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Books > Art and Architecture > The Aesthetics and Vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha (Bangladesh National Museum Collection)
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The Aesthetics and Vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha (Bangladesh National Museum Collection)
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The Aesthetics and Vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha (Bangladesh National Museum Collection)
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About the Book

 

Perveen Ahmad's "Aesthetics and Vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha" is not only an enlightening and in depth view of the Bangladesh National Museum's Collection of 'embroidered quilts', but gives a new analytical insight into the artistic aspects and meaning of motifs in kantha art.

 

In words and pictures she guides the reader to look at a selected number of some of the best kanthas in the Museum. In her presentation the author has exposed new angles of interpretation by investigating the social, religious and political backdrop which brought about the unique art form. She points to sources and explains how at a particular historical time, in particular circumstances and as a result of human conditions both sociological and political, various processes came to bear upon the evolution of the folk art-craft of nakshi kantha. Her discovery of religious streams of thought in the motifs, giving rise to prime information on roots of the symbols, create a fascinating and novel theory. She states that kantha art goes beyond the realm of logic and training and possesses a numinous power, a shakti which is inspired through a divine gift. Kantha art is not just skilfull embroidery.

 

It is a vocabulary, a means of communication, inviting us to 'read' the aesthetics of design, motif and symbol, to understand the inner reality of the society as it existed at a given time.

 

The evolution of kantha art, as it received the influences of historical events in the past thousand years or so led to the creation of an ethnic art expression by the village women of East Bengal.

 

The art of kantha embroidery carries a language that is universal, drawing from the well of mankind's primitive and traditional art knowledge, and giving to the world a priceless cultural heritage.

 

About the Author

 

Perveen Ahmad, B.A. Hons, History, Kinnaird College, Lahore, and M.A. from Punjab University, i's a pioneer in the movement for bringing recognition to the crafts of Bangladesh starting in 1973, when handicrafts were considered the 'unsophisticated' products of rural masses. She set out to motivate thousands of village artisans, travelling by country boat and on foot to convince the producers of the humble sheeka (jute rope pot holders), cane basket weavers and the embroiderers of kantha, that they possessed a heritage of immense value. In 1974 she was instrumental in organising the "First National Handicrafts Exhibition" at the Shilpa Kala Academy which led to the establishment of the first artisan's organisation in the country, Bangladesh Hastashilpa Samabaya Federation Ltd. in 1974, named Karika.

 

She put Bangladesh on the world map by entering its membership to the World Crafts Council, an affiliate of UNESCO in 1978. She worked devotedly for the development of crafts both at the national and international levels, organizing the first Asian Regional Artisan's Workshop 1986 under the World Crafts Council, UNESCO Paris and UNESCO Bangladesh. She was made Honorary Member of the World Crafts Council in 1986. She is also a women's activist, a founder member of Women for Women Research and Study Group, and has several books and research studies on crafts and socio-economic subjects. She is also founder of the first all women video film producer's group named FemCom.

 

Foreword

 

The story of the Kantha is rooted in the history, culture, civilization of Bangladesh. Certainly we have a very rich past, but the history of the origins of folk art is almost lost. Even after repeated search we could not establish the exact life of a particular kantha or of the kanthas kept in different Museums, or in individual collections.

 

One of the good and largest collections is housed in the Bangladesh National Museum, although the archival records were not scientifically categorised and identified till the undertaking of the study by Ms Perveen Ahmad. While a few kanthas have names embroidered within the embroidery and some have dates, the information does not necessarily indicate the name of the maker-producer, although it could point to a family's ownership.

 

Ms Perveen Ahmad had to study each kantha as a separate entity in context of its design, motifs, decoration and stitches. This was practically a study linked to the method of Levi Claude Strauss of France who laid more importance on studying the object insynchronic study methods. But as we have a history of almost five thousand years, we cannot ignore it's roots and past. The designs, symbols, motifs of kantha are available in other folk arts of Bangladesh. There had been other hard materials such as wood, iron, silver, gold and also teracotta, the achitectural buildings with designs, but the present study made by Perveen Ahmad had little scope for a comparative study of designs, motifs or decorations as available in other folk arts. Nonetheless, we are quite sure of one thing, that designs and motifs travelled from one folk art to another very easily.

 

The artisans that worked with kantha were only women and we do not get any recorded information about them, so naturally Perveen Ahmad had to study the kanthas as single elements and this possibly gave a greater scope for her study through the synchronic analysis method.

 

Three great religions of India, i. e., Hinduism which came earliest, Buddhism second and Islam which followed last, each influenced kanthas so greatly that it changed designs and motifs into a unique decorative art form which are highlighted in this study.

 

Ms Perveen Ahmad has ten chapters in her research work, where she strenuously worked to find out how the three great religions made their impact through creative motifs, patterns and arrangements of the kantha. She made another approach from the view point of symbols, diagrams and forms and finally she tried best to illustrate the unity in the complexities of kantha. There is no denying the fact, the oldest inhabitants of Bangladesh known as Australoid, then the Dravidians.: Aryans and the Muslims made a chequered history of this region and the kanthas found a unique character as a multireligious product and also a multiracial expresssion.

 

Kantha is a product of a non-literate society with the psychological and cultural traditions of Bangladesh. Whether folk art is art or not, did not come into Perveen Ahmad's study. The difference between folk art and folk craft in many instances is not always clear and transparent. A'simple kantha used as wrapper or as bedspread does not go in the name of a Nakshi kantha in the village. A kantha becomes folk art-craft when it absorbs age-old symbols, designs, motifs, decorations and therefore bears a deeper content. A simple chair without a folk motif is not folk art, but as soon as a traditional motif or design is placed on its surface people call it a folk art object.

 

The sense of beauty displayed in folk art lies in its decorations and the interpretive mind of the artisan. One kantha is different from the other only when an individual does something especially with its form. The love of traditional knowledge finds a lovelier expression in the kantha.

 

Our experience shows that kanthas were made for everyday use, with beautiful designs and layout. Stories are there about the making of a kantha initially by a grandmother, which was left to her daughter or daughter-in-law who continued the piece down to the grand-daughter. That is why kantha is a product of a particular family with the imprint of generations. Such kanthas of course are now rare to find.

 

I thank Ms Perveen Ahmad for her endeavours for the first time in Bangladesh, to make such a good study of traditional kanthas which was not done before. Kanthas were left to her without any past references and clear and transparent history. I also thank Bangladesh National Museum for allowing Ms Perveen Ahmad the opportunity and independence to do her research.

 

Ms Perveen Ahmad has been associated with folk art and crafts through her field experience in the development of crafts since twenty five years. Her devotion to reviving and preserving traditional crafts. finally inspired her to make this study.

 

I do believe this study will inspire other people to come forward for collection of kanthas and making more fruitful studies in the future. I do not intend to say that this is final study of kanthas of Bangladesh but it will remain an excellent resource.

 

Author's Preface

 

It would be correct to say that the history of the East Bengal kantha is as old as the history of the socio-cultural evolution of this geographical region.

 

As with- all hand crafted objects there is no absolute system of dating the beginning of such items in firm historical time, because all were invented over a period, for various 'needs and purposes, Just as instruments were evolved for hunting, tools for agriculture, so also household requirements caused ingenious creations to develop. Alongside of catering to necessity for different purposes of life, were the specialised objects of ritual and ceremony, such as items for birth, death, marriage, war and defence.

