Spreading the embroidered quilt She works the livelong night, As if the quilt her poet were, Of her bereaved plight. Many a joy and many a sorrow, I written on is breast; The story of Rupa’s life is there, Line by line expressed.
In his foreword to the first edition of The Art of Kantha Embroidery (1981), Syed Zillur Rahman commended the book as the “first of its kind on the traditional arts of Bengal.” This revised second edition of The Art of Kantha Embroidery includes all the information contained in the first edition but also brings it up-to-date by including the rapid changes that have taken place in the kantha since its revival in the eighties.
With the help of line drawings, black and white and coloured photographs, the book documents kantha stitches, motifs, border patterns, articles and styles.
It provides a detailed analysis of the technique of kantha embroidery as well as glimpse into the lives of the women of rural Bangladesh.
Niaz Zaman is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka. Her interest ranges from literature to folk life, with numerous research articles to her credit. Her translation of Bengali folk tales, Animal Tales from Bangladesh, was published by the Bangla Academy in 1985. A new edition of this book, with additional stories, is being published by UPL under the title Princes Kalabati and Other Tales. She has also co-edited with Ashraf Siddiqui, Tales from Bangladesh (forthcoming UPL).
In 1976, a chance remark by my sister—in-law, Mrs. Zebunnessa Majid, aroused my interest in kanthas. While I had been fascinated by Jasimuddin’s poem, Nakshi Kanthar Maath, or as E. M. Milford translates it, The Field of the Embroidered Quilt, I had not seen an embroidered quilt of the type Jasimuddin had described. True, I has seen kanthas made of red salu, embroidered in large cross stitch, and, because I was fortunate to have a friend who came from Rajshahi, had also seen lohori kanthas. However, in order to see the type of kantha that had inspired Jasimuddin, I had to go to the Dhaka Museum, still located at Nimtali at the time, and request the Curator, Dr. Enamul Haque, to let me see the kanthas locked in boxes for want of space.
Today one does not have to try as hard to see kanthas—though, unfortunately, the finest pieces are still locked in boxes. Handicraft shops offer kanthas for sale, television programmes utilize kanthas as backdrops or counterpanes in bedroom scenes, ministerial offices, conference rooms, hotel lobbies use kanthas to give an authentic Bangladeshi touch. Emerging from the private, inner recesses of homes and locked boxes, kanthas have invaded public space. To what do we owe this resurgence? A number of factors were perhaps responsible: a sense of national identity and the emergence worldwide of interest in ethnic art. The catalyst, however, seemed to be the commissioning of large pieces for a new five-star hotel in the mid-eighties.
It was shortly after the first edition of this book that the kantha revival took place. In this short space of time, however, the kantha has also changed, producing hybrid forms which kantha aficionados would not refer to as kantha. However, these forms have been influenced by the kantha and are, in turn, influencing kanthas. It is therefore interesting that whereas in the first edition I spoke of kanthas as belonging to the past, in this edition, even as I talk of kantha being a living art form, I must talk of changes that are setting in and, as some might even think, are destroying the kantha. Furthermore, an associate of a handicrafts outlet seems to think that a saturation point has been reached as far as kanthas are concerned. "Everyone in Bangladesh who is interested in kanthas already has a couple. What do the 5000 women trained in kantha making do?" Similarly kantha makers at another organization mourned that there were no more demands for large kanthas and there fore no work for them. However, such prognostications are unnecessarily gloomy. Kanthas have become integrated into our cultural life. Though the demand may continue to flood the handicrafts market, a few exquisite pieces will be produced, pieces that might well rival museum acquisitions.
This revised edition includes almost all the material that was included in the first, but there are additions necessitated by the kantha revival. The last chapter is entirely new, but almost each chapter has had some alterations made because of the changes that have taken place in the kantha. I also attempt to document, before all differences are wiped out, the regional differences in kanthas.
