India Design Motifs – The Lotus, Part 29

BY: SUN STAFF - 5.10 2017

Kantha Embroidery – Central Lotus

A study of the historical, spiritual and cultural elements of Vedic design.

Thus far in our study of the lotus as design motif, we've touched upon the lotus' association with Sri Krsna and Lord Jagannath, its use as a pedestal for divine personalities and paraphernalia, and architectural expressions of the lotus design. Today we'll consider the lotus in a more two-dimensional form – as design motif in Indian textiles.

The lotus is one of the oldest textile ornaments found in Vedic culture. Like the mango, peacock, swan and elephant, it is a common feature in textiles woven for garments, in temple embroideries, and in other fiber artworks depicting transcendental scenes. The range of design variations is tremendous, and one could fill an encyclopedia with examples of the lotus, executed in flat artwork.

There are many Sanskrit terms describing the lotus, and several of these are used when referring to textile depictions, including: satadal (hundred-petalled lotus), padma, pundarika(white lotus), and nila-utpala (blue lotus).

Over the next several segments we'll look at how the lotus motif is rendered in various regional forms of Indian textile art, including the Kantha stitching of Bengal and Bangladesh, the Kasuti embroidery of Karnataka, and the Paithani saris of Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

Kantha Embroidered Panel

Like Orissa, Bengal is famous for its appliqué artwork. The lotus motif is used on many spiritual and cultural textile pieces, from yatra banners and festival flags to deity and wedding umbrellas, pavilion cloths, and altar backdrops. One of the most common designs are found on panels made of figures cut-out of red fabric and appliquéd onto a white background. In the case of lotuses, the petals are sometimes alternated in red and black. Black thread is often used to highlight the design, e.g., folds of the petals and the lotus center.

Kantha art also features the lotus motif prominently in embroidered scenes depicting Radha-Krsna lila pastimes. Along with a range of stitched trees, creepers, birds, etc., the lotus is always one of the primary design elements.

The lotus is commonly featured at the center of Kantha designs, with all the other motifs and pictures radiating outward from it. The central lotus is typically referred to as the hundred-petalled lotus, or satadala padma, although in Kantha, that number does not hold particular significance. Therefore the images may actually have a count of only 70 or 80 petals, but still be referred to as the 'hundred petalled lotus'.

Traditionally, kantha were produced for family use. The making of these textiles later became an art form, with embroidered and artfully stitched panels depicted various folk scenes. These pieces became known as nakshi kantha, and gained commercial popularity. But even as an art form, kantha are meant to be produced by recycling old cloth from saris, lungi and dhoti, etc. Even the thread for stitching was collected from old saris.

Along with the classic lotus motif employed in Kantha, the solar motif is a primary design. In fact, the lotus and solar motifs are often found together in the centre of the kantha, symbolizing the sun's relationship with the lotus, who appears and reappears, dependent upon sun and water.

Kantha Panel

The earliest mention of Bengal kantha is thought to be found in the Sri Caitanya-caritamrita, where kantha is mentioned in numerous passages. While the term also refers to the throat or neck, kantha is often used in reference to a cloth or patchwork quilt, mostly in reference to Srila Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis:

karonya-matra hate, kantha chinda, bahirvasa
krsna-katha, krsna-nama, nartana-ullasa

"They carry only waterpots, and they wear torn quilts. They always chant the holy names of Krsna and discuss His pastimes. In great jubilation, they also dance. 

(Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya lila 19.129)

Describing the austerities observed by Srila Rupa Goswami, Srila Prabhupada also mentions the kantha:

"You have seen Rupa Gosvami's picture. Only a little cloth. Kantha. Kantha means handmade quilt. All rejected cloth, they are put together and sewn; it is called kantha. They utilize even rejected cloth. That is called kantha." 

(Srila Prabhupada Lecture on Srimad Bhagavatam, May 30, 1972, Los Angeles)