 

It is seen, however, that the transformation from nomadic and tribal societies to agricultural and vocational, producer-trading societies, is an overlapping condition in the subcontinent, all .societal forms existing alongside each other. Thus the growth of many objects and artefacts of the various primitive, tribal and agricultural societies developed out of the typical ethnicity of a particular people. These sprung up not only from the needs of that social group or the inherited customs and their knowledge of the past, but in fact were a pure creation of that community. Just as language in the subcontinent has its hundreds of expressions, through various dialects, changing from region to region, similarly dress and costume, song and legend, food, festivals and rituals display different styles and forms, giving repeated proof of the diversity of mixed races which inhabit the vast and climaticaly contrasting region.

 

To trace the origins of the woven saree, (as some have attempted to do by surveying ancient sculptures) or to investigate the antiquity of alpana, based as it is on both primeval diagrammatic art, Vedic concepts and lastly Tantric sign symbols which developed around the second century A. D. gives the researcher sufficient information to whet the appetite, but cannot be conclusive.

 

Perhaps such certainty about the origin of folk art crafts is an impossibility because communities did not only invent what they did for their needs, but also because they wanted to, for, pleasure. Aesthetics was their vocabulary and from such sensitivity came about the expressions of each community, its individual way of manifesting its own personality. I would even stretch the point a little further by saying that even today in many parts of the subcontinent articulation within homogenous groups display clear distinctions in the same society. The expressions known, but it most likely had a precursor in the humble kheta (khet means field) a coverlet used by village people, made through the thrift of women recycling old sarees and dhotis by sewing them together with linear running stitch. Items of pure necessity in the frugal village economy, the kheta was invented out of necessity. Over a span of time the potential of the kantha seems to have been realised by the gifted rural woman and her imagination began to transfer in needlework memorised images. The evolution of ornamental stitchery, linear, geometric and figural shapes started to awaken the surface of the cloth, and each region developed a style emanating from the inherent creativity of rural woman.

 

This led to making use of all the existing art forms, alpana floor drawings, designs etched on food items (peetha, sandesh, fish and fruits), mat designs, earthenware patterns, metal and wood engravings and woven textiles, architecture and diagrammatic symbols. It led also to the invention and transformation of stitch and embroidery techniques based on the dexterity of eye and finger. Distinguishable forms of embroidery began to appear regionally, and just as the material varied depending on the loom cloth available in each district, the winter temperatures of each area, the influence of ritual and custom in household life, and the leisure time available to women of various classes, so emerged the types of kantha, from the smallest arshilata (cosmetics wrapper) to the magnificent ceremonial nakshi kantha prepared for the bride and bridegroom.

 

The fame of Jessore and Faridpur kantha styles grew around the elaborate use of alpana patterns combined with figures from folk tales and ancient legends, gods and deities, The Jessore and Faridpur form of stitching is perhaps the finest in the kantha repertoire, excelling in the use of the kantha phor, the renowned ground stitch worked by inserting minute stitches in organic fashion, pulling the threads just enough to create ripples in the soft old cloth. Both these districts excel in pictorial quilting.

 

Khulna developed a grandeur in the scale of its motifs, using magnum size floral and foliate borders, the kalka, and exotic mythological symbols. The coloured threads too are more vibrant and contrasting. Kushtia kanthas, grew upon the fineness of paartola ((border) patterns, the arrangements mingling with vegetal, floral animal and bird patterns. The Kushtia stitch formations have one of the widest ranges in single line patterns (such as Hakim taga, nolok, shankha-Iata etc.) as well as the intricate peertole styles inspired from weaver's designs.

 

Mymensingh, with its prolific kantha centre at jamalpur, developed a lyrical style using motifs more as compositions of spatial art, rather than relating a theme. The stitchery is mostly linear with filled up areas engaging a variety of traditional stitches as well as the later chain, herring bone (maach-kata), stem stitch and cross stitch.

 

Bogra has a distinct recognisable flavour emanating from its greater use of floral meanders, and use of conventional foliate patterns and the traditional rose. Strong use of red, dark blue, dark green and yellow employing, a lot of bhorat and stem stitch lend to a typical decorative style.

 

The Rajshahi kantha achieved a distinct fame for its texture, heavy and stiff, and worked in set format of design. Some pieces are said to have a layer of hessein inside resulting in lasting quality (none were frayed enough to reveal the inner layers). Two types developed, one with white cloth embroidered in red, blue, black and white in a repetitious stitch called /ohoria or kaiitya (wavy and slanted, twisted) and the other worked on traditional cotton fabric called sha/u, with block or printed patterns stitched in brilliant coloured cross stitches. Rajshahi is the only district which employed pattern blocks to set the ground design, and from this angle uses the least free-hand creativity. On the other hand it evolved a unique format. The designs have distinct resemblance to Islamic arabesque, and are popularly referred to as carpet kanthas indicating a link with woven carpet patterns. The sujni kantha of Rajshahi stencilled over with intricate patterns is embroidered on shalu, its exquisite tiny stitches in white threads creating a tracery of 'Iimitless' patterns. The patterns are an enchanting combine of Hindu and Islamic foliate patterns.

 

Nakshi kantha embroideries all over Bangladesh have common factors in stitchery, format and composition and the less famous regional forms are not described here. It needs to be mentioned that the structure of the kantha, its outer contour, sets the rationale of the planned piece. Its embellishment takes form according to the dimensions of the fabric, as a square, an oblong,' or rectangle. Then follows its intended use, as quilt (lep), large spread (nakshi kantha), puja floor spread (eshon), cosmetics wrapper (arshilata), wallet (batwa, thoaev), cover for Quran (ghilaf), floor spread (galicha), clothes wrapper (bostani, guthri), dhakni or cover, ceremonial meal spread '(dastar khan), prayermat (jainamaz) and pillow cover (balisher chhapa or ohar).

 

The boundary of the kantha's shape is perhaps the only constraint to the embroiderer, all else is her freedom, to use the language and images from the store house of memory and fancy.

 

As with other areas of folk culture however, dating the beginning of kantha embroideries must of necessity rest on inferences from folk lore, from ritualistic and literary sources, from ancient songs and the stories spun by bards. Endeavours by present day researchers to establish origins of the craft from descendants of the embroiderers invariably brings a reply from the simplistic folk artist, lilt is a very old skill; my grand mother's great grand mother used to make such lovely kanthas."

 

Introduction

 

There are 994 nakshi kanthas in the Bangladesh National Museum Collection comprising all the well known types of kantha * These have been acquired over the past thirty years commencing in 1965, from the districts of Faridpur (347), Jessore (249), Khulna (83), Rajdhahi (93), Kushtia (87), Rangpur (36), Bogra (24) Mymensingh (7), Jamalpur (11), Dhaka (3), Pabna (47) Barisal (1), Kishoreganj (1), Tangail (5).

 

The largest category of kanthas are the bostanis or wrapper cloth for keepi ng valuables followed by the ashonlasan or floor spread for seating, arshilata or wrapper for personal cosmetics, the lep, coverlet/quilt, the nakshi kantha and sujni kantha, or elaborately embellished quilts for formal occasions, the dastar khan or meal time spread, the batwa, thoiley or ghuntee I a small flap bag for betel leaves or money, the balisher chhapa or ohar i.e. pillow covers, the ghilaf or Holy Quran cover, the galicha, carpet or spread, and dhaknis or food covers.