For this edition there are a number of people whom I must thank, people without whom this book would not have been possible. There is first of all Lala Rukh who invited me to speak at an ECOTA workshop, and thereby reawakened an interest that absence from the country had made dormant—particularly as so much had happened to the kantha in the years I had been away. I would also like to thank Sayyada R. Ghuznavi, Hameeda Hossain _ and Razia Qadir for filling me in on all that took place during the years I was out of the country. To Mr. Tofail Ahmed and Mohammad Sayeedur I owe a debt of gratitude for sharing their knowledge of what has been, for both of them, a life-long vocation. I would like to record my gratitude to Surayia Rahman for discussing her work. I also thank the workers at Kumudini, BRAC, and Skill Development for Underprivileged Women for their patience in answering questions. For permission to photograph kanthas in their collection I would like to thank the National Museum, Mrs. jahanara Abedin, Kumudini, SDUW the Bangla Academy, Mr. Tofail Ahmed, Dr. Parveen Rashid, Professor Zahurul Huque, Mrs. Rokeya Kabir. Kantha photographs were also provided by Adcom and Swapan Saha.
I wish also to express my gratitude to my long—suffering family, particularly my husband, Qazi Siddiquzzaman, who carefully guarded my notes and files all the years I was away from the country. It is true he managed to lose my desk, but he was careful to preserve all the scraps of paper in it. How necessary these were only I know.
I owe a very special debt of gratitude to Mrs. Joya Pati of Kumudini for supporting this revision in various ways. It was her suggestion of a second edition that encouraged me to consider an updated version. Without her support this revision would perhaps not have materialized. I thank her once again.
In 1981 a new five-star hotel was opened in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The name chosen for the hotel was Sonargaon—the Golden Village—a name which harkened back to the golden past of Bengal when the granaries were full of paddy and the ponds full of fish. The days of golden Bengal were long over-if they ever existed, except in legend and lore. Floods, famine, food shortage, dependence on external aid had become the rule rather than the exception long before the hotel was planned. But in its plan and conception, the hotel symbolized and embodied the best that Golden Bengal could offer. It was, therefore, only in order, that the decoration pieces that were to furnish the hotel should be truly indigenous. And what could be more representative than the kantha, or the embroidered quilt of Bengal? Therefore, when the hotel opened, across its lobby wall and in the foyer were proudly displayed specially commissioned kanthas. Newly made, they yet represented an old tradition, a tradition that had almost been forgotten, and was made new again by this proud display.
It is true that kanthas and kantha making were never dead. Every poor woman in the villages and towns of Bangladesh continued to stitch kanthas as women had in the past—putting together old saris and lungis when their initial purpose had been served and the cloth become too trail and worn out through repeated washings to stand up Io further wear. Outside the dismal huts in every slum, cotton quilts hung up to air and dry In most middle—class families as well, kanthas were used instead of light blankets during cool nights. But these were put together with a minimum of needlework and were meant for private use, not public display. The kind of kantha that the Sonargaon hotel displayed was a thing of the past, Different modes of life and different ideas of aesthetics had caused a fading of interest in indigenous art. The two- hundred-year domination of the Indian subcontinent by the British had led to a substitution of the western for the indigenous, whether it was in language, dress, education, or art.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the struggle for independence and the swadeshi movement led to the evocation of an Indian identity. Deep-seated emotions, however, soon led, as is well-known, to the two-nation theory and the sense of a Pakistani identity, separate from an Indian one. The attempt at creating a Pakistani identity, however, broke down soon after partition. The proclamation that Urdu alone would be the state language of Pakistan led to protests in East Pakistan as early as 1948. In l952, the language struggle reached such an extreme that people in Dhaka city broke Section l44~prohibiting the gathering of more than three persons-to demand that Bangla be recognized as one of the state languages of Pakistan. Over the years, the celebrations during February, commemorating the Language Movement and the Language martyrs, had emerged in a distinctly Bengali culture. Centering upon the Language Movement grew a Bangladeshi cultural awareness that consciously opposed the cultural domination of Pakistan. This awareness led to the adoption of an indigenous art form at commemorations of the language struggle. The women’s art of alpana in particular was used to ornament the paths around the Shaheed Minar, the monument marking the spot where young Bengalis had laid down their lives.
