On the afternoon of January 25, 2023, Mahua Lahiri received a phone call from the Union Ministry of Textiles. The official on the line said Mahua’s mother, Pritikana Goswami, had been selected for the Padma Shri award. Mahua thought it was a hoax.
She asked the official three times till he replied in exasperation, “Don’t you know about the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, and Padma Vibhushan awards?”
“I was overwhelmed and shouted with delight. The official said he would call after five minutes so I could absorb the shock. When I told my mother, she asked me if it was a significant honour,” Mahua says.
Pritikana Goswami, 64, was felicitated for reviving Bengal's long-lost Nakshi Kantha craft through her artworks. As the news sunk in, Pritikana, who lives in the Sonarpur village on the outskirts of Kolkata, recalled her childhood and youth in poverty.
She lost her father when she was ten. In 1977, Pritikana got married to Amalendu Goswami. But her struggles did not end.
Seventeen family members shared a three-room house in the refugee settlement with a kitchen and a single bathroom. When her daughter was born in 1980, Pritikana could not afford milk for the baby and fed her a liquid made using rice husk dust (waste after processing paddy).
After some years, her second daughter was born. Struggling to feed her family and children, she wanted to marry her elder daughter when she turned 13 so there would be one less family member to feed.
“I had to work very, very hard for my name for five decades. My silent effort has been honoured by God. I am overjoyed,” the expert needle worker says.
Pritikana has worked for 33 years to restore Bengal's priceless and ancient Nakshi Kantha craft as well as its seam.
Some of her handcrafted pieces are on display at the Victoria Albert Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Washington DC Textile Museum, and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Roots of Kantha
The Sanskrit word Kontha, which implies scraps or rags, is whence the word "Kantha" originates. It was referenced as warm clothing in Panini's book "Ashtadhyayi". Even poet Krishnadas Kaviraj cited homemade Kantha in his work Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita.
Kantha was traditionally done in homes by women in Bengal and Bangladesh who stitched several layers of discarded sarees, dhotis, lungis or rags to make bedspreads, quilts and bags.
The Kantha motifs are drawn from everyday life and include representations of folktales, epics, mythological figures, animals, fish, plants, and ceremonial themes.
Parnakshi and Galponakshi, two well-known Kantha varieties, were produced in the past. Around eight to nine layers of fabric were used to create the garments in Parnakshi, hence the weaving is not very fine and it has strong border stitching. Golponakshi only has three layers of fabric; therefore, the intricate stitching is visible and gives a ripple effect. Modern Kantha still uses the traditional process of quilting which enhances the durability of the cloth.
“Kantha has never been a stitch. Based on its utility, Kantha's name constantly changed. It was known as ‘Lep Kantha’ for usage in the winter and ‘Sujni Kantha’ as a bedspread or floor spread,” says Mahua, who is a fashion designer based in Sharjah.
Durjani Kantha is the term used to describe the creation of a bag or pouch by uniting four corners. For covering up the mirror post nightfall in Bengal, Kantha was termed Arshilota Kantha. “The seam is still the same today, which is fascinating," says Mahua.
Reviving Nakshi Kantha
After Pritikana lost her father at 10, she took up needlework as a means to earn some money. She was very talented and picked up all stitching techniques from Kantha and Rafu stitch to Salma Zari, Aari-Chumki work, and embroidery.
Despite the struggles before and after her marriage, Pritikana continued to do needlework and earned about Rs 1200 per month while her husband earned about Rs 800 per month.
After years of struggle, it was in 1989 that a meeting changed the course of her life. In December 1989, Bharati Gupta, a woman living in the Jodhpur Park building where her husband was employed, introduced Pritikana to Ruby Palchoudhuri, craft revivalist and the secretary of the Crafts Council of West Bengal.
Palchoudhuri asked her whether she could create a group of women to work at a new Kantha stitching centre, which was coming up in Kolkata. Palchoudhuri said the women would have to do ‘Nakshi Kantha’, an intricate type of Kantha work mostly done in Bangladesh. Though Pritikana had never done that before, she replied in the affirmative.
Famous Bengali poet Jasimuddin Mollah coined the phrase ‘Nakshi Kantha’ in his 1928 book ‘Nakshi Kanthar Math,’ which was the first to use it. Nakshi is a broad term for embroidery or design.
Nakshi Kantha is available in different themes, including Swastika, Lotus, Wheel, Sun, Moon, Kalka and Tree of Life. Among its ten different designs are Lep Kantha, Sujni Kantha, Ashon Kantha, Shawl Kantha, Nakshi Thole, Dastarkhan, Gilaf, Arshilota, Borton Dhakna and Handkerchief Kantha.
