The house has become quieter. The mourning rituals ended last evening. Most visitors have left. Even people of the house are beginning to travel. Work beckons.
Subodh and one of my nieces together come to me. “Do you know what a khenda is?” “Yes, but why do you ask this now?” “Maa used to make these. Why don’t you write about this on your blog?” Well, that’s an idea to chew upon.
When sarees turned old or faded away, women used to recycle them. Old sarees were stacked up in neat layers, and stitched with simple darning stitches to make soft bed cushions or throws. These are called khenda. These were perhaps the earliest forms of saree quilts. Simple, unstuffed and soft. These pictures here show an old khenda without any adornments.
I asked a group of women whether they had heard about these saree quilts. It turns out that almost every state in India has their versions of these quilts. These are called kantha khesh in Bengal and kantha seja (କନ୍ଥା ସେଯ) in Odisha. The word for these saree quilts is bontha in Telugu, while people in North Karnataka call it khaudi. In Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, these quilts are called gudhari (गुदड़ी) and the phrase “gudhari ke laal” is commonly used. In Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, these quilts are called godri or kathri (कथरी) or gadli, while in Jharkhand they are called ledra (लेदरा). In Maharashtra and Goa, they are called godhadi (गोधड़ी) or goidi. Even states where sarees are not routinely worn have their own versions of these quilts. Sangeeta Garg Gupta tells me that in hilly Himachal where sarees are not practical wear, these quilts called gandholi, are made with old salwar suits stuffed between old bed sheets. States where men routinely wear veshti or dhoti also see recycling of these garments into quilts.
The original versions used simple darning stitches in straight lines all across the quilt to align the soft cotton sarees. Ananya Mandal says: “The thread used in these kanthas were taken from the borders of the saree or dhoti itself, painstakingly removed and wound for use. You see, then these women sewing these quilts couldn’t afford money to buy threads. Kantha is a wonderful example of recycling.” However now these quilts can be made to order, with machine stitches. Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam shared these examples of quilts which she made herself using machine stitches which are considerably faster to make.
Eventually women began to make them more decorative. Sometimes using kantha embroidery. In Bihar smaller versions of these were used as baby quilts which were decorated with the now popular sujini embroidery. The motifs showcased ideas from daily life.
Sharmishtha Ghosh Gupta fondly recollects how innovative these motifs could be: “My Maa made kanthas for my sons and embroidered beautiful flowers and figures on them using kantha stitch. She even stitched poems on them, which are originally written by my Dad in Bangla.”
So clearly, besides their decorative value, there is a huge emotional connect. For some, covering their babies with a saree worn by their grandmother, mother or aunt, protected their babies from illness or the evil eye. Nothing beats feeling snug and warm in a quilt which smells like my mother or grandmother — is a comment I heard frequently. Most of all, the love that goes into making these quilts for their children is tangible.
Now of course, saree quilts have evolved to more stylish avatars. We get them in attractive patchwork and ajrakh patterns as dohars or bed spreads at handicraft exhibitions.
But this is the original. Soaked in mom’s love. The khenda.