Semiotic Study of The Motifs in Nakshi Kantha - The Tree Of Life, The Fish And The Lotus

Chowdhury, Ruhee Das, Assistant Professor, National Institute of Fashion Technology, Kolkatta, has hands on experience in industry as a designer. Keenly interested in surface techniques on textiles she started learning embroidery at the age of eight. Her interests have deepened and she has now mastered over 100 stitches ranging from Indian to international ones.

As one of the final contestants for the Lakme Fashion House, she studied Fashion at NIFT. She is currently researching traditional needle crafts and working on a book on Kantha.

December 2012, Craft Revival Trust
Nakshi Kantha, the traditional needlecraft of Bengal, India, it displays a rich vocabulary of motifs. These motifs are deeply rooted in strong religious beliefs and underlay a strong symbolism. These motifs signify the desire for self expression and manifestation of the artisan’s aspirations. Nakshi Kantha was and is more than just a decorative quilt; they were the canvas for self-expression, their values and beliefs. Furthermore, use of these symbols display a keen desire to establish their own identity and position in the society and the urge to manifest their aspirations through religious symbolism, direct depiction and aesthetic display. Tree of life, Lotus and Fish have been three of the most popular and mindfully chosen motifs. This paper is an attempt to study the semiotics of these three motifs on Nakshi Kantha of West Bengal of early 19th century to late 20th century.

Nakshi Kantha and its historical evidences -

Undivided Bengal, now divided between India and Bangladesh has been known for their folk needle craft. East Bengal, now Bangladesh and West Bengal, now a state in East India have embroidered Nakshi Kantha (Naik, 1996) (Zaman, 1993). Kantha, the poor man’s quilt, displays extraordinary creativity, curious motifs and immense amount of patience (Dhameeja, 2004). Kantha has dominantly existed in the rural Bengal household since time immemorial. Kantha originated in the hour of need when economic conditions of an average rural household were challenging and the family was faced with a difficult cold weather or was marked by a childbirth that needed security. The old and torn Saris, unstitched lengths of fabrics, draped by Indian women as traditional clothing were put to use. These ragged saris were layered and quilted together with patterned running stitches. The threads used for quilting were drawn out from the colourful borders of the saris (Zaman, 1993) (Nag, 1982). Eventually Kantha graduated to patterned embroidered motifs on the surface of the quilts. These quilts were the canvases for the women and have got intermingled in the lives of the people (Das, 1992). K Padmaja conveys this in her paper, “The most endearing gift exchanged at birth, death or marriage, the seat of honour offered to welcome guests, the mark of respect for the dead, the wandering fakirs drape, the personal wallet for carrying little valuables or a wrap for any other precious possession, Kantha in Bengal is not any frozen art stored behind museum glass, it is an integral part of the lives of the country folk ”.

Lotus, Fish, Earthen pitchers, Tree of life, Mouse, Peacock, Elephant, Bull etc have remained in the motif vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha quilts and other Kantha articles. These motifs have been found to have a semiotic significance and find their roots in religion and mythology. This paper studies the semiotic significance of the commonly used motifs in the Kantha (Stella Kramrisch, 1983) (Naik, 1996).

Well know Author Niaz Zaman in her book, ‘The Art of Kantha Embroidery has very interestingly documented all the aspects of the making of the Kantha. The stitches and the motifs that are used, the history of Kantha etc have been well categorized and documented.

Jamuna Nag has written about how alpona design, floor decoration done with chalk) found themselves on the Kantha quilts. The alpona motifs, deep rooted in religion were a ready reference for the artisan to embroider them.

Jasleen Dhamija an author of world fame has written about the symbolic nature of the motifs and the connotations that they have are deeply rooted in religion.



Most books on Kantha have not been able to date the craft. Kantha was a craft of the poor and did not get recognition as a craft. The most poetic reference of Kantha has been found in Poet Jasimuddins Poem ‘Nakshi Kantha Math’. 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 back. The second earliest reference is in Zaman's book about the famous artist Abanindranath Tagore, who seemed to have encountered a woman in a village in a district of Srihatta of Bangladesh, who recorded her life story in her Kantha spanning a period starting from her marriage to old age (Zaman, 1993).

