First I should let you know that my family come from Sylhet, a region in the North-East of Bangladesh, where the word kantha is pronouned more like “ketha”.
My first ketha, and most prized possession, was mostly black with red and yellow flowers. It had been stitched by my Nani (maternal grandmother).
The story goes that we were visiting my mother’s cousin in Chittagong (Bangladesh’s second biggest city, close to Cox’s Bazar, where the Rohingya refugees are living), and I didn’t want to leave. I screamed and yelled and cried, and could only be consoled by the presence of my special blanket – my ketha. After finally being dragged out to the car, I leaped out of my mother’s lap and sprinted the five stories back to my Aunt’s room to hide under my ketha pretending to sleep!
Shazia’s khala (her mother’s younger sister) wearing the saree that became ‘the last ketha’
I distinctly remember seeing a photo of my Khala (my mother’s younger sister), wearing what looked like my ketha. I pointed this out to my Mother, and she explained that it was true. My Nani carefully collected old saris from the women in our family, which she would later hand-stitch into beautiful blankets, ready to gift to her children and grand children.
Every time we returned to Bangladesh, both my grandmothers would have one or two hand-stitched kethas ready and waiting to present to us as gifts. The last one I received was six years ago. My Nani said her hands were too old and sore to stitch anything anymore. After years of sewing and knitting and cooking, she said it would be the last one she would sew for anyone.
I moved to Cambodia seven years ago, and have been back and forth to the UK since. I discovered I was pregnant whilst staying with my mother in London. As we started to pack, ready to head back home to Cambodia as three instead of two, I found myself searching for the last ketha my grandmother had made for us. This had to be the first thing my baby would be wrapped in when he arrived.
Our family albums are full of photos of babies all wrapped up in kethas just after being born – each one completely unique, full of colours and prints, full of history.
Kiri sleeps snuggled in the precious ‘last ketha’, hand-stitched by his Great-Grandmother following the celebrated Bengali tradition
Only now can I truly appreciate how special this tradition is. So much more than just upcycled sarees. Kethas tell a story. They bring together the memories and experiences of the women that wore them as sarees – and those memories live on in the softness of that precious vintage cotton against my son’s skin.
About the Author: Shazia and Khushi Kantha founder Laura Rana went to secondary school together in London. They reunited in Dhaka in their mid-twenties, sharing a flat while Laura worked on a research project that aimed to enhance the leadership role of women within community-based aquaculture enterprises and Shazia led the Communications team at BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, born out of Bangladesh’s own refugee crisis during the Liberation War of 1971. With a background in branding, marketing and communications, Shazia has founded multiple ventures, including a Sihanoukville-based vegan cafe and knowledge hub and volunteer-run social justice awareness-raising platform schtoom. Mother to two gorgeous boys, Kiri and Seiya, her latest pioneering initiative Kameng Sabai brings cloth nappies to Cambodia.