However, the 250-year-old embroidery was only found in museums as there were no practitioners. Palchoudhuri showed a small sample of Nakshi Kantha to Pritikana and asked her to replicate it. She said if Pritikana could do the embroidery which was on the verge of extinction, it could be revived.
Pritikana took home the sample Palchoudhuri gave her and by studying it, she completed the same pattern in three months. She then formed a group of nine women and trained them in Nakshi Kantha.
In the meantime, the Crafts Council of West Bengal created the Kamala Devi Kantha Center in 1990. The financing was approved by Palchoudhuri, who then headed to the US for a few months to pick up orders for bedspreads.
When Palchoudhuri returned from the US, she was surprised to see the finely crafted pieces by the women. Soon, the production of bedspreads with Nakshi Kantha embroidery began at the new centre.
The Santiniketan form of Kantha was popular before Nakshi Kantha. The Santiniketan Kantha, which has the GI tag, was resurrected by Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore and his granddaughter Pratima Devi.
After working with the Crafts Council, Pritikana and her women’s group bagged several orders from the US to make Kantha bedspreads. The women earned around Rs1200 per month. Later they collaborated with a Japanese NGO to make scarves.
Today, Pritikana earns Rs 5000 a month while the women who work with her earn around Rs 3500 per month. She says she worked in collaborations and was not able to set up her own business because she did not know the ropes of marketing.
Kanthas are mostly traded in the European and American markets by the West Bengal Crafts Council. The price ranges from Rs 5000 to Rs 2.5 lakh, depending on the embroidery.
Types of stitches and borders in Kantha
Pritikana says each Kantha piece is unique as it was made in the homes of all communities. “So far, we have revived around 150 to 200 designs of Kanthas. Our crochet kit comes with Anchor thread, which doesn't bleed, and pony needles, preferably in sizes 9 to 12. For delicate work, we like to use a 12-number needle. Sewing time is influenced by size. From six months to two and a half years are needed. The complexity takes up the most time,” Pritikana says.
Mahua says that her mother has focused on resurrecting and recreating the Nakshi Kantha artwork and its line of stitching. “Each piece of art has been made marketable. The colours used are pastel to appeal to customers' tastes. It must have pleasing colour combinations. Typically, the colours red, yellow, green, blue, and black are used,” she says.
“In three-layer fabrics, tussar or silk is used for the top layer. Out of the three levels, the top layer is where the motifs are mainly found. Muslin is used for the bottom two layers,” says Mahua.
“The intricate Nakshi Kantha embroidery requires very good eye-hand coordination. Before starting work, a calculation is done for the design. To prevent creases and warping in the fabric, maintaining alignment or parallel running is crucial,” Mahua explains.
The number of ‘phor’ or stitches on a Kantha is limitless. Cross-stitch, backstitch, Kane stitch, Herringbone stitch, Satin stitch, long & short stitch and running stitch are a few common stitches.
Kantha features a variety of ‘Taga’ or border types. Those are Beki par (wavy or bent border), Biche par (scorpion border), Barfi par (diamond border), Chok par (eye border), Moi Taga (ladder border), Mala par (necklace border), Maach par (fish border), Kalam par (pen border), Dhaner shish (paddy stalk border), Taabiz par (amulet border), Khejur chari (date branch border), Gut taga, nolok taga, and anaj taga, etc.
Taking forward the legacy
Pritikana’s elder daughter Mahua and her family live in Sharjah while the younger daughter Ankita Roy lives in Sonarpur in Bengal.
Mahua recalls how she got associated with Kantha. “I detested the word Kantha since I witnessed my mother's arduous handwork. She has been exploited in every possible manner. Both money and fundamental respect are absent. How would the next generation find inspiration?” laments Mahua.
In 2015, she was in Amsterdam when a client's relative opened an embroidery exhibition. Being a designer and the daughter of a great craftswoman gave her two unique perspectives from which to observe.
That exhibition brought home to her the value of Kantha.
“I realized it was my duty to keep the legacy alive. Nobody else will do it if I don't do it. So I resigned from my job and, along with two friends, we started our brand, Hasnuhana,” says Mahua.
She has a degree in physiology and a certificate from NIFT in costume design. Mahua adopted a new approach to promote Kantha. She participated as a speaker in several seminars. Once people began to recognise her, she modified her strategy. Along with seminars, webinars, etc., she used social media sites like Facebook and Instagram as marketing tools.
Mahua makes home linen with Kantha embroidery. She sources Kantha from women in Sonarpur who have been trained by her mother. She supplies them to buyers in the US and Europe.
“In my experience artisans don’t get the respect that artists do. Even though the Kantha work is very tough, people don’t understand the value of this ancient craft. We need to respect our artisans and give them deserving rewards,” she says.
(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)