 

Most of the pieces are in a good state of preservation, although some are repaired with darning patches of other materials and bits of woven saree borders, indicating an effort of their recent owners to keep the item usable till the time they were finally given over to the National Museum.

 

A considerable number of kanthas date from the mid and end of the 19th century while some pieces have been placed from around 1900 A.D. to 1955 A.D. As can well be understood, accuracy in textile dating is not fully possible but various indicators have been employed to gauge the age of the objects. These rest on (a) verbal information obtained at the time of collection, the donor indicating that the piece belonged to their mother, grand mother or great grand mother, (b) on the condition and texture of the fabrics, (c) on the motifs, purity of design and repertoire of needlework and motifs.

 

The artistic value of the kanthas is of high calibre, and reflects immense value both in the skill of needle art as well as in the socio-cultural content of design.

 

The oldest·kantha (not included) is a Hindu ceremonial nakshi kantha No. 84.2009 belonging to approximately 1850 A.D. from Gopalganj, Faridpur. The largest piece is a beautiful Muslim household kantha No. 68.17 from Khulna approximately 80 years old shown in the Islamic Motif vocabulary chapter. Both these objects are of remarkable artistic, historical and socio-cultural value.

 

The documentation forms as planned and implemented by me, with the assistance and consultation of Mr. Rezaul Karim, Deputy Keeper of the National Museum and Mr. Mohammad Sayeedur of the Bangla Academy, contains the following information of the Museum objects: year-wise accession number, name of object, measurement, material, colour, stitches, description of motifs and design and cultural speciality, if unusual or significant. These are recorded on 994 forms along with coloured photographs of each kantha and placed in 23 albums. I also arranged line drawings of selected motifs as resource material for a better understanding of the folk treatment of traditional images and forms. These were skilfully drawn by two young Arts College students Mr. M. Kamal and Mrs. Selina Haq in eight categories (Tree of Life, Kalka, Birds, Horses, Elephants, Symbols, Linear patterns, Figural objects) some of which are included in this book.

 

The period of study and documentation covered a year commencing from April 1994. Systematic and efficient logistics were provided allowing me to scrutinise twenty kanthas at a time from the store archives. These were issued under the year wise accession numbers in all categories of kanthas.

 

As I documented the objects on forms prepared for the purpose, I found a typifying aspect in the collection which led to a categorisation both of the kantha genre based on the design styles as well as the districts of their origin. This created a horizontal and vertical perspective of the various genres, their regional roots, and importantly, to a diagonal criss-cross or overlapping of design heritage, motifs, colours and stitches. It became clear to me that the scope of my assignment being limited, I should not be tempted into discussing anthropological and ethnological aspects. I could not however ignore the indicators which point so clearly to the evolution of Kantha art. I therefore have made primary references to the possible origins of design, roots of motifs and the ethnic folk treatment of classical symbols.

 

During my study it emerged that the migratory patterns of the rural female population, often through marriage, is a major factor in the transfer of skill and design, while the learning of new stitch techniques also crosses family boundaries, picking up the method and form through community interaction. Kantha art is an outcome of collective knowledge and shared technology, erasing communal and religious parameters. Motifs and stitching techniques appeared vastly mobile, especially among neighbouring districts. It is said by the collectors that the broad rivers, which often mark district boundaries, are the means of carrying designs and styles easily from region to region. It often took further detailed scrutiny to distinguish Faridpur kanthas from jessore, through the well-tried method of typicality of stitches. Khulna kanthas despite their well known stitches and format sometimes displayed marked influences of motifs/design from Jessore and Rangpur. One of the purest forms has remained the Rajshahi quilts, in design, texture and technique, neither borrowing, and only very rarely lending, its form and stitchery to other regions. There is probably an explanation for this which we may consider later.

 

It was informed to me by the Keeper-in-charge of the Decorative Arts Department that the acquisitions were made mostly through the assistance of traditional collectors of antiques, many of whose home districts provided the base for their access to remote villages and precious heirlooms. One of the most active collectors. Mr. Nurul Islam of Urfi village in Faridpur informed me of the loss of many valuable kanthas during the Liberation War in 1971, when both Hindu and Muslim families were uprooted, leaving behind their homes to loot and arson. Such dislocation has always taken a toll on cultural wealth and the damage is among man's worst crimes against mankind's history. We are seeing this in current times happening in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

 

It is with a sense of gratitude that I viewed the kanthas which still survived despite the devastation. In jessore I was deeply touched by the looks of nostalgia on the faces of several elderly Hindu and Muslim women who sat in their courtyards explaining to me that they had possessed many fine kenthes for different home use. I asked "Why aren't you making kanthas now"? "We do", they said, "our daughters-in-law do make some, but not like before". They brought out a few pillow covers, lightly stitched lep quilts and small ashons. "You need an atmosphere to make kanthas," an elder woman said. "These days there is a lot more work to do for housewives. And you need peace in the environment. That's gone."

 

Authenticating textiles is a very difficult task and facilities for doing so in the National Museum are limited. Some of the kanthas in the collection were difficult to verify in terms of district origin, and my opinion differed. In the realm of folk arts and crafts complete accuracy is not possible and therefore a marginal error factor remains, even though I obtained the opinion of specialists such as Mr. Mohammad Sayeedur, Collector and Folk Lore expert at the Bangla Academy. I also consulted Collectors from whose field expeditions the National Museum Collection had been built up, Mr. Nurul Islam and Mr. Abdullah Khan. We have attempted to be correct within the limitations.

 

For the purpose of my study I delved into a broad range of books surrounding the art of kantha such as on Folk Art, Vedic, Puranic and Tantric symbols, Hindu deities, Rituals and Vrata Alpana, Architecture, also Sufism, Islam and Abstract Art.

 

In order to 'read' the pictography of kantha's unique folk art expression I drew stimulation from the expert discourses of Professor Abdul Hafeez whose scholarly knowledge of folk lore and anthropological methodology provided valuable analysis on the subject. He has been my resource person in all my study. I also had discussions with Dr. Momen Chowdhury formerly of Bangla Academy, Mr. Sayeed Ahmad, Art Critic and Playwright, and Mr. Shib Shanker Chakravarty whose book on Hindu deities and their incarnations has been most useful, and wish to thank them profusely for their guidance.

 

Study on a subject as vast and complex as the art of kantha requires a lot more time than the one year I had available, for which reason I restricted myself to a selective approach. With the consultation of Professor Abdu I Hafeez I decided to limit my study to a methodology that is influenced by the great research theoretician and scholar Levi Claude Strauss, whose book "Totemism" (1962) changed the understanding and approach towards studies on primitive and ancient cultures. I have accordingly used a method which concentrates on what Levi-Strauss calls the 'structural reading' of forms. To clarify this approach I quote from Roger C. Poole's introduction to the book "Totemism", "As in all religious phenomena so in Totemism there is a feedback between signified and signifying; the emotions fed into the symbol or emblem are then re-emitted into the experience of the society which created them and this is the source of the society itself".