So, when did this art begin? That has been a debatable question. Some experts are of the opinion that its origin dates back to ancient India and that the Kantha has references in the Rig Veda, Upanishads, and in Panini’s text. In support of the existence of folk arts and crafts of Bengal from ancient times the renowned scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy says that the folk arts that survive in Bengal are directly descended from pre Harappan- Indus Saraswati civilization which at least 5000 years before present. Lord Buddha, Mahavira or Chaitanya, Jain saints or Sufi poets, the warm Kantha blanket is said to have been the garb of ascetics through the ages. The earliest surviving record of Bengal Kantha is found in the book, "Sri Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita" by Krishnadas Kaviraj which was written some five hundred years back. Though sample collections cover only a few hundred years back, it is quite likely that the craft in fact dates back to ancient times. This form of textile for ordinary folk has perhaps been raised to the level of art objects in the medieval period in Bengal (Padmaja, 2006) (Zaman, 1993).

Dr. Stella Kramrisch has described a mythical story to indicate the origin of this art form. According to this story, there was a guru by the name of Kanthalipa (plastering guru). By caste he was a sweeper. He used to collect old rags and torn cloth which he found while sweeping. One day a needle pricked his finger; it hurt so much that he started crying. Hearing his wailing a dakini (witch or spirit) appeared before him. "She reproached him: 'If you cry at such little pain, how you would be able to bear the pathos of rebirth over and over again? Kanthalipi answered to her 'That is true but I do not know what I should do, 'the dakini advised him: 'The sky is nothing but a great void in endless space. Between the earth and the sky is also a vast emptiness. While sewing the pieces of rags you should achieve unity of spirit and purpose with all living creatures in the world. The sewing of rags symbolizes the use of all discarded things. To do this you need to consolidate your deep feelings and knowledge. Sitting in the void you will have to combine your thoughts and knowledge with the help of the needle of kindness. The pieces of rags sewn together to make a new cloth of new Kantha will turn into a complete piece. Similarly all the universe's living things will be able to create their own entities (Stella Kramrisch, 1983).

The authentication or the origin of these myths is unknown. However these myths confirm the fact that the origin itself of Kantha is deeply rooted in mythology, religion and symbolism. The birth of the craft is coated with semiotics of religion and spirituality (Dhameeja, 2004).

Kantha was practiced by women of all classes amongst Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. Some experts are of the opinion that it flourished more in East Bengal, now Bangladesh than in West Bengal. Some extraordinary samples of Kantha from the 19th century have found home in the districts of Jessore, Khulna, Barisal, and Faridpur areas of present Bangladesh and also from the districts of Hugli, Birbhum and 24 Parganas of West Bengal. Through the ages the two communities; Hindus and Muslims have contributed significantly towards motifs and forms used in the craft (Ranjan, 2007).

If ever there was a true sorority in the world of ideas, it must have been in the field of quilt making...Women, all over the world, took up the responsibility of providing everybody with the warmth against the cold, harsh winter.True, over time, some men joined into foray, but their numbers were never very significant. Hence, Niaz Zaman, in her book, " The Art of Kantha Embroidery," stated that Kantha making is a "women's art" (Zaman, 1993).

It is a clever use of universal quilting stitch, in colours and designs that are distinctive. This needlework from rural Bengal that is hi-fashion today had humble beginnings. Village women would sit in the backyards of their mud huts after the morning's chores were over, sharing the days tidings, their chatter idle but their fingers not. Making tiny, running stitches, they deftly sewed together pieces of old fabric-converting tatters into warm, comfortable quilts for their loved ones in the family (Das, 1992) (Zaman, 1993).

