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Traditional nakshi kantha
|Alternative names||নকশি কাঁথা|
|Description||Nakshi Kantha is a traditional art of West Bengal|
|Type||West Bengal folk cultural art, Handicrafts|
|Registered||21 January 2008|
Nakshi kantha, a type of embroidered quilt, is a centuries-old Bengali art tradition of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The basic material used is thread and old cloth. Nakshi kanthas are made throughout Bangladesh, but the greater Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Faridpur and Jessore areas are most famous for this craft.
The colourful patterns and designs that are embroidered resulted in the name "Nakshi Kantha", which was derived from the Bengali word "naksha", which refers to artistic patterns. The early kanthas had a white background accented with red, blue and black embroidery; later yellow, green, pink and other colours were also included. The running stitch called "kantha stitch" is the main stitch used for the purpose. Traditionally, kantha was produced for the use of the family. Today, after the revival of the nakshi kantha, they are produced commercially.
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The word kantha has no discernible etymological root. The exact time of origin of the word kantha is not accurately known but it probably had a precursor in kheta (khet Bengali means "field"). According to Niaz Zaman, the word kantha originated from the Sanskrit word kontha, which means rags, as kantha is made of rags.
Like any other folk art, kantha making is influenced by factors such as materials available, daily needs, climate, geography, and economic factors. Probably the earliest form of kantha was the patchwork kantha, and the kanthas of the decorative appliqué type evolved from this.
The earliest mention of Bengal Kantha is found in the book Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita by Krishnadas Kaviraj, which was written some five hundred years ago. The famous Bengali poet Jasimuddin also had a very famous poem 'Nakshi Kanthar Math' on Nakshi Kantha 
Traditionally old sarees, lungis and dhotis were used to make kanthas. Kantha making was not a full-time job. Women in almost every household were expert in the art. Rural women worked at leisure time or during the lazy days of the rainy season, so taking months or even years to finish a kantha was normal. At least five to seven sarees were needed to make a standard-size kantha. Today the old materials are replaced by new cotton cloths. Traditionally the thread was collected from the old sarees. That is rarely done today.
When a kantha is being made, first the sarees are joined together to attain the required size, and then layers are spread out on the ground. The cloths are then smoothed, and no folds or creases are left in between. During the process, the cloth is kept flat on the ground with weights on the edges. Then the four edges are stitched and two or three rows of large running stitches are done to keep the kantha together. At this stage, the kantha can be folded and stitched at leisure time.
Originally, designs and motifs were not drawn on the cloth. The design was first outlined with needle and thread, followed by focal points, and then the filling motifs were done. In a kantha with a predominant central motif the centre was done first, followed by corner designs and the other details. In some types of kanthas (carpet, lik and sujni, etc.) wooden blocks were used to print the outline. The blocks are replaced today by patterns drawn in tracing papers.
The following is how kanthas are categorized, according to the stitch type:
The running stitch kantha is truly the indigenous kantha. They are subdivided into Nakshi (figured) and par tola (patterned). Nakshi (figured) kanthas are further divided into motif or scenic kanthas.
The name was derived from Persian word lehr, which means wave. This type of kantha is particularly popular in Rajshahi. These kanthas are further divided into soja (straight or simple), Kautar khupi (pigeon coop or triangle), borfi or diamond (charchala, atchala or barachala).
This type of kantha is found only in Rajshahi area. The popular motif used is the undulating floral and vine motif.
The earliest and most basic stitch found in kanthas is the running stitch. The predominant form of this stitch is called the phor or kantha stitch. The other forms of stitches used are the Chatai or pattern darning, Kaitya or bending stitch, weave running stitch, darning stitch, Jessore stitch (a variation of darning stitch), threaded running stitch, Lik phor or anarasi or ghar hasia (Holbein) stitches. The stitches used in modern-day kantha are the Kasmiri stitch and the arrowhead stitch. Stitches like the herringbone stitch, satin stitch, backstitch and cross-stitch are occasionally used.
