kantha (Cover)

About this object

History of use

Kanthas are made by women of many different castes and classes in the rural population -- primarily in Bengal and in Bangladesh -- and are given as gifts within the family, or to friends. Kanthas are made from worn-out and disused saris or dhotis which have become threadbare. Salvageable portions are cut, patched, quilted and embroidered. Sometimes the coloured threads used in the embroideries have been drawn from the selvages of old saris.


Purchased by Milton and Beverly Israel while traveling in India.

Cultural context

This small coverlet was probably used in association with temple offerings or shrines, or as a seating mat.

Iconographic meaning

Every part of a kantha textile has symbolic meaning. The word kantha comes from the Sanskrit word kontha, meaning rags. Rags, when offered to the gods, guarantee security and immunity from black magic. The use of rags in constructing a kantha, along with the images used to create a picture on the surface, introduces a new wholeness to things that were no longer of use, i.e., worn saris and other uncut garments. Wholeness is an important concept; the cosmos, the ordered universe, is envisioned as one continuous fabric with warp and woof, making a grid pattern. Whole cloth therefore symbolizes totality and integrity. Finally, the use of soft fabric from a used sari personifies the devotion of a mother, wife or daughter for the family, for whom the work is intended.

Specific techniques

running stitch; stem stitch; chain stitch

Physical description

Small, square coverlet made from two layers of off-white cotton muslin, embroidered over the entire surface with closely-spaced, small running stitches in soft shades of pink, green, gray and orange cotton thread. A square section in the centre contains a scene with two human figures, a crane, a small bird, clouds, a fish and a butterfly. A wide border on all sides contains scattered figures of people, elephants, plants, trees, flowers, butterflies and fish. All motifs are outlined in black.