With creativity of an artist, they would sew scenes from rural life – animals birds, village huts with children, water pumps, fisher women selling their wares, even frogs and snakes. Apart from patchwork quilts, they also made bridal garments for their young ones and warm rugs for their newborn babies. For over 2000 years, the patchwork Kantha held pride of place in rural Bengal (Dhameeja, 2004).
In style, form, fabric or technique, through sheer skill and patience the Bengali women have been able to create stunning patterns by employing the most simple and frugal methods. The Kantha is really a play of the ordinary running stitch used in its myriad variations. Through variation in its length and spacing, a surface composed of multitudes of squares and triangles is created that has a marvellous speckled texture. These closely placed stitches gave a quality of swiftness and rhythm to the ground. The chief stitches used were the darning stitch, the satin stitch, the loop stitch, the stem stitch and the split stitch. Sometimes the darning stitch is used to create an effect similar to that of weaving (Naik, 1996) (Zaman, 1993).

Bengal Nakshi Kantha making is a little different from other quilting artistry. The material is different, so is the stitching method. From a very long time, Bengal cotton and silk have been known in the world market for its finesse and quality. When such beautiful creations were worn and old, Bengal women did not see any reason to throw them away. Beautiful sari borders were preserved, the soft dhotis, men's clothes were placed layer upon layer and stitched encased in sari borders. Thus started the recycling art of the world. The stitching patterns of Bengal Nakshi Kantha are simple, but it can be very intricate depending on the inclination of the Nakshi Kantha maker.

The women of Bengal layer rags together and make utilitarian and functional items for use in their day to day lives. Unlike the plight of a lot of crafts where with commercialization, the craft communities themselves have discontinued personal usage, Kantha continues to be a living craft in rural Bengal. During my field trips in some of the villages, the poorest houses to this day own at least one piece of Kantha. In the lack of great riches, these rural folk have created the most splendid substitutes to expensive sofas or blankets (Zaman, 1993).

Both Hindus and Muslim women make use of Kantha in a variety of ways:

LEP KANTHAS - are used as a cover in winters. Measuring 61/4. x 41/2. these are heavily padded, thick and are embroidered with coloured threads although somewhat sparingly.

SUJNI KANTHAS - are embroidered ceremonial wraps offered as a seat to honoured guests and at weddings. These are thin and represent the highest culmination of the embroidery artwork.

BAYTON KANTHAS - are essentially wraps for tying books, cover for old trunks, table cloth etc.

DURJANI KANTHA - is a square piece of wrap with an embroidered border all around and a lotus in the middle. The three corners are folded and stitched at the centre to make a wallet out of it. It is used to hold betel nuts, rosary, and money or needlework articles.

ARSHILATA KANTHA - used as wraps for mirrors or combs.

OAR KANTHA is used as a pillow cover and usually employs longitudinal border patterns running across the body.

RUMAL KANTHA used as a handkerchief, this consists of a lotus at the centre around which other motifs are drawn. All this enclosed within a square sewn along the edges.

Kantha craft had one of the earliest influences of globalization on it. What we now refer to as Indo – Portuguese Kantha style, originated under the influence of the Portuguese in the 15-16th century. During this period wild silk muga thread was used to embroider ornate European motifs on an off white cotton base. These Kantha’s were exported to Portugal and used as gowns, wall hangings, bed covers etc (Dhameeja, 2004).
As objects of endearment that were essentially folk in nature, it continued in its pure and innocent form as an integral part of rural societies. And to this day it continues to hold the same importance and relevance in rural Bengal.

Be it a Hindu or Muslim home in rural Bengal, Kantha is still the most honorable and valued gift that is exchanged at marriage, birth or death (Stella Kramrisch, 1983).

The societies in rural West Bengal as they were in 19th century were manifestly dominated by the activity of Kantha , while consumption, was also in same societies where the majority of the population were ill-nourished in addition to being poorly clothed and housed, did not appear to be an issue that warranted much investigation. Kantha was more of a needle-based craft of that society only that it developed into beautiful art.

The traditional (that is to say, the 19th- and early 20th-century) view of crafts relationship with culture is probably best expressed in the writings of such social critics as Karl Marx and Thorsten Veblen. For these thinkers, the form of labour that was undertaken by the craftsman or craftswoman was the most quintessential of all human activity. It was seen as ennobling, humanizing and, hence, the ideal means through which individuals could express their humanity (Dhameeja, 2004).

