Nakshi Kantha: The Bangladeshi Art of Traditional Up-cycling

Originating from Bangladesh, Nakshi Kantha is an indigenous form of art serving a routine function. Practiced by Bangladeshi women, this form is popular for diverse representation in a rudimentary running stitch of fabric embroidery. Although in the past, it was made in black, red, and blue threads on white rags, many colors have been added since the evolution of Nakshi Kantha history.

In the term Nakshi Kantha, Nakshi means an art form while Kantha means a stitch. Particularly used to create beautiful quilts for cold weather, it is also referred to as an ‘embroidered quilt’. Rather than giving away or dumping the worn-out clothes, neighboring women would come together to stitch layers of saris and dhotis over small banter. They would depict daily life, social incidents, and as time went by, patriotic narratives of Bangladesh's Liberation war also got incorporated into the Nakshi Kantha stories. It was a way of expressing trifled emotions through a process-based practice, relieving them temporarily.


Nakshi Kantha Art: Stitches, Types, and Style

Just like the Arte Povera movement of Europe, Nakshi Kantha is completely made from used materials. Even the threads for this Bangladeshi art were pulled out from the rags. Pulling out beautiful borders and threads, the clothes would be reused in a meticulous method to layer an entire quilt. Although running stitch is the fundamental identity of Nakshi Kantha design, many other forms like cross-stitch, weave running stitch, darning stitch, herringbone, and a few others were used as well. Depending on these stitches, the Nakshi Kantha history names a variety of types. These comprised Lohori Kantha, Cross Stitch (practiced by British artists), Suji Kantha, etc.

Practiced in Mymensingh, Jessore, Rangpur, Rajshahi, and other towns of Bangladesh, each Bangladeshi Nakshi Kantha composition will have a different style of making. For example, the Kantha artist of Faridpur stitched the forms of leaves or inverted fish on the border or edge as a signature of their region.


Bangladeshi Narratives

Primarily and functionally, Nakshi Kantha served the purpose of creating cozy quilts, which were later utilized in the form of gifts. Owing to the availability of vast traditional forms in east Bengal (now Bangladesh), swastika, lotus, sun and moon, conch shells, wheels, foliage, and religious visuals were common motifs of representation. Reflecting social events, women would often from their memory, as an idea of creativity, depict processions, wedding rituals, numerical symbolism, among other festive occasions that were common conduct in the region. 

Filled with feminine warmth and care, a mother would present her daughter, during her wedding, with an excellent piece of Nakshi Kantha, remarking an inclusion of the art form in social and religious rituals. Over time, the semiotic representation was identified with Nakshi Kantha compositions. As a result, Bangladeshi literature also found its way in Nakshi Kantha art illustrations.

Fundamentally being a stressbuster, Bangladeshi Nakshi Kantha was harnessed for occupational therapy during Bangladesh's Liberation war in 1971. At the same time, to escape from the tortuous period, Bangladeshis used Kantha quilts to pack their belongings compulsively.  

Evolution of Nakshi Kantha in Modern times

Today, to revive the tradition, the pattern and style have re-adapted to the contemporary milieu. Many accessories like wallets, covers, bags, among others, are available in Nakshi Kantha composition, which has attracted the international market.

The Nakshi Kantha history may have identified the art with the fundamental relation of form and function of the community, but today it has been consumed by economic parameters. Nevertheless, modern advancement has undoubtedly rebuilt the hope of the artisans and their livelihood. In the paper, Revitalization of Nakshi Kantha through Modern Stitching Technology, Nilufar Yasmin and Md Enamul Islam elaborate, “If Nakshi Kantha can be produced using modern stitching technology then there are possibilities of increased production, design variation, express marketing, raise public interest and invite new entrepreneurs. There might be the scope of exploring an international market for this traditional cloth of Bangladesh”.

Written by Urvi Chheda

You have successfully subscribed!