Kanthas generally denote quilts used as wrappers; however, all articles made by quilting old cloth may also be referred to by the same generic name. However, depending on the size and purpose, kanthas may be divided into various articles, each with its specific names. The various types of kantha are as follows:
Motifs of the nakshi kantha are deeply influenced by religious belief and culture. Even though no specific strict symmetry is followed, a finely embroidered naksi kantha will always have a focal point. Most kanthas will have a lotus as focal point, and around the lotus there are often undulating vines or floral motifs, or a shari border motif. The motifs may include images of flower and leaves, birds and fish, animals, kithen forms even toilet articles.
While most kantas have some initial pattern, no two naksi kantas are same. While traditional motifs are repeated, the individual touch is used in the variety of stitches, colours and shapes. The notable motifs found in naksi kantha are as follows:
The lotus motif is the most common motif found in kanthas. This motif is associated with Hindu iconography and thus is also very popular in the kantha. The lotus is the divine seat. It is also symbolic of cosmic harmony and essential womanhood. The lotus is also the symbol of eternal order and of the union of earth, water and, sky. It represents the life-giving power of water, and is also associated with the sun for the opening and closing of the petals. It is also the symbol of the recreating power of life. With the drying up of water, the lotus dies and with the rain it springs to life again. The lotus is associated with purity and the goddess Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune and abundance. There are various forms of lotus motifs, from the eight-petaled astadal padma to the hundred petaled satadal. In the older kanthas, the central motif is almost always a fully bloomed lotus seen from above.
The solar motif is closely associated with the lotus motif. Often, the lotus and the solar motifs are found together at the centre of a nakshi kantha. The solar motif symbolizes the life giving power of the sun. The sun is associated with the fire which plays a significant part in Hindu rites, both religious and matrimonial.
The moon motif has a religious influence, and is popular amongst the Muslims. Mostly it is in the form of a crescent moon accompanied by a star. This motif is particularly found in jainamaz kanthas.
The wheel is a common symbol in Indian art, both Hindu and Buddhist. It is the symbol of order. The wheel also represents the world. The wheel is a popular motif in kanthas even when the maker has forgotten the significance of the symbol. The motif is relatively easy to make with chatai phor.
Su asti in Sanskrit means it is well. As a motif in Indian art, it dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization. It is symbol of good fortune. It is also known as muchri or golok dhanda. With the passage of time, the design is more curvilinear than the four armed swastika of the Mohenjodaro seal. The symbolic design has significant influence in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
The influence of this motif in Indian art and culture (as with kantha) may be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. It is likely that the Indus people conceived the pipal as the Tree of Life...with the devata inside embodying the power of fecundity. During the Buddhist times, the cult of the tree continued. Pipal is sacred to the Buddha because he received enlightenment under its shade. It reflects the fecundity of nature and is very popular in Bengal. Vines and creepers play an important role in kanthas and they contain the same symbolisation as that of tree of life. A popular motif in Rajshahi lohori is the betel leaf.
This is a latter-day motif, dating from Mughal times. The kalka or paisley motif originated in Persia and Kashmir and has become an integral image of the subcontinental decorative motif. It can be compared with a stylized leaf, mango or flame. The kalka is an attractive motif and number of varieties are experimented. Similar motifs can be found in traditional kashmiri shawls.
Most nakshi kanthas have some kind of border. Either a sari border is stitched on or a border pattern is embroidered around the kantha. The common border found in kanthas are as follows:
Despite being a Bangladeshi traditional art, the Indian state of West Bengal applied for the Geographical Indication for Nakshi kantha in 2008. Due to absence of proper law on Geographical Indication in Bangladesh that time (which was later adopted), Bangladesh couldn't counter apply for the GI. The registry office had no option but to hand-over the Geographical Indication to West Bengal in 2008.
Bangladesh authority however later passed the "Bangladesh Geographical Indication (Registration and Protection) Act, 2013" in parliament and with other necessary preparations now waiting for the next re-applying time cycle to claim the Geographical Indication for Nakshi kantha to Bangladesh.
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