More than just a commodity for daily use, Kantha has wrapped several religious and cultural engagements in its folds. Symbols and colours that are considered auspicious in the religion are sewn onto the surface.

Kantha upgraded itself from an item of daily use soon enough and started claiming the status for artistic embroidery. Certain Nakshi Kantha was getting commissioned for export and was pieces of art itself. They were minutely embroidered and the selection of motifs and placement, choice of colours spoke the language of art (Ranjan, 2007).

Nakshi Kantha also became a part of folk Music. It finds mention in Nakshi Kanthas Math of Poet Jasimuddin. Several other folk songs from unknown poets and singers are still being sung at local festivals. These folk songs are now appreciated worldwide.

Kantha has been part of lives of people from birth to death in the light of culture. Kantha was made for a new born baby to wrap him in rags to ward off any evil eye. It displays cultural symbolism of protecting the child from any evil spirit. A girl would prepare Kantha with carefully chosen symbols and colors as her dowry for marriage (Padmaja, 2006).

Close-up on a Bengali word handwritten with angular, jaunty letters.

Edward Hopper “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”

Time immemorial people have discovered and identified various mediums of self-expression, expression of one's own personality, feelings, or ideas, through any form of art can be a medium of self expression. It gives power to exhibit the portrait of self to establish a connection with the environment. It is characteristic of a particular person or group of people or period.

Craft as self-expression can find its subject from, for instance, tradition, the future, fine art, music, stories, poems, nature, created heritage, field trips and excursions, events or memories. A common stimulating theme can assist in creating associations.. The sole desire to stimulate expression of the self and the emotions associated with a projection of self in multiple roles that women had to play in rural Bengal. She would have multi layered roles of a farmer, a homemaker, a designer, a seller and many more. The selection of motifs, patterns and the placement of these patterns display their aspiration, perceptions and connections with the immediate social environment In the midst of juggling between so many roles, the desire for self expression found the craft of Kantha as a medium.

Women while embroidering these symbols of happiness and prosperity on the Nakshi Kantha and repeatedly thinking about their manifestations brought them closer to the soul of the world, and stitched the manifestations forever in their universe (Nag, 1982).

The folk needle craft of Nakshi Kantha displays a strong mythological symbolism. Some of these symbols are versatile in nature and find background in several cultures. These are sometimes combined with stories, allegories or composite iconographies. They find references in Hindu as well as European gamut. The motifs that arrive from Hindu themes revolve around the cult of Vishnu. Some truly diverse Kantha quilts from Satagaon also display an assortment of influence as they are found with Portuguese, Greco Roman and Hindu mythological motif all together in one quilt. Veronica Murphy talks about the vast playground for motifs with extremes from Flora to Fauna; western to eastern cultures and reality to mythology. In such a scenario, the ultimate origin for certain motifs cannot be emphasized with certainty. She also talks about certain imagery that is claimed by both the cultures where they are deciphered differently and some are distorted beyond identification. The icons particular to legends or popular mythological themes are still identifiable (Dhameeja, 2004).

In my paper, Lotus and the Kantha, Oct 2008, Craft Revival Trust www.craftrevival.org, I have researched on the motif of lotus specifically and its importance in Nakshi Kantha and the Self expression of the crafter for economic well being. “The people who were making these quilts were financially not very well off. And considering the fact that, the people were not so well off yet very religious; they embroider lotuses with a lot of variations to impress Goddess Laxmi. They probably believed that the goddess might bless them with better status in life.”

According to Joyce Starr Johnson, „Textile handicrafts are special because they are made with love and are connected to personal histories (or present) of the crafters. The outcome may relate to a certain time and its phenomena, so that craft-art depicts a lived reality. Art is a way to grow sensitive to different cultural or ecological phenomena, reflect on culture and society, and to help understand and accept cultural differences (Dhameeja, 2004).

Kantha has seen various influences and yet maintained its integrity. There have been Portuguese and British as well as partition of east and west Bengal; and partition with Pakistan influence on the motif vocabulary. Preserved Kantha quilts, 60 to 70 years old, display British soldiers with rifles and farmers, who were poor and helpless. Yet, they had hope and aspirations that life will go and there will be prosperity which were depicted by the kalpavriksha. - the tree of life.