While alpana art was used almost defiantly in the face of the Pakistani masters who could not appreciate the art of the alpana, and also hated and feared it as unlslamic and suggestive of black magic, the art of the kantha was an almost forgotten one. Kanthas had disappeared from public, so that when people spoke of the nakshi kantha, Jasimudin's poem Nakshi Kantha Maath was usually understood. In 1954, Tofail Ahmed mourned the kantha as a lost art, fated to be remembered because a folk poet had immortalized it in a poem, rather than as an article of common use. During Pakistan times, Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hasan attempted to give a rightful place to indigenous art. Qamrul Hasan’s attempt materialized in the shape of the Design Centre. But apathy and neglect allowed the traditional arts of Bangladesh to languish, and, in place of the traditional kanthas, a hybrid product, locally known as the "carpet" kantha, was made at the East Pakistan Small and Cottage industries Corporation project at Chapai Nawabganj. Zainul Abedin, apart from setting up the Art College—now the Institute of Pine Arts—also advocated the setting up of a folk art museum and personally collected fine specimens of_ Jessore kanthas. It was only after liberation, however, that Zainul Abedin’s dream of a folk arts museum materialized in the shape of the Polk Art and Crafts Foundation at Sonargaon.
During pre—liberation days, women’s associations that encouraged women to develop skills that they could put to marketable use settled for traditional skills such as needlework but not to the special type of needlework that is kantha embroidery. The revival of the kantha could only take place after the sense of national identity created a demand for the truly indigenous to replace the exogenous culture that was being discarded. In addition, economic necessity encouraged the development of traditional skills. It was, therefore, a number of factors that encouraged the revival of the kantha, even if somewhat hesitantly and tentatively after the emergence of Bangladesh. In Organizing Women’s Employment Through Kantha Production/’ Hameeda Hossain describes how kantha making was set up soon after Bangladesh became independent. The War of Independence in 1971 had left many women widowed or separated from their families. Attempts to rehabilitate them led, particularly in districts with a strong kantha tradition such as Jessore, Kushtia, Faridpur and Rajshahi, to setting up cottage industries and attempting to market kanthas as commercial products.
This attempt to revive kanthas was, however, not ~ immediately successful. The kantha revival took a back seat to the development of jute handicrafts and then, a little later, to the jamdani revival. It was not surprising that one of the first handicrafts to be developed after liberation should have been jute, for example, floor coverings, place mats, and the shika—or pot hanger. After all, one of the sore points of the East Pakistani had been that the foreign exchange received through sale of jute, had gone to enrich West Pakistan. The initial flurry over jute, however, gradually faded. On the other hand, interest in the kantha, begun on a low key in early 1972-it was, after all, a domestic art, something that belonged to the private, not public sphere—gradually gained momentum. The display in Hotel Sonargaon and exhibitions held in the early eighties revealed the possibilities of the kantha as C art form as well as income-generating activity.
The exhibitions and the attractive products at numerous handicraft stores have succeeded in attracting consider- able interest both from foreign visitors as well as from Bangladeshis themselves, who are realizing for the first time—as a group—how beautiful kanthas can be. While these kanthas reflect a growing interest in the truly _ indigenous or ethnic art of Bangladesh, they also reflect the changes in this traditional art. Made of new cloth, made to order, embroidered by several women who have been given strict instructions about thread, colours, stitches, who have been given cloth with motifs and designs traced ready for them to begin sewing, these pieces of tapestry are still within the kantha tradition. Designs and motifs are drawn from old kanthas.
As the revival of the kantha has been closely linked with the revival of handicrafts, a brief summary of the role played by different organizations is useful. In pre- liberation Bangladesh, East Pakistan Small and Cottage Industries Corporation—now Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation-had, for several years, run a project in Chapai Nawabganj. This project, however, produced only a hybrid form of kantha locally known as "carpet" kantha. These kanthas were worked with large cross stitches, a non-indigenous stitch. The motifs, however, were indigenous ones, ranging from various floral motifs to local fauna—deer, peacocks, elephants. The cloth, a deep red cloth, locally known as lal salu, was the same used for sujuis, embroidered quilts popular in the Rajshahi area, but using small back stitches to embroider arabesque designs.
