Kantha Anthology


Embroidered Quilts of Bengal in Philadelphia

The City of Brotherly Love is casting a warm glance toward its Bengal sisters from the West Bengal region of India, as well as from current-day Bangladesh. To be part of the romance you need to visit the Philadelphia of Museum of Art and see Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal.

The Philadelphia museum’s show is the first one presented outside of South Asia devoted solely to this centuries-old form of embroidered quilt-making. The show focuses on two top-notch and stunning collections — one donated to the Museum by its former Curator of Indian Art, Dr. Stella Kramrisch; the other from the collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, leading supporters of American self-taught art.

The museum’s exhibit is organized by three themes. The first one explores the origin of kanthas (also called nakshi kanthas, or embroidered quilts) and the most common motifs, such as the focal lotus flower and corner trees. The second theme examines the technical process and design variations, while the third one looks at the different types of images that reveal how women interpreted the world around them and told their stories via thread.

On display are 44 quilts that present the visually, rich and detailed workmanship that were created by women in the Bengal region during the 19th and mid-20th centuries.  Kanthas can range from very simple quilts to ones with intricate embroidery. They come in all sizes, shapes and served several functions. For instance, square kanthas were made for worshippers to sit on during pujas or Hindu prayers, to cover gifts, or food presented at formal affairs like weddings. Smaller ones would serve as a baby’s blanket, while small elongated pieces might be folded to cover a book or other personal items such as mirrors or combs.

The quilts, are made from several layers of fabric sewn together using a running stitch or a “kantha stitch.” During the sewing process the embroiderers don’t use hoops or frames to keep the cloth taut, resulting in a rippled effect on the fabric. However, what make kanthas so unique is the use of recycled material and threads pulled from saris and dhotis to embroider the designs and images. This embroidery work reflects the different design styles between Hindu and Muslim women. Hindu women tend to be more pictorial and narrative with a theme of daily activities composed around a central floral image; whereas Muslim women use a combination of geometric and floral designs.

Prevalent in kanthas is the embroidered lotus flower, sewn in the center, which symbolizes purity. Another common element, found at each corner is the flowering tree that marks the four directional axes. The space between the trees and the flower is filled with animals, figures, or symbols and the designs are based on the woman’s every day life. Although not a common practice, in some cases, the embroiderer might stitch her name or the recipient’s onto the quilt. Some kanthas might also have embroidered proverbs or the name of a diety.

Those with more complicated designs might be passed down from generation to generation; however, for the most part, kanthas in most households had more practical uses and as they became worn, stained, faded they were used as either a dishcloth or a diaper.

According to Darielle Mason, the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, who organized the exhibition, “Like American patchwork quilts, kanthas are about memory. They connect families and generations and they connect the present with the past. The everyday lives of Bengali women were seldom recorded prior to the late 20th century, so kanthas are often the only surviving physical traces of women’s presence, and the only way their personal voices may be heard.”

The exhibit also provides some geopolitical and economic background concerning Bengal, which is now divided by the border separating Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. According to museum comments, during the 1930s, kanthas took on additional meaning as important embodiments of cultural and national identity. From the late 1970s, kantha stitching was revived in both Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, and provided an income for women. Today, furnishings and clothing done in kantha embroidery are extremely popular and are found in boutiques around the world.

Whether they’re coveted by consumers for their homes or revered by textile enthusiasts for the exquisite details, the artist and collector Jill Bonovitz says it best in an interview published in the exhibition’s catalogue, “It’s the innate genius of putting together something that works as a piece of art, and yet obviously the initial thrust was something that was functional, or ceremonial, or a gift.”

Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal runs through July 25, 2010.