more on the quilts of Bengal

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Posted by:  Cathy

The quilting tradition of Bengal (now divided into the country of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India) is a long and rich one, but not one well known in North America or Europe.

For those interested in learning more about this remarkable history and the women involved, here are some resources:

Kantha:  The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal, edited by Darielle Mason, is an amazing book, beautifully produced and knowledgeably written.  It is the catalog for an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Len and I were fortunate to be able to see in early 2010.  Many of the quilts in this book were collected by Stella Kramrisch; one of the first nakshi kantha tapestries that Surayia designed was based on a kantha in Kramrisch’s collection and was purchased by the Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka.  We saw it there in late 2010.

Very early Surayia nakshi kantha tapestry. Photo copyright Kantha Productions LLC

Deepa Balagopal’s blog is a rich source for anyone interested in stitching and embroidery, particularly that done in South Asia.  This post includes pictures of Surayia’s designs as well as a traditional kantha.

The Embassy of Bangladesh in Bahrain has a page devoted to kantha with a concise article on the history and traditions.  Unfortunately the photo link does not seem to work.  It would be interesting to see which art they have chosen, particularly since Surayia’s pieces were often purchased by the Government of Bangladesh in the 1990s and used as official gifts to heads of state, heads of government and other foreign dignitaries.

This post from the FhireDekha Forum gives a good overview of nakshi kantha and includes several photos of Surayia’s designs side-by-side with traditional work.

Our friend, Professor Niaz Zaman, had this to say about the quilting tradition and how Surayia adopted it and made it an art form:

The kantha is an indigenous quilt, made in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, traditionally from stitching layers of old clothing, such as saris.   Everyday kanthas are used as bedcovers, baby blankets, clothes, wrappers for books, and other articles.  For special occasions such as weddings, kanthas are made as gifts and embroidered with scenes from legends, folktales, contemporary life, religious, floral, and symbolic motifs and border patterns.  Though each piece is different, most kanthas have a similar pattern, with a lotus at the center forming the focal point of the design. Embroidered quilts with artistic patterns have come to be known as nakshi kantha.  The main stitch used is the running stitch, but in a variety of ways, creating a variety of designs and textures.  Traditionally, red, black or blue yarn was predominantly used for motifs, with white yarn used for the background or field of the quilt.  However, the greater availability of colored yarn – generally cotton – has led to more variety of color.  After a period of dormancy, the nakshi kantha has seen a revival.  It is no longer only a domestic folk art meant for family members, but an art form for public display.

Surayia Rahman’s pieces follow the kantha tradition but with several changes.  Instead of old cotton, she uses silk. She also draws the designs of the entire piece before it is embroidered.  The running stitch is used for the empty spaces between motifs or scenes, but the motifs themselves are filled with the Romanian stitch, called in Bangladesh bhorat [filling].  Thread is typically rayon from bamboo, or silk.  She has been inspired by the poetry of Jasim Uddin and has also drawn scenes from rural life, history, as well as occasionally contemporary events for her pieces.

Let me know if you find other good resources on the history and traditions of quilting in Bengal!

What else would you like to learn about kantha?