 

In the course of my viewing of kanthas I gained an insight into the several streams of design, and decided to classify them for purpose of a better interpretation. I felt that the distinction in form, layout and patterns deserved deeper analysis so as to focus the motifs/patterns in the background of their likely roots. This resulted in setting up sections which highlight the aesthetic and sociological heritage from which kanthas art may have been inspired (alpana, terracotta. mat weaving, wood carving, textile, peetha patterns, architecture, carpets etc.). This has resulted in arranging the book in ten parts. By following the guideline of Levi-Strauss's structuralism, I resorted to a method of studying the inter-connected elements in motif and design which gave insight to the language and vocabulary of the symbols. Besides my study uses a synchronic method viewing the contents of each kantha "as it exists at a given time," and "contents itself with a minute examination of a system at a given moment of evolution, laterally." In this way I was able to pick out prominent motifs, consider their interconnections with a past inheritance, but refrain from over-emphasising excessive explanations of their 'origins', and rest more on the folk expressions of those symbols, through the aesthetic sensitivity and simplistic vocabulary of kantha artisans. I have endeavoured to show the way to view the subconscious life of the rural people as it figured in myths, rites, social behaviour and link them all together as communicative discourse, manifest in the beautiful people's art of kantha. The study has had limitations not only of time but also access to resource persons knowledgeable in the kantha art media, but attempts have been made to 'read' the signifying elements in selected pieces and present a level of explanation. This may be considered a presentation which reflects the social system of our recent past, leading to a better understanding of our ancient past.

 

The section on Hindu ceremonial kanthas entitled Hindu Symbolism in Design, points to well recognised motifs of ancient origin: the lotus, sun, wheel, horse, elephant, birds, fish, wave, shell, plants, and the world tree. The integration of cult and ritual symbols in these kanthas, metamorphosed by the special treatment of the rural women, were drawn into her world by juxtaposing these signs at level with her domestic objects. The much enjoyed paan leaf, indispensable betel nut-cutter, hair comb, mirror and vermilion casket, the boat, palanquin, scissors and oil lamp synthesise into soft fabric layers, as the woman embroiderer's needle and thread wrote her thoughts and spoke her heart. In this section the viewer gets the closest look one .can of the almost lost magical kantha art-craft as well as the motifs which allow at least a faint connection with the marvellously rich storehouse of the village woman's surroundings and traditional design knowledge. Other Museums, both government and private in Bangladesh, do have valuable kanthas in the category, but perhaps none date much further that the pieces seen here.

 

While being aware throughout my study of the many streams of culture and history which shape sub continental design and symbolic form I was struck, while viewing three objects, all bostenis, which appeared to me to have a Buddhist Vocabulary. I have presented these three objects separately as being significant as a base for future research. The universal principle of Buddhist architecture, a high square plinth with four approaches, four corner platforms or cells for meditation, the corridor for circumambulation and the central mound of the stupa manifesting Buddha, are visible at Paharpur and Mainamati in Bangladesh as elsewhere in the world. Could such an image have trickled down into folk art through over two thousand millennia, or could some seen architectural form have led to an expression of abstract symbolism in the design of these kanthas ?

 

It became obvious during my study that the briliant Rajshahi kanthas on red shalu using cross stitch contained distinct similarity to the Central Asian carpet tradition. I searched and found pictures of Turkoman, Caucasian and Kirghistan carpets which carried motifs resembling those of the Rajshahi carpet kantha types. I have focused on the Islamic arabesque forms and referred to the earlier Byzantine and Persian designs seen in the cross, the key, crenellations, the star and geometric forms. The findings led to set up a section of Islamic Decorative Motif.

 

The section entitled Traditional Geometric Patterns is a significant part of the Museum's Collection. This style is worked on several types of kanthas, the bosteni, the lep kantha, arshilata and ashon (asan). It is perhaps one of the most significant design legacies which indicates the folk artist's innate understanding of geometric form. It is worth considering deeply, the utilisation of squares, triangles, rectangles, polygons, on the pliant texture of old cloth. Geometric forms are transferred to visual, textural harmony and by an ingenous linear enclosing-encasing method lives out the principle of kantha making, which is to strengthen, reinforce and rejuvenate the material in hand by working its surface with intricate patterns.

Another section focuses on the Tree of Life, delineating on its ancient role in mankind's magico-ritualistic, spiritual and moral history, its prominent position in monotheist religions and its absorption into folk art as a decorative symbol.

 

Similarly the Kalka (paisley) is looked at in the context of its prominence as a corner motif, border motif, single or dual figural form and its substitution for the 'tree'. Its complete submersion into sub continental art is perhaps partly explained by its adaptable form, which lends to optical illusion as it transforms from leaf, to bird and scroll.

 

The section on Linear Paartola Patterns warranted a separate focus because this is also one of the richest treasures of kantha needleart. The infinite combinations evolved from the nakshi paar woven saree borders and tribal weaves creates the opus magnum of paartola design, which is a jewel in the crown of kantha art. Both as skill of finger and eye, working in inspired unison, the patterns fulfil the essential requirement of rejuvenating thread-bare cloth by covering the layers in close and thick stiches, imitating loom design.

 

One small portion has been delegated to the combination of Rath and Masjid motifs seen in five kanthas. These may possibly have been placed in the Decorative Design section, since their design-layout includes an assemblage of several well known folk images, but their formats appear to contain a firm content and a specific symbolism of communal integration. The chariot (rath) and the mosque (masjid) motifs carry strong symbolic signals in the kantha artist's expression.

 

A significant separation is the Decorative Motif Vocabulary. This art form is truly the expression of the spirit of rural east Bengal. The communal harmony of the people living side by side with their beliefs, customs and festivities has been exemplary in a subcontinent often shaken by instigated religious discord. Such folk art expressions are the outcome of the Vaisnav and Sufi movements of the 12th century onwards.

Bengal with its humane attitudes and closeness to nature inculcated a

 

Contents

 

Message, Director General, Bangladesh National Museum Foreword Prof. Abdul Hafiz

 

Author's Preface

i-vii

Introduction

viii-xv

Chapter 1

 

Hindu Symbolism in Kantha Design

1-15

Chapter 2

 

Buddha-Stupa Image

16-19

Chapter 3

 

Islamic Decorative Motif

20-30

Chapter 4

 

Traditional Geometric Patterns

31-36

Chapter 5

 

Tree of Life

37-42

Chapter 6

 

Kalka (Paisley)

43-49

Chapter 7

 

Rath and Masjid

50-55

Chapter 8

 

Linear Paartola Patterns

56-62

Chapter 9

 

Decorative Motifs

63-77

Chapter 10

 

Echoes from Two Worlds

78-82

Appendixes

 

Motifs/ Images in Sub-continental Art

83-86

Vedantic and Hindu Pantheon

87-89

Glossary

90-94

Bibliography

95-96

Index

97-98

List of Plates

99-101

 


The Aesthetics and Vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha (Bangladesh National Museum Collection)

Item Code:
NAK673
Cover:
Hardcover
Edition:
1997
ISBN:
9845850006
Language:
English
Size:
11.0 inch x 8.5 inch
Pages:
116 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Other Details:
Weight of the Book: 940 gms
Price:
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The Aesthetics and Vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha (Bangladesh National Museum Collection)

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About the Book

 

Perveen Ahmad's "Aesthetics and Vocabulary of Nakshi Kantha" is not only an enlightening and in depth view of the Bangladesh National Museum's Collection of 'embroidered quilts', but gives a new analytical insight into the artistic aspects and meaning of motifs in kantha art.