This symbolism is simultaneously seen in the alpona designs. As Jamuna Nag points out in her article on Alpona and Kantha- that typical symbols of fertility are stylized in alpona designs when a newlywed couple is to visit the house. As a woman is also considered to be a synonym of goddess Laxmi, footprints of Laxmi are drawn on both sides of the stairs. The aspiration of the woman to bring forth children, a good harvest and hence prosperity to the home, inspires her to draw fishes for fertility; seeds and stems for good harvest and Lakshmi’s foot print or Lotuses for luck and prosperity (Nag, 1982).

Wives of farmers helped their men in the farm and would embroider themselves farming, farm animals and farming tools. They would embroider Sun, water and birds and – the essentials for farming and hence a manifest for a good harvest.

The handcrafter’s aspirations for prosperity, marital bliss, freedom, economical well being, bodily health and spiritual health, and desire for knowledge are shown through the mythological symbols of Lotus, Symbol of Goddess Laxmi for economical well being, Tree of life, Spiritual concept that says Life must go on , Mouse a Symbol of Lord Ganesha – God for good beginnings, Peacock, Elephant, Nandi – the bull for Lord Shiva, for marital bliss and overall well being etc have remained in the symbolic religious design and motif vocabulary of Kantha quilts and other Kantha articles (Padmaja, 2006).

Women with more inclination towards dance and music would get opportunities to dance may be once in a year during festival seasons. However, they expressed their inner inclination through Kantha.

Ragged Kantha with symbols of godly blessing were made for the newborn babies. They believe that the newly born child has to be saved from the evil eye and so the child has to wrapped in Rags, so that they can ward off the nazar displaying that the child is not something that they care for. However, they would yet embroider motifs of symbols that talk about blessings of gods and goddesses, also believing that the gods are blessing the child.

A closer look at the choice of motifs that were made, over a period of time displayed a direct relation with the times they are made in. Not only the choice of colours, the style and the placement of pattern but the choice of patterns tells the era they were made in. Kantha made during the period when India was under the British rule showed British soldiers on the horses. During the freedom fight, the influence of the political parties was clearly evident. And to keep the traditions alive, Kantha artist today embroider cars and buses. I wouldn.t be surprised to see a computer or a mobile phone embroidered on the Kantha on my next trip to Shantiniketan, Bolpur. The flowers and the choice of colors have become fairly modern. Modern tulips and lilies have made their way on the Kantha. Kantha made in the current date may have lost the religious symbolism, however the role of Kantha as a mode of self expression still exist. I may not find any new brides embroidering the lotus however they make fairly modern pieces with modern design sensibility, to express the fact that they have become more modern in their thinking and actions.
Textile symbolism in India is hallowed by tradition. In the Rig Veda and the Upanishads the universe is envisioned as a fabric woven by the gods. The cosmos, the ordered universe, is one continuous fabric with its warp and woof making a grid pattern. The cut fabric or the sari is the symbol of totality and integrity. It symbolizes the whole of manifestation . The motifs used apparently were inspired from daily life in general. Trees, creepers, flowers, fishes are most commonly used motifs. Lotus, Tree of life, Mouse, Peacock, Elephant, Nandi – the bull etc have remained in the symbolic religious design vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha quilts and other Kantha articles (Dhameeja, 2004).

These motifs, that appear to be objects of daily life, are rooted in strong traditional and mythological symbolism. A simple tree is a symbol of ever-growing life that seizes to exist. It is called the tree of life.

Tree of life - A Spiritual concept that says Life must go on

A simple tree is a symbol of ever-growing life that seizes to exist. It.s called the „tree of life.. It is a symbol of fertility, and hence continuity of life. A creeper signifies family bonding. A newlywed woman or a girl soon to marry is considered the carrier of life by bearing the child and will take the generation and the family name forward. It is considered auspicious if the new bride carries with her these auspicious symbols. Her aspirations to bear children so that life of the family moves forward; a good harvest to bring about prosperity in the family are her manifestations symbolized on the „tree of life. motif that she embroiders in the four corners of the Nakshi Kantha.

