Much like the floral motifs discussed in the first part of this series, Indian embroideries have also significantly impacted home decor trends observed globally. The second part of our Indian Crafts series brings to light the conception, evolution and world wide proliferation of embroideries which not only originated but also continue to be practiced in India today.
History & Relevance: Believed to be one of India’s most ancient embroidery techniques dating back to 1500 BC, Kantha is a humble running stitch born in the rural regions of Bengal during Vedic times which later permeated into various stratas of society across Orissa, Bengal and present day Bangladesh. A traditional Kantha piece would typically feature patchwork held together by a simple running stitch as a means to salvage used fabrics or old garments. Due to the numerous lines of running stitches, finished kantha typically had a slightly wrinkled and wavy appearance.
Additionally, the original kantha was double-faced, with the design appearing identical on both sides. Overtime, the running stitch evolved into a means of regional storytelling, giving way to Nakshi Kantha, whereby fabrics would feature artistic motifs like flowers, birds, instruments, religious idols and other elements pertaining to the lives of local women creating the embroidery.
Cultural Crossovers: During the Mughal rule in India, another branch of Kantha known as Par Tola also emerged which featured geometrical patterns influenced by Islamic art. With this, the definition of ‘Kantha’ became much broader and that’s why, today it refers to both the original running stitch as well as finished fabrics featuring various styles of Kantha inspired embroideries. The uses of Kantha fabric ranged from making prayer mats and purses to pillow covers and light blankets to shield against the mild winter in Bengal. As opposed to other luxurious fabrics such as silk or wool, cotton has been the go to fabric for Kantha artisans as it can be easily cut, layered and stitched together to make the final product.
Besides Mughal influence, adaptations of Kantha were also swayed by Colonial rule and Portuguese trade. The Portuguese created the very first Kantha with silk threads and these adaptations featured motifs like ships and arms. Kantha developed in the nineteenth century during British Raj in India featured motifs like playing cards, English Lords and Ladies, European chandeliers and Queen Victoria’s Medallions.
Revival & Global Popularity: It is said that Kantha was a neglected craft during Colonial rule in India and conscious efforts had to be made to revive it, starting from the early twentieth century and again after the partition of India which saw many Kantha artisans migrate from India to Bangladesh. Many notable individuals such as Pratima Devi ( daughter in law of Bengali nobel prize winner Rabindra Nath Tagore), Stella Kramrisch in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, Srilata Sarkar in collaboration with the Crafts Museum of West Bengal, Shamlu Devi ( founder of non profit organization SHE ) are said to be responsible for initiating the slow yet significant resurrection of Kantha whereby groups of women were trained to replicate the traditional Kantha art form preserved in museums.
This enabled a new generation of artisans and entrepreneurs to practice the artwork and recreate the embroidery on modern, daily objects for fashion and lifestyle segments to make a living. Today, thousands of Kantha Artisans are at work in rural Bengal, under the guidance of local and international entrepreneurs to produce high quality and authentic home decor pieces, being sold in exhibitions across Europe, UK, Japan, US and Australia
Rooted In Uprootedness: Banjara, India’s nomadic tribal embroidery is said to have traveled to the country through Afghanistan in the twelfth century during the rule of Rajput king PrithviRaj Chauhan, subsequently making its way through to Rajasthan first. The nomadic caravans known as Banjaras later traveled to South Of India during the seventeenth century to help Mughal rulers export goods to the region via train, respectively settling in the area for the very first time. Over the centuries, these tribes and their cultural influences spread to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, Orissa and Telangana, adding regional diversity to the adaptation of their art form.
Because the Banjaras were nomadic, they created beautiful patchworks out of old clothing. For themselves, they made ghagra cholis, quilts, and batwas (or “wallets”), among many other practical items early on. These items are known for their distinct liveliness owing to use of bright colored threadwork, mirrors, bells and cowrie shell embellishments.
Revival & Recognition: During the British Colonial Era in India, The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 forbade the movement of Banjaras within the country, confining the tribes to remote, unpopulated areas, thus preventing the distribution and popularity of this art form both inside and outside India. The law was repealed in 1952 following Indian Independence, which gave the Tribes freedom to travel and settle in various parts of the country once again. Since then, just like kantha, several initiatives are in place by both the government of India as well as passionate individuals to fairly incentivise Banjara artisans in order to keep the practice of learning trading and popularizing Banjara alive.
Organizations like the Crafts Council of India are dedicated towards reviving and curating these handicrafts from Telangana, Kutch and Rajasthan which further enables brands to source and sell Banjara based collections at a Global Scale.
Current Global Influence:
Although pioneers of the boho movement such as The Beatles are often credited with inculcating an interest for Indian clothing, music and art to the west in the late 1960s, the survival and international success of both Kantha and Banjara embroideries is the result of consistent efforts made by Indian organizations, craft enthusiasts and businesses. Moreover, with modern day exposure to international trends, Banjara and Kantha inspired items are always sought after as part of the Indo-global confluence in fashion and home decor.
Above: Isabel Marant’s Spring Summer 2016 runway show featured elements borrowed from Banjara Embroidery. Below: Dior’s Iconic Saddle Bag featuring Banjara Applique work seen on the Autumn Winter 2018 runway. Images via: Architectural Digest
The West’s fascination with the East’s colors, cultures and exotic art forms often manifests itself on fashion runways and in renowned artists’ works, eventually inspiring the masses to adopt these elements into their homes and wardrobes. From Wall Tapestries and decorative cushions to functional items such as quilts and table runners, these art forms are used to infuse the home with vibrant colors and unique textures. Additionally, growing interest in sustainability also makes these crafts a subject of intrigue as both Kantha and Banjara were rooted in upcycing and salvaging old fabrics.