes to Kolkata based Shamlu Dudeja who used it to empower rural women through her non-profit organisation SHE.

A woman making design on a Nakshi Kantha
A woman making design on a Nakshi KanthaShutterstock.com

Nanoor in Birbhum district in West Bengal is slowly emerging as a hub of 'kantha' making. With help from government agencies and non-government organizations, women have taken to making 'kantha' based utility art products. According to reports, this has brought economic independence to rural women, including a large number of Muslim women.

Nanoor is about four hour drive from Kolkata and can be easily visited while on a trip to Bolpur (Shantiniketan). So if you are in the area, why not drive down to the village and meet some of these amazing artists You may not only observe them at work but also buy directly from them. A renewed interest in the traditional embroidery will not only help to preserve the traditional culture but also act towards boosting village economy.

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