 

In words and pictures she guides the reader to look at a selected number of some of the best kanthas in the Museum. In her presentation the author has exposed new angles of interpretation by investigating the social, religious and political backdrop which brought about the unique art form. She points to sources and explains how at a particular historical time, in particular circumstances and as a result of human conditions both sociological and political, various processes came to bear upon the evolution of the folk art-craft of nakshi kantha. Her discovery of religious streams of thought in the motifs, giving rise to prime information on roots of the symbols, create a fascinating and novel theory. She states that kantha art goes beyond the realm of logic and training and possesses a numinous power, a shakti which is inspired through a divine gift. Kantha art is not just skilfull embroidery.

 

It is a vocabulary, a means of communication, inviting us to 'read' the aesthetics of design, motif and symbol, to understand the inner reality of the society as it existed at a given time.

 

The evolution of kantha art, as it received the influences of historical events in the past thousand years or so led to the creation of an ethnic art expression by the village women of East Bengal.

 

The art of kantha embroidery carries a language that is universal, drawing from the well of mankind's primitive and traditional art knowledge, and giving to the world a priceless cultural heritage.

 

About the Author

 

Perveen Ahmad, B.A. Hons, History, Kinnaird College, Lahore, and M.A. from Punjab University, i's a pioneer in the movement for bringing recognition to the crafts of Bangladesh starting in 1973, when handicrafts were considered the 'unsophisticated' products of rural masses. She set out to motivate thousands of village artisans, travelling by country boat and on foot to convince the producers of the humble sheeka (jute rope pot holders), cane basket weavers and the embroiderers of kantha, that they possessed a heritage of immense value. In 1974 she was instrumental in organising the "First National Handicrafts Exhibition" at the Shilpa Kala Academy which led to the establishment of the first artisan's organisation in the country, Bangladesh Hastashilpa Samabaya Federation Ltd. in 1974, named Karika.

 

She put Bangladesh on the world map by entering its membership to the World Crafts Council, an affiliate of UNESCO in 1978. She worked devotedly for the development of crafts both at the national and international levels, organizing the first Asian Regional Artisan's Workshop 1986 under the World Crafts Council, UNESCO Paris and UNESCO Bangladesh. She was made Honorary Member of the World Crafts Council in 1986. She is also a women's activist, a founder member of Women for Women Research and Study Group, and has several books and research studies on crafts and socio-economic subjects. She is also founder of the first all women video film producer's group named FemCom.

 

Foreword

 

The story of the Kantha is rooted in the history, culture, civilization of Bangladesh. Certainly we have a very rich past, but the history of the origins of folk art is almost lost. Even after repeated search we could not establish the exact life of a particular kantha or of the kanthas kept in different Museums, or in individual collections.

 

One of the good and largest collections is housed in the Bangladesh National Museum, although the archival records were not scientifically categorised and identified till the undertaking of the study by Ms Perveen Ahmad. While a few kanthas have names embroidered within the embroidery and some have dates, the information does not necessarily indicate the name of the maker-producer, although it could point to a family's ownership.

 

Ms Perveen Ahmad had to study each kantha as a separate entity in context of its design, motifs, decoration and stitches. This was practically a study linked to the method of Levi Claude Strauss of France who laid more importance on studying the object insynchronic study methods. But as we have a history of almost five thousand years, we cannot ignore it's roots and past. The designs, symbols, motifs of kantha are available in other folk arts of Bangladesh. There had been other hard materials such as wood, iron, silver, gold and also teracotta, the achitectural buildings with designs, but the present study made by Perveen Ahmad had little scope for a comparative study of designs, motifs or decorations as available in other folk arts. Nonetheless, we are quite sure of one thing, that designs and motifs travelled from one folk art to another very easily.

 

The artisans that worked with kantha were only women and we do not get any recorded information about them, so naturally Perveen Ahmad had to study the kanthas as single elements and this possibly gave a greater scope for her study through the synchronic analysis method.

 

Three great religions of India, i. e., Hinduism which came earliest, Buddhism second and Islam which followed last, each influenced kanthas so greatly that it changed designs and motifs into a unique decorative art form which are highlighted in this study.

 

Ms Perveen Ahmad has ten chapters in her research work, where she strenuously worked to find out how the three great religions made their impact through creative motifs, patterns and arrangements of the kantha. She made another approach from the view point of symbols, diagrams and forms and finally she tried best to illustrate the unity in the complexities of kantha. There is no denying the fact, the oldest inhabitants of Bangladesh known as Australoid, then the Dravidians.: Aryans and the Muslims made a chequered history of this region and the kanthas found a unique character as a multireligious product and also a multiracial expresssion.

 

Kantha is a product of a non-literate society with the psychological and cultural traditions of Bangladesh. Whether folk art is art or not, did not come into Perveen Ahmad's study. The difference between folk art and folk craft in many instances is not always clear and transparent. A'simple kantha used as wrapper or as bedspread does not go in the name of a Nakshi kantha in the village. A kantha becomes folk art-craft when it absorbs age-old symbols, designs, motifs, decorations and therefore bears a deeper content. A simple chair without a folk motif is not folk art, but as soon as a traditional motif or design is placed on its surface people call it a folk art object.

 

The sense of beauty displayed in folk art lies in its decorations and the interpretive mind of the artisan. One kantha is different from the other only when an individual does something especially with its form. The love of traditional knowledge finds a lovelier expression in the kantha.

 

Our experience shows that kanthas were made for everyday use, with beautiful designs and layout. Stories are there about the making of a kantha initially by a grandmother, which was left to her daughter or daughter-in-law who continued the piece down to the grand-daughter. That is why kantha is a product of a particular family with the imprint of generations. Such kanthas of course are now rare to find.

 

I thank Ms Perveen Ahmad for her endeavours for the first time in Bangladesh, to make such a good study of traditional kanthas which was not done before. Kanthas were left to her without any past references and clear and transparent history. I also thank Bangladesh National Museum for allowing Ms Perveen Ahmad the opportunity and independence to do her research.

 

Ms Perveen Ahmad has been associated with folk art and crafts through her field experience in the development of crafts since twenty five years. Her devotion to reviving and preserving traditional crafts. finally inspired her to make this study.

 

I do believe this study will inspire other people to come forward for collection of kanthas and making more fruitful studies in the future. I do not intend to say that this is final study of kanthas of Bangladesh but it will remain an excellent resource.

 

Author's Preface

 

It would be correct to say that the history of the East Bengal kantha is as old as the history of the socio-cultural evolution of this geographical region.

 

As with- all hand crafted objects there is no absolute system of dating the beginning of such items in firm historical time, because all were invented over a period, for various 'needs and purposes, Just as instruments were evolved for hunting, tools for agriculture, so also household requirements caused ingenious creations to develop. Alongside of catering to necessity for different purposes of life, were the specialised objects of ritual and ceremony, such as items for birth, death, marriage, war and defence.

 

It is seen, however, that the transformation from nomadic and tribal societies to agricultural and vocational, producer-trading societies, is an overlapping condition in the subcontinent, all .societal forms existing alongside each other. Thus the growth of many objects and artefacts of the various primitive, tribal and agricultural societies developed out of the typical ethnicity of a particular people. These sprung up not only from the needs of that social group or the inherited customs and their knowledge of the past, but in fact were a pure creation of that community. Just as language in the subcontinent has its hundreds of expressions, through various dialects, changing from region to region, similarly dress and costume, song and legend, food, festivals and rituals display different styles and forms, giving repeated proof of the diversity of mixed races which inhabit the vast and climaticaly contrasting region.

