Kantha Art: Oldest Textile recycling practice of India

An old art-form, originating from Bengal region teaches the essence of upcycling.
Kantha Art, old Bengali textile recycling art

India, since ages, has been known for its culture, food, art, religion, and what not. And there’s still a lot that needs to be heard, explored, and told about this place.

Where industrialization introduced us to machineries, the introduction of harmful chemicals into the process was inevitable. The biggest example of this can be quoted from the fashion industry. Harmful chemicals, petroleum-based fabrics and fast fashion: this industry kept going at pace with the trends but proved to be the biggest threat to the environment.

The new fashion trends and cheap quality clothing have normalised the dumping of clothes. Why do we even throw away clothing when we can re-use, upcycle, or donate it?

While this world still struggles to understand the importance of upcycling, it was still in existence in the pre-vedic era in India. Known as “Kantha”, this art form describes the stories of craftsmen on upcycled pieces of clothing.

History of Kantha

Kantha, meaning “rags”, is a century-old art form that originated in the Bengali region of the Indian subcontinent. This craft has marked its presence in Vedic and pre-Vedic literature.

Rural women practised this art on upcycled rags in their leisure time, which today has become a source of livelihood for thousands of families.

The art and the art form are passed down through generations, each stitching a story of their own onto the pieces.

After disappearing in the 19th century, Kantha art was revived in the 1940s, but there it faced another setback. Again in 1971, during Bangladesh Liberation War, Kantha was brought back to life.

kantha art, textile recycling in india
Source: wanderingsilk.org


Bringing in a new piece of cloth was of high value, and upcycling what was already available was the most sought-after option.

Old saris, dhotis or other pieces of clothing that have turned soft or were wearing off with usage were used to make Kanthas.

The old pieces were stacked together, ironed, and loose stitched to keep them intact. Next, designs were embroidered on these new pieces to give them a new meaning.

The designs were inspired by everyday activities and depicted stories of the embroiderer.  Birds, animals, dreams, experiences, and folklore were among the motifs, all of which were closely related to the artesian.

The thread for stitching was primarily drawn from the rag, making it a completely upcycled product.

A single Kantha art could take weeks, months, or years to develop. Sometimes it was passed on from generation to generation, letting each tell a story of their own.

Traditionally, Kanthas were used to make beadspreads, cushions, purses, and mats. To give a more vivid look, lighter shades were kept outside and the rest layered in.

Varieties of Kanthas are available today based on the stitch type: Anarasi Kantha, Lohori Kantha, Sujni Kantha, and Archilata kantha.

Present day scenario

The world has evolved, and so has this art form. The traditional kantha is now replaced by commercial kantha. Produced in batches, it is now made to be sold locally and globally.

Layering different fabrics is no longer practised and, today, Kantha is solely known for its unique set of embroidery techniques.

Where commercialization did create a sense of independence for the rural women of Bengal, Bihar & Bangladesh, the workers are still underpaid and exploited.

Traditional Kantha is still found in lawns or sun-drying in fields in Bengal.


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