Mahua Lahiri’s modern twists to Kantha

The kantha motifs are drawn from everyday life and include representations of folk tales, epics, mythological figures, animals, fish, plants, and ceremonial themes.
Mahua Lahiri, winner of the 2023 AD X JSW Prize for Contemporary Craftmanship (R), A modern interpretation Shrishti, Dyptich, undyed muslin and kantha embroidery, 2023, (L)
Mahua Lahiri, winner of the 2023 AD X JSW Prize for Contemporary Craftmanship (R), A modern interpretation Shrishti, Dyptich, undyed muslin and kantha embroidery, 2023, (L)

Last year, Mahua Lahiri was the first artisan to win the 2023 AD X JSW Prize for Contemporary Craftsmanship. She was taught by her mother Pritikana Goswami — she is originally from eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) — who has been working for over 30 years to revive the ancient Nakshi Kantha embroidery, a traditional craft form of undivided Bengal. Goswami, who inherited her kantha skills through her family, won the Padma Shri in 2023 for her embroidery.

The exhibition, ‘Revival & Contemporary Nakshi Kantha of Undivided Bengal’, held recently in ARTISANS', Kala Ghoda in Mumbai, was the first to showcase contemporary Nakshi Kantha designed and created by Hushnohana, the brand co-founded by Lahiri. She has also created livelihood opportunities for women in Bengal as they pour their hearts out into the delightful ritual of making intricate kanthas. The kantha motifs are drawn from everyday life and include representations of folk tales, epics, mythological figures, animals, fish, plants, and ceremonial themes.

Excerpts from a conversation:

This exhibition is the first to showcase the revival and contemporaraneity of Nakshi Kantha. Tell us something about the artwork.

Nakshi Kantha is a traditional craft of embroidery of undivided Bengal. With Partition, the state lost its identity and along with it, the indigenous art-form. Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan and his daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi, however, sought to revive it. In terms of style, it is slightly different from the original kantha stitch. A quilt has layers of cotton inside but kantha has layers of cotton fabric. Layers of old fabric, usually saris and dhotis, are made into light coverlets using intricate kantha (or simple running stitch for quilting). It is worked directly onto the cloth using intuition and an innate sense of design, without the aid of any prior drawing.

How did your mother’s journey with kantha embroidery start and become known?

Many women have taken kantha up as a career, though they are not getting paid well. My mother revived it in 1990 and started with the usual cartage and embroidery. In 1990, my mother met the honorary secretary of the Crafts Council of West Bengal, Rupi Pal Chowdhury, and she introduced it to one of her friends from the Victoria Albert Museum, which showcased 19th-century kantha.

What exactly is the aesthetics of the craft of kantha embroidery and why is it still relevant today?

To talk about its philosophy is to talk about sustainability: how our ancestors upcycled the old, using old dhotis and saris. They used to take out the threads from the borders and stitch them. We continue that tradition. It is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. It takes three months to five years to make one kantha. Even today, when we use the contemporary style, we preserve the old stitches and techniques.

You graduated from NIFT Kolkata and you were leading design at expo houses. What inspired you to choose this path?

I learnt about the craft at a young age. I grew up surrounded by kantha, but I resented it. Not only were kantha artisans like my mother not paid enough, but they were also not credited by name. Once I went to an exhibition in Amsterdam and saw people appreciating the old craftsmanship. I realised it was my duty to keep the legacy alive. Nobody else will do it if I don’t. My best friend and I set up Hushnohana to keep it going.

How do you keep yourself updated with the latest design trends, and ensure your designs are aligned with the brand’s identity?

We try to keep both traditional and contemporary art forms in our work. We use contemporary colours and placements. We have recently used a geometric interpretation for a new kind of kantha.

Any advice for youngsters who want to make a career in design?

Pay attention to your culture and craft traditions. Also, while designing anything, take care of its quality and keep it as authentic as possible.

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