 

To trace the origins of the woven saree, (as some have attempted to do by surveying ancient sculptures) or to investigate the antiquity of alpana, based as it is on both primeval diagrammatic art, Vedic concepts and lastly Tantric sign symbols which developed around the second century A. D. gives the researcher sufficient information to whet the appetite, but cannot be conclusive.

 

Perhaps such certainty about the origin of folk art crafts is an impossibility because communities did not only invent what they did for their needs, but also because they wanted to, for, pleasure. Aesthetics was their vocabulary and from such sensitivity came about the expressions of each community, its individual way of manifesting its own personality. I would even stretch the point a little further by saying that even today in many parts of the subcontinent articulation within homogenous groups display clear distinctions in the same society. The expressions known, but it most likely had a precursor in the humble kheta (khet means field) a coverlet used by village people, made through the thrift of women recycling old sarees and dhotis by sewing them together with linear running stitch. Items of pure necessity in the frugal village economy, the kheta was invented out of necessity. Over a span of time the potential of the kantha seems to have been realised by the gifted rural woman and her imagination began to transfer in needlework memorised images. The evolution of ornamental stitchery, linear, geometric and figural shapes started to awaken the surface of the cloth, and each region developed a style emanating from the inherent creativity of rural woman.

 

This led to making use of all the existing art forms, alpana floor drawings, designs etched on food items (peetha, sandesh, fish and fruits), mat designs, earthenware patterns, metal and wood engravings and woven textiles, architecture and diagrammatic symbols. It led also to the invention and transformation of stitch and embroidery techniques based on the dexterity of eye and finger. Distinguishable forms of embroidery began to appear regionally, and just as the material varied depending on the loom cloth available in each district, the winter temperatures of each area, the influence of ritual and custom in household life, and the leisure time available to women of various classes, so emerged the types of kantha, from the smallest arshilata (cosmetics wrapper) to the magnificent ceremonial nakshi kantha prepared for the bride and bridegroom.

 

The fame of Jessore and Faridpur kantha styles grew around the elaborate use of alpana patterns combined with figures from folk tales and ancient legends, gods and deities, The Jessore and Faridpur form of stitching is perhaps the finest in the kantha repertoire, excelling in the use of the kantha phor, the renowned ground stitch worked by inserting minute stitches in organic fashion, pulling the threads just enough to create ripples in the soft old cloth. Both these districts excel in pictorial quilting.

 

Khulna developed a grandeur in the scale of its motifs, using magnum size floral and foliate borders, the kalka, and exotic mythological symbols. The coloured threads too are more vibrant and contrasting. Kushtia kanthas, grew upon the fineness of paartola ((border) patterns, the arrangements mingling with vegetal, floral animal and bird patterns. The Kushtia stitch formations have one of the widest ranges in single line patterns (such as Hakim taga, nolok, shankha-Iata etc.) as well as the intricate peertole styles inspired from weaver's designs.

 

Mymensingh, with its prolific kantha centre at jamalpur, developed a lyrical style using motifs more as compositions of spatial art, rather than relating a theme. The stitchery is mostly linear with filled up areas engaging a variety of traditional stitches as well as the later chain, herring bone (maach-kata), stem stitch and cross stitch.

 

Bogra has a distinct recognisable flavour emanating from its greater use of floral meanders, and use of conventional foliate patterns and the traditional rose. Strong use of red, dark blue, dark green and yellow employing, a lot of bhorat and stem stitch lend to a typical decorative style.

 

The Rajshahi kantha achieved a distinct fame for its texture, heavy and stiff, and worked in set format of design. Some pieces are said to have a layer of hessein inside resulting in lasting quality (none were frayed enough to reveal the inner layers). Two types developed, one with white cloth embroidered in red, blue, black and white in a repetitious stitch called /ohoria or kaiitya (wavy and slanted, twisted) and the other worked on traditional cotton fabric called sha/u, with block or printed patterns stitched in brilliant coloured cross stitches. Rajshahi is the only district which employed pattern blocks to set the ground design, and from this angle uses the least free-hand creativity. On the other hand it evolved a unique format. The designs have distinct resemblance to Islamic arabesque, and are popularly referred to as carpet kanthas indicating a link with woven carpet patterns. The sujni kantha of Rajshahi stencilled over with intricate patterns is embroidered on shalu, its exquisite tiny stitches in white threads creating a tracery of 'Iimitless' patterns. The patterns are an enchanting combine of Hindu and Islamic foliate patterns.

 

Nakshi kantha embroideries all over Bangladesh have common factors in stitchery, format and composition and the less famous regional forms are not described here. It needs to be mentioned that the structure of the kantha, its outer contour, sets the rationale of the planned piece. Its embellishment takes form according to the dimensions of the fabric, as a square, an oblong,' or rectangle. Then follows its intended use, as quilt (lep), large spread (nakshi kantha), puja floor spread (eshon), cosmetics wrapper (arshilata), wallet (batwa, thoaev), cover for Quran (ghilaf), floor spread (galicha), clothes wrapper (bostani, guthri), dhakni or cover, ceremonial meal spread '(dastar khan), prayermat (jainamaz) and pillow cover (balisher chhapa or ohar).

 

The boundary of the kantha's shape is perhaps the only constraint to the embroiderer, all else is her freedom, to use the language and images from the store house of memory and fancy.

 

As with other areas of folk culture however, dating the beginning of kantha embroideries must of necessity rest on inferences from folk lore, from ritualistic and literary sources, from ancient songs and the stories spun by bards. Endeavours by present day researchers to establish origins of the craft from descendants of the embroiderers invariably brings a reply from the simplistic folk artist, lilt is a very old skill; my grand mother's great grand mother used to make such lovely kanthas."

 

Introduction

 

There are 994 nakshi kanthas in the Bangladesh National Museum Collection comprising all the well known types of kantha * These have been acquired over the past thirty years commencing in 1965, from the districts of Faridpur (347), Jessore (249), Khulna (83), Rajdhahi (93), Kushtia (87), Rangpur (36), Bogra (24) Mymensingh (7), Jamalpur (11), Dhaka (3), Pabna (47) Barisal (1), Kishoreganj (1), Tangail (5).

 

The largest category of kanthas are the bostanis or wrapper cloth for keepi ng valuables followed by the ashonlasan or floor spread for seating, arshilata or wrapper for personal cosmetics, the lep, coverlet/quilt, the nakshi kantha and sujni kantha, or elaborately embellished quilts for formal occasions, the dastar khan or meal time spread, the batwa, thoiley or ghuntee I a small flap bag for betel leaves or money, the balisher chhapa or ohar i.e. pillow covers, the ghilaf or Holy Quran cover, the galicha, carpet or spread, and dhaknis or food covers.

 

Most of the pieces are in a good state of preservation, although some are repaired with darning patches of other materials and bits of woven saree borders, indicating an effort of their recent owners to keep the item usable till the time they were finally given over to the National Museum.

 

A considerable number of kanthas date from the mid and end of the 19th century while some pieces have been placed from around 1900 A.D. to 1955 A.D. As can well be understood, accuracy in textile dating is not fully possible but various indicators have been employed to gauge the age of the objects. These rest on (a) verbal information obtained at the time of collection, the donor indicating that the piece belonged to their mother, grand mother or great grand mother, (b) on the condition and texture of the fabrics, (c) on the motifs, purity of design and repertoire of needlework and motifs.

 

The artistic value of the kanthas is of high calibre, and reflects immense value both in the skill of needle art as well as in the socio-cultural content of design.