The Tree of Life concept is sacred to most cultures. Its significance transcends conscious reality, touching the subconscious and beyond the indefinable. Even if the original meaning is obscured, the symbol retains an unconscious link with our primeval memory and becomes a source of strength.

The Cosmic Tree symbol occurs in practically all cultures. Its roots plunge deep into the nether world; branches reach upwards towards heaven and support it. The trunk is the means of ascending upwards and reaching beyond, thereby connecting three worlds. In Shamanistic ritual, the priest ascends up the tree, step by step, calling out at every stage the visions that come to him until he reaches the seventh step, the highest. Among the Bhil tribes in Western India, a dead ancestor's soul is ritually appeased by the priest as he climbs the steps cut into the tree or a pole. Once he reaches the seventh stage, the soul is released and the purified spirit rests with God. The tree is seen as a point of contact or an mixed antenna, which reaches out to the beyond. The Tree of Life not only stands for growth, proliferation and regeneration; it is associated with the inexhaustible abundance of life, reflecting immortality and the cyclic ebb and flow of cosmic life.

Most of the Nakshi Kantha that have been documented from early 19th Century to some of the till the mid 20th century have been found with the tree of life motif. The motif has been found placed in the four corners of the quilt pointing towards the central motif of Nakshi Kantha.

Two varieties of the fig (called Ashvatta in Sanskrit), the banyan tree and the Peepal tree are the most revered in the Indian tradition, and both are considered the trees of life. The Banyan symbolizes fertility, according to the Agni Purana, and is worshipped by those wanting children. It is also referred to as the tree of immortality in many Hindu scriptures. The banyan is believed to have nourished mankind with its milk before the advent of grain and other food.

The fig tree is either a player or an observer in several scriptural events in Hinduism. The sages and seers sit under the shade of the fig tree to seek enlightenment, hold discourses and conduct Vedic rituals. The Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment is a peepal tree. The fig tree assumes special importance in the Indian tradition owing mainly to its 'two-way growth' (aerial 'roots' growing downwards) (wikipedia).

Lotus has been a very popular motif in the quilted Nakshi Kantha, according to almost all the books that talk about Kantha. Several books talk about 108 petal lotus motifs whereas others talk about 100 petal lotus, called the satadal’. Niaz Zaman.s book talks about 100 petal lotus. However, considering the fact that he is talking about Nakshi Kantha in Bangladesh, may be the variation was more evident there. The figure 108 has a religious significance in the Hindu religion. It is believed that the lotus on which Lord Brahma sits has 108 petals. It is also believed that sati has 108 avatars. The beaded mala (strings of beads) used for chanting in Hindu religion essentially contain 108 beads (Zaman, 1993).

The lotus has a lot of relevance in the Hindu religion. Goddess Laxmi5, the goddess of financial well being holds a lotus in her hand, so the lotus symbolizes her. Lord Krishna, who is the avatar or Lord Vishnu, has his seat on Lotus. Also lord Krishna’s feet are compared to Lotus. It is believed that Krishna could walk on the surface of the water like the lotus floats on the surface of water, hence the comparison. Goddess Saraswati also holds a lotus in her hand. Other than this symbolism, in Hinduism, lotus is considered to be a good flower to offer to the Gods Shiva, and goddesses like Saraswati and Kali. (wikipedia)

Nakshi Kantha quilts made a century ago essentially had lotuses on them. The envelopes made for keeping money and other valuable articles were always containing lotus as the central motif (Naik, 1996). West Bengal has a widespread popularity for Goddess Kali; hence, the lotus could be a symbolism for this. It may also be for goddess Laxmi. The people who were making these quilts were financially not very well off. And considering this fact it is believed that they embroidered lotuses with a lot of variations to impress Goddess Laxmi or Goddess Kali. They probably believed that the goddess might bless them with better status in life. It is unlikely that the lotus symbolized Krishna; as he is not a very popular god in this area.