After 1972, the kantha revival was helped by numerous other organizations which emerged. The first of these organizations was the Bangladesh Handicraft Cooperative Federation with its outlet Karika. Closely associated with BSCIC, BHCF was, however, also more enterprising and innovative than BSCTC which, like most government enterprises, suffered from various forms of inertia. Hameeda Hossain, Perveen Ahmed, Ruby Ghuznavi, Lila Amirul Islam, who were closely associated with Karika in its initial stages, pulled out the kantha, so to speak, from the closed trunks in which it had long lain and displayed it at the outlet. Karika was followed by Aarong—the outlet for the Mennonite Church Council and then for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee—and Kumudini. In 1985 these organizations were followed by Skill Development for Underprivileged Women—or Nakshi Kantha Kendra——and then Arshi. SDUW and Arshi, unlike the other organizations, are wholly devoted to embroidery, which, though not strictly kantha embroidery, has been influenced by it. These organizations have been joined recently by Aranya.
Because the revival of the kantha has been closely associated with these organizations, certain changes in the tradition of the kantha have been unavoidable. While each of these organizations aims at developing traditional crafts, they are also commercial organizations. The development of a traditional craft is therefore also closely linked with the market. Will it sell? And how much are people willing to pay for it?
As a result of these factors, a tremendous change is taking place in the kantha. Apart from new uses being found for the kantha, there are also changes in design, material and stitching. It is true that the kantha, even originally served a number of functions. Thus it could be a large—sized wrapper, but it was also used as an ashon or seating place, a gilaf or quran cover, bostani or wrapper for precious garments, an arshilata or covering for combs and mirrors, a balisher oshar or pillow cover, and a dastark/1:111 or long placemat to be spread on the floor for dining. However, additional uses are being found for kanthas. Thus kanthas are being used as wall—hangings. And kantha embroidery is finding its way into cushion covers, ornamental yokes or panels for dresses, kurtas, saris, and purses.
Wall—hangings, ranging in size from several feet long to a few inches square, have perhaps effected the greatest change in kanthas. Originally kanthas were meant to be spread. Hence most kanthas had a central lotus which acted as the focal point of the kantha. The four comer motifs—kalkas or paisleys and brikshalatas or tree-of life motifs—all verged on this central motif. Furthermore, the background stitching tended to swirl around each motif, almost molding the motifs in the process. Today, because kanthas are meant to be hung and viewed frontally both the design and the stitching have undergone a change. Thus, instead of a centre and four corners, many kanthas have a top and a bottom. Furthermore, as the kantha is designed by a designer and the designs then traced onto the kantha which is given to craftswomen to embroider, the needle is not used to mark out the motifs to be filled. The naive, transparent figures of traditional kanthas were the result of the needlewoman using her needle to embroider the motifs, both the mahout and the elephant, for instance. Nowadays this transparent effect is occasionally deliberately created in the interest of tradition. Furthermore, with all the designs being traced onto the cloth, the needlewoman no longer needs to swirl around motifs but fills in the gaps between them. The moulding effect is, therefore, often missing from these kanthas.
One of the most striking differences in background stitching may be seen in the "kanthas" of Skill Development for Underprivileged Women. Catering to a sophisticated taste, the SDUW "kanthas" have eliminated the ripple effect of traditional kanthas in their wall- hangings. The characteristic kantha stitch is a ripple stitch. The SDUW "kanthas/’ however, use the darning stitch, thus creating a smooth surface instead of the rippled one created by the kantha stitch. Furthermore, the "kanthas" at SDUW are embroidered on silk, rather than on cotton. A wide gulf therefore separates them from the traditional kanthas embroidered on old cloth with thread drawn from sari borders. Aarong and Kumudini, on the other hand, have attempted to remain closer to traditional kanthas in form and spirit, though even they have been forced to change to cater to the demands of the market, both local and foreign.
It is perhaps a sad truth that our rich tradition could only be revived when a market value was put on it. At the same time it should be borne in mind that the revival of the kantha has benefited thousands of women who would otherwise not have been gainfully employed-BRAC, for instance, utilizes the work of 3000 women at Jamalpur and 2000 women at Jessore; Kumudini estimates that it has trained over 8000 women since the kantha project began. While it is true that our traditional craft is no longer in the hands of the maker, but in that of organizations who know what will sell and what will not, it should be remembered that these organizations have the resources and the initiative to turn back to a past when the tradition was alive and well. lf the kanthas that these organizations make are well beyond the reach of the common man or woman, it is perhaps to their credit that they have elevated what was valueless, except sentimentally, into invaluable art.
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