 

The oldest·kantha (not included) is a Hindu ceremonial nakshi kantha No. 84.2009 belonging to approximately 1850 A.D. from Gopalganj, Faridpur. The largest piece is a beautiful Muslim household kantha No. 68.17 from Khulna approximately 80 years old shown in the Islamic Motif vocabulary chapter. Both these objects are of remarkable artistic, historical and socio-cultural value.

 

The documentation forms as planned and implemented by me, with the assistance and consultation of Mr. Rezaul Karim, Deputy Keeper of the National Museum and Mr. Mohammad Sayeedur of the Bangla Academy, contains the following information of the Museum objects: year-wise accession number, name of object, measurement, material, colour, stitches, description of motifs and design and cultural speciality, if unusual or significant. These are recorded on 994 forms along with coloured photographs of each kantha and placed in 23 albums. I also arranged line drawings of selected motifs as resource material for a better understanding of the folk treatment of traditional images and forms. These were skilfully drawn by two young Arts College students Mr. M. Kamal and Mrs. Selina Haq in eight categories (Tree of Life, Kalka, Birds, Horses, Elephants, Symbols, Linear patterns, Figural objects) some of which are included in this book.

 

The period of study and documentation covered a year commencing from April 1994. Systematic and efficient logistics were provided allowing me to scrutinise twenty kanthas at a time from the store archives. These were issued under the year wise accession numbers in all categories of kanthas.

 

As I documented the objects on forms prepared for the purpose, I found a typifying aspect in the collection which led to a categorisation both of the kantha genre based on the design styles as well as the districts of their origin. This created a horizontal and vertical perspective of the various genres, their regional roots, and importantly, to a diagonal criss-cross or overlapping of design heritage, motifs, colours and stitches. It became clear to me that the scope of my assignment being limited, I should not be tempted into discussing anthropological and ethnological aspects. I could not however ignore the indicators which point so clearly to the evolution of Kantha art. I therefore have made primary references to the possible origins of design, roots of motifs and the ethnic folk treatment of classical symbols.

 

During my study it emerged that the migratory patterns of the rural female population, often through marriage, is a major factor in the transfer of skill and design, while the learning of new stitch techniques also crosses family boundaries, picking up the method and form through community interaction. Kantha art is an outcome of collective knowledge and shared technology, erasing communal and religious parameters. Motifs and stitching techniques appeared vastly mobile, especially among neighbouring districts. It is said by the collectors that the broad rivers, which often mark district boundaries, are the means of carrying designs and styles easily from region to region. It often took further detailed scrutiny to distinguish Faridpur kanthas from jessore, through the well-tried method of typicality of stitches. Khulna kanthas despite their well known stitches and format sometimes displayed marked influences of motifs/design from Jessore and Rangpur. One of the purest forms has remained the Rajshahi quilts, in design, texture and technique, neither borrowing, and only very rarely lending, its form and stitchery to other regions. There is probably an explanation for this which we may consider later.

 

It was informed to me by the Keeper-in-charge of the Decorative Arts Department that the acquisitions were made mostly through the assistance of traditional collectors of antiques, many of whose home districts provided the base for their access to remote villages and precious heirlooms. One of the most active collectors. Mr. Nurul Islam of Urfi village in Faridpur informed me of the loss of many valuable kanthas during the Liberation War in 1971, when both Hindu and Muslim families were uprooted, leaving behind their homes to loot and arson. Such dislocation has always taken a toll on cultural wealth and the damage is among man's worst crimes against mankind's history. We are seeing this in current times happening in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

 

It is with a sense of gratitude that I viewed the kanthas which still survived despite the devastation. In jessore I was deeply touched by the looks of nostalgia on the faces of several elderly Hindu and Muslim women who sat in their courtyards explaining to me that they had possessed many fine kenthes for different home use. I asked "Why aren't you making kanthas now"? "We do", they said, "our daughters-in-law do make some, but not like before". They brought out a few pillow covers, lightly stitched lep quilts and small ashons. "You need an atmosphere to make kanthas," an elder woman said. "These days there is a lot more work to do for housewives. And you need peace in the environment. That's gone."

 

Authenticating textiles is a very difficult task and facilities for doing so in the National Museum are limited. Some of the kanthas in the collection were difficult to verify in terms of district origin, and my opinion differed. In the realm of folk arts and crafts complete accuracy is not possible and therefore a marginal error factor remains, even though I obtained the opinion of specialists such as Mr. Mohammad Sayeedur, Collector and Folk Lore expert at the Bangla Academy. I also consulted Collectors from whose field expeditions the National Museum Collection had been built up, Mr. Nurul Islam and Mr. Abdullah Khan. We have attempted to be correct within the limitations.

 

For the purpose of my study I delved into a broad range of books surrounding the art of kantha such as on Folk Art, Vedic, Puranic and Tantric symbols, Hindu deities, Rituals and Vrata Alpana, Architecture, also Sufism, Islam and Abstract Art.

 

In order to 'read' the pictography of kantha's unique folk art expression I drew stimulation from the expert discourses of Professor Abdul Hafeez whose scholarly knowledge of folk lore and anthropological methodology provided valuable analysis on the subject. He has been my resource person in all my study. I also had discussions with Dr. Momen Chowdhury formerly of Bangla Academy, Mr. Sayeed Ahmad, Art Critic and Playwright, and Mr. Shib Shanker Chakravarty whose book on Hindu deities and their incarnations has been most useful, and wish to thank them profusely for their guidance.

 

Study on a subject as vast and complex as the art of kantha requires a lot more time than the one year I had available, for which reason I restricted myself to a selective approach. With the consultation of Professor Abdu I Hafeez I decided to limit my study to a methodology that is influenced by the great research theoretician and scholar Levi Claude Strauss, whose book "Totemism" (1962) changed the understanding and approach towards studies on primitive and ancient cultures. I have accordingly used a method which concentrates on what Levi-Strauss calls the 'structural reading' of forms. To clarify this approach I quote from Roger C. Poole's introduction to the book "Totemism", "As in all religious phenomena so in Totemism there is a feedback between signified and signifying; the emotions fed into the symbol or emblem are then re-emitted into the experience of the society which created them and this is the source of the society itself".

 

In the course of my viewing of kanthas I gained an insight into the several streams of design, and decided to classify them for purpose of a better interpretation. I felt that the distinction in form, layout and patterns deserved deeper analysis so as to focus the motifs/patterns in the background of their likely roots. This resulted in setting up sections which highlight the aesthetic and sociological heritage from which kanthas art may have been inspired (alpana, terracotta. mat weaving, wood carving, textile, peetha patterns, architecture, carpets etc.). This has resulted in arranging the book in ten parts. By following the guideline of Levi-Strauss's structuralism, I resorted to a method of studying the inter-connected elements in motif and design which gave insight to the language and vocabulary of the symbols. Besides my study uses a synchronic method viewing the contents of each kantha "as it exists at a given time," and "contents itself with a minute examination of a system at a given moment of evolution, laterally." In this way I was able to pick out prominent motifs, consider their interconnections with a past inheritance, but refrain from over-emphasising excessive explanations of their 'origins', and rest more on the folk expressions of those symbols, through the aesthetic sensitivity and simplistic vocabulary of kantha artisans. I have endeavoured to show the way to view the subconscious life of the rural people as it figured in myths, rites, social behaviour and link them all together as communicative discourse, manifest in the beautiful people's art of kantha. The study has had limitations not only of time but also access to resource persons knowledgeable in the kantha art media, but attempts have been made to 'read' the signifying elements in selected pieces and present a level of explanation. This may be considered a presentation which reflects the social system of our recent past, leading to a better understanding of our ancient past.