Lotus is also a symbol of cosmic harmony and essential womanhood in Hinduism. As the women use to embroider these quilts to take with them as a dowry item, embroidering lotus was considered auspicious. For a woman who is going to be married or was newly married, becoming a mother was the most important blessing she would want. Bringing prosperity in the new house where she is wedded and taking the family name forward by bearing children would earn her the maximum respect from the family. And hence she would symbolically pray for these by embroidering lotus on the quilts. It was a manifestation for marital happiness by these young women (Padmaja, 2006) (Stella Kramrisch, 1983).

Lotus was seen in a wide variety of variation. It mostly was embroidered in the center of the quilt and rest of the motifs was arranged around it. In the quilts the lotus embroidered was fairly large. It would almost cover the width of the quilt leaving space only for the borders, however in the length of the quilt would still have space for other motifs. Some of the lotuses seen were less realistic and more symbolic in nature. They were geometric in shape. Sometimes, a little more realistic feel has also been observed in the lotuses embroidered. The petals were paisley shaped and multiple petals were embroidered; however all the petals were of the same size. In case, of geometrical lotuses, mostly the inner petals were small and the outer petals were larger. The lotuses were mostly embroidered in Pink or Red color and had black outlines. The Lotus was always made from the top view. The modern version however has more of side views.

According to John Irwin, the lotus medallion in the center is also a symbol of entire universe. It would have four butis or trees in four corners. The depiction of the universe with lotus could be due to the mythological fact that the universe was created by Lord Brahma, whose seat is on the lotus.

Other than the Kantha, lotus is also a popular motif for the Bayton kantha which is the wrap for the accounts book. Bayton is a square piece with 108 petal lotus in the centre. Another item often seen with the lotus motif is the ‘Durjari Kantha’. This Kantha is again made out of a square piece but is stitched in an envelope format. Three corners of the square are stitched together in the centre and the fourth corner is left loose for the opening. It has a large central lotus motif and a border. The significance of the lotus motif on these items is fairly obvious. They hold account book and valuable articles/money respectively and so the goddess of finances is symbolized through the lotus.

Kantha made in the current date have lost all these symbolism. Although, lotus motif was seen in various articles that were being made, but the motifs were modernized and to a large extent simplified. Moreover, the lotus motif was used purely for design and aesthetic purpose. The symbolic significance of the religiously important flower is lost. I could not find any new brides embroidering the lotus however a lot of old pieces that were made by their grandmas when they got married still existed and had them.

THE FISHES - Matsya Avatar)
Out of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Matsya, The fish avatar was the first one. This avatar of Fish warns Sage Manu about the great flood and saved the mankind from extinction. Vishnu in the form of a little fish swam in the cupped palms of Sage Manu who was washing his hands in the river. Vishnu grew into a large fish and warned a week in advance to build a large Ark and saves all medicinal herbs, all the varieties of seeds, and to bring the seven saints along with the serpent Vasuki and other animals in the ark. (wikipedia)

Fishes are essential staple diet of rural Bengal. The Bay of Bengal and lots and lots of ponds ensures variety and huge quantity of fishes in the region. While travelling to see more and more Kantha pieces and not the especially commissioned pieces that were there in the museums; I noticed that the villages in West Bengal, especially in Birbhum district had lots of natural ponds. In fact, for every 7-8 houses there is a pond which is the source of their water needs. Most of them were also the fish ponds where they would fish. However they would always ensure that they leave enough behind for reproduction so as not to deplete them. It may be a strong possibility that this concept of not fishing all the fishes of the pond so that the reproduction continues forever makes the fishes a symbol of fertility.

Fishes are considered auspicious for any ceremony, religious or personal. Be it a wedding ceremony or a religious function, fishes are most important delicacies for these events. They are a symbol of growth and fertility. These are only few of the several mythological symbols that stitch their desires in the textile, forever, and become a part of their day to day lives reminding them of the hopes and wishes to manifest for a life that they believe they belong to (Nag, 1982).

From the detailed review and the semiotic study of the three chosen motifs, it is understood that the motifs in Kantha of the early 19th century till the late 20th century had religious connotations. The motifs were not merely randomly chosen motifs from the nature. They had manifestations of aspirations of the artisans. The quilts were used as a canvas to self expresses their desires as embroidered motifs that were placed in a fashion that portrayed their aspirations. Central lotus motif had a connotation of financial well being and that the core of entire well being. Tree of Life , were generally placed in four corners of the quilt and its symbolized evergreen growth in all the aspects if living. Fishes were placed randomly as they were considered as auspicious symbols and were considered as savior from any catastrophe in life.

Research Design
2.1 Research type – Qualitative

2.1.1 The proposed research is Qualitative. The proposed research is developed from qualitative point of view as researcher’s insights and impressions are assessed subjectively. It is multi-focal in its reasoning and exploration. The emphasis would be on the semiotics that underlay in the motif vocabulary. 2.1.2 The research is Empirical; Inductive and Interpretive. Several aspects of the use of motifs and the underlying symbolism are studied.

2.2 Coverage – Micro: It is a Micro study as it is a study of a small slice of the Craft sector.

2.3 Application – Basic Research - The proposed research is ‘Basic’. The proposed research is a basic investigation into the selection of motifs based on their symbolic meanings for self expression and manifestation of the artisan’s aspirations in Nakshi Kantha.

2.4 Documentary Research - The research is proposed to be carried out as library studies or documentary research.

2.5 Research Method - Historical Research - The research is proposed to be carried out on the basis of Motifs that have been found document by Books, Museums and private collector.

2.5.1 Primary Data – It is proposed to collect primary data through ‘Semi-structured Interviews’ of Craft artisans, Enthusiasts & Craft Designers. Insights may be recorded from these interviews by recording their approach and experiences. It is also proposed that data will be collected through ‘Diaries’.

2.5.2 Secondary Data - It is proposed, to gather from literature available from the books written by experienced Craft enthusiast, Craft Educationist., Journals based on Craft based research are to be reviewed for case histories. Books and journals dedicated to Kantha and semiotics in crafts are to be studied.

2.6 Time Frame - One Time

2.7 Purpose of the Study – Party Descriptive and Partly Evaluation Study

2.7.1 Description of selection of Motifs in Kantha

2.7.2 Data evaluation may involve a process that proceeds from more general to more specific evaluation of the semiotics and the symbolism that underlay in the choice and placements of the motifs.

2.7.3 Interaction patterns, Religion, cultural aspects and the interaction of the crafter with the product have to be analyzed considering the environment and other influences on the Craft-Kantha.

2.7.4 The outcome of these analysis and interpretation may be documented to understand the semiotics used in the selection of motifs and how Kantha was used by the artisans as the manifestation of their aspiration.

3.1 Primary Objective - To evaluate and document the under laying Semiotics in motif vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha of West Bengal (19th and 20th Century).

3.2 Secondary Objective –

To study the motifs of Nakshi Kantha.

To study the placements of Motifs in Nakshi Kantha.

SCOPE OF THE STUDY The scope of this study could be furthered by researching the semiotics of several other motifs in Nakshi Kantha.

Availability of authentic data confirms the exact symbolic meanings are rare.

Time, as the study has to be completed in a short duration, would be another major limitation.


  • Das, S. (1992). Fabric art: heritage of India. Abhinav Publications.

  • Dhameeja, J. (2004). Asian Embroidery. Abhinav Publishers & Crafts Council of India.

  • Merriam Webster Dictionanaries. (2006).

  • Nag, J. (1982). Arts of Bengal and eastern India. Crafts Council of West Bengal.

  • Naik, S. D. (1996). Traditional Embroideries of India. APH Publishing Corporation.

  • Padmaja, K. (2006). The several layers of Kantha. Sui Dhaga, Sutra .

  • Ranjan, R. (2007). Handmade in India. Council of Handicraft Development Corporations (COHANDS).

  • Stella Kramrisch, B. S. (1983). Exploring India's sacred art: selected writings of Stella Kramrisch. Motilal Banarsidass Publishe.

  • wikipedia. (n.d.).

  • Zaman, N. (1993). The Art of Kantha Embroidery. University Press.

  • www.craftrevival.org

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