 

The section on Hindu ceremonial kanthas entitled Hindu Symbolism in Design, points to well recognised motifs of ancient origin: the lotus, sun, wheel, horse, elephant, birds, fish, wave, shell, plants, and the world tree. The integration of cult and ritual symbols in these kanthas, metamorphosed by the special treatment of the rural women, were drawn into her world by juxtaposing these signs at level with her domestic objects. The much enjoyed paan leaf, indispensable betel nut-cutter, hair comb, mirror and vermilion casket, the boat, palanquin, scissors and oil lamp synthesise into soft fabric layers, as the woman embroiderer's needle and thread wrote her thoughts and spoke her heart. In this section the viewer gets the closest look one .can of the almost lost magical kantha art-craft as well as the motifs which allow at least a faint connection with the marvellously rich storehouse of the village woman's surroundings and traditional design knowledge. Other Museums, both government and private in Bangladesh, do have valuable kanthas in the category, but perhaps none date much further that the pieces seen here.

 

While being aware throughout my study of the many streams of culture and history which shape sub continental design and symbolic form I was struck, while viewing three objects, all bostenis, which appeared to me to have a Buddhist Vocabulary. I have presented these three objects separately as being significant as a base for future research. The universal principle of Buddhist architecture, a high square plinth with four approaches, four corner platforms or cells for meditation, the corridor for circumambulation and the central mound of the stupa manifesting Buddha, are visible at Paharpur and Mainamati in Bangladesh as elsewhere in the world. Could such an image have trickled down into folk art through over two thousand millennia, or could some seen architectural form have led to an expression of abstract symbolism in the design of these kanthas ?

 

It became obvious during my study that the briliant Rajshahi kanthas on red shalu using cross stitch contained distinct similarity to the Central Asian carpet tradition. I searched and found pictures of Turkoman, Caucasian and Kirghistan carpets which carried motifs resembling those of the Rajshahi carpet kantha types. I have focused on the Islamic arabesque forms and referred to the earlier Byzantine and Persian designs seen in the cross, the key, crenellations, the star and geometric forms. The findings led to set up a section of Islamic Decorative Motif.

 

The section entitled Traditional Geometric Patterns is a significant part of the Museum's Collection. This style is worked on several types of kanthas, the bosteni, the lep kantha, arshilata and ashon (asan). It is perhaps one of the most significant design legacies which indicates the folk artist's innate understanding of geometric form. It is worth considering deeply, the utilisation of squares, triangles, rectangles, polygons, on the pliant texture of old cloth. Geometric forms are transferred to visual, textural harmony and by an ingenous linear enclosing-encasing method lives out the principle of kantha making, which is to strengthen, reinforce and rejuvenate the material in hand by working its surface with intricate patterns.

Another section focuses on the Tree of Life, delineating on its ancient role in mankind's magico-ritualistic, spiritual and moral history, its prominent position in monotheist religions and its absorption into folk art as a decorative symbol.

 

Similarly the Kalka (paisley) is looked at in the context of its prominence as a corner motif, border motif, single or dual figural form and its substitution for the 'tree'. Its complete submersion into sub continental art is perhaps partly explained by its adaptable form, which lends to optical illusion as it transforms from leaf, to bird and scroll.

 

The section on Linear Paartola Patterns warranted a separate focus because this is also one of the richest treasures of kantha needleart. The infinite combinations evolved from the nakshi paar woven saree borders and tribal weaves creates the opus magnum of paartola design, which is a jewel in the crown of kantha art. Both as skill of finger and eye, working in inspired unison, the patterns fulfil the essential requirement of rejuvenating thread-bare cloth by covering the layers in close and thick stiches, imitating loom design.

 

One small portion has been delegated to the combination of Rath and Masjid motifs seen in five kanthas. These may possibly have been placed in the Decorative Design section, since their design-layout includes an assemblage of several well known folk images, but their formats appear to contain a firm content and a specific symbolism of communal integration. The chariot (rath) and the mosque (masjid) motifs carry strong symbolic signals in the kantha artist's expression.

 

A significant separation is the Decorative Motif Vocabulary. This art form is truly the expression of the spirit of rural east Bengal. The communal harmony of the people living side by side with their beliefs, customs and festivities has been exemplary in a subcontinent often shaken by instigated religious discord. Such folk art expressions are the outcome of the Vaisnav and Sufi movements of the 12th century onwards.

Bengal with its humane attitudes and closeness to nature inculcated a

 

Contents

 

Message, Director General, Bangladesh National Museum Foreword Prof. Abdul Hafiz

 

Author's Preface

i-vii

Introduction

viii-xv

Chapter 1

 

Hindu Symbolism in Kantha Design

1-15

Chapter 2

 

Buddha-Stupa Image

16-19

Chapter 3

 

Islamic Decorative Motif

20-30

Chapter 4

 

Traditional Geometric Patterns

31-36

Chapter 5

 

Tree of Life

37-42

Chapter 6

 

Kalka (Paisley)

43-49

Chapter 7

 

Rath and Masjid

50-55

Chapter 8

 

Linear Paartola Patterns

56-62

Chapter 9

 

Decorative Motifs

63-77

Chapter 10

 

Echoes from Two Worlds

78-82

Appendixes

 

Motifs/ Images in Sub-continental Art

83-86

Vedantic and Hindu Pantheon

87-89

Glossary

90-94

Bibliography

95-96

Index

97-98

List of Plates

99-101

 


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Hardcover (Edition: 2014)
Abhinav Publications
Item Code: NAF770
$55.00
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Asian Embroidery
Deal 20% Off
by Jasleen Dhamija
Hardcover (Edition: 2004)
Abhinav Publications
Item Code: IDK304
$115.00$92.00
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Indian Textiles
Item Code: NAB865
$95.00
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Testimonials

THANK YOU SO MUCH for your kind generosity! This golden-brass statue of Padmasambhava will receive a place of honor in our home and remind us every day to practice the dharma and to be better persons. We deeply appreciate your excellent packing of even the largest and heaviest sculptures as well as the fast delivery you provide. Every sculpture we have purchased from you over the years has arrived in perfect condition. Our entire house is filled with treasures from Exotic India, but we always have room for one more!
Mark & Sue, Eureka, California
I received my black Katappa Stone Shiva Lingam today and am extremely satisfied with my purchase. I would not hesitate to refer friends to your business or order again. Thank you and God Bless.
Marc, UK
The altar arrived today. Really beautiful. Thank you
Morris, Texas.
Very Great Indian shopping website!!!
Edem, Sweden
I have just received the Phiran I ordered last week. Very beautiful indeed! Thank you.
Gonzalo, Spain
I am very satisfied with my order, received it quickly and it looks OK so far. I would order from you again.
Arun, USA
We received the order and extremely happy with the purchase and would recommend to friends also.
Chandana, USA
The statue arrived today fully intact. It is beautiful.
Morris, Texas.
Thank you Exotic India team, I love your website and the quick turn around with helping me with my purchase. It was absolutely a pleasure this time and look forward to do business with you.
Pushkala, USA.
Very grateful for this service, of making this precious treasure of Haveli Sangeet for ThakurJi so easily in the US. Appreciate the fact that notation is provided.
Leena, USA.
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