The tell tale embroidery

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by Tajnim Imami

The art of nakshi kantha is woven into the culture and history of Bangladesh. Made by the women of rural Bengal, nakshi kantha has been witness to the tides of time as told through its needlework. Kanthas are ubiquitous in every Bengali household. Used throughout the year in varying thickness, it is not just a wrap to ward off the weather. Fashion designer Padmaja Krishnan eloquently translated the use of kantha into words: ‘the most endearing gift exchanged at birth, death or marriage, the seat of honour offered to welcome guests, the mark of respect for the dead, the wandering fakir’s drape, the personal wallet for carrying little valuables or a wrap for any other precious possession, Kantha in Bengal is not any frozen art stored behind museum glass, it is an integral part of the lives of the country folk.’

Borne out of necessity, a kantha often carries a deeply personal meaning as it is made of saris used by the women of the house. Over time, as the sari wears out, it becomes a piece for the next kantha to be made. Along with sari, various other pieces of old, worn out fabrics, often full of memories, are layered and sewn with running stitches to hold them together.

The folk art of nakshi kantha is a skill handed down through generations of women. Although, nowadays its production is mostly attributed to rural women of little means, the making of nakshi kantha was never limited to a certain class. In fact, women from all walks of life, from a landlord’s wife to a farmer’s daughter, made nakshi kantha with equal beauty and skill.

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Nakshi kanthas are made across Bangladesh in different styles. The products of Jessore, Rajshahi, Faridpur and Mymensingh are particularly famed for their finesse. The various stitching techniques or fores used to embroider these elaborate kanthas include cross stitch, chain stitch, herringbone, running stitch, bashpata fore, lik fore, tara fore, botam ghor, gat fore, korshida fore and many more. The threads for embroidery are often taken from the border or paar of the saris being used to make the kantha. Women usually sit together on the floor and spread out the layers that are to be sewn together. A nakshi kantha can take up to 20 days to a month to be finished depending on the complexity of its design.

The style of embroidery and the choice of motifs and colours speak volumes of the delights and distresses of the women who make them. The semiotics of nakshi kantha portrays the richness of rural life that is often lost on the urban population. Natural as well as religious and mythological elements pervade the embroidered motifs of these quilts. Shatadal or lotus, tree of life, star and crescent, household items, farming instruments, boat, fish, tiger, peacock, elephant, bull, geometric patterns, floral patterns, kings and queens, even war are common themes in the embroidered designs.

The shatadal or lotus symbolizes cosmic harmony and essential womanhood in Hinduism. The design also holds a place of significance in Hinduism as it is the seat of god Vishnu. Similarly, besides being an integral part of the Bengali diet and culture, the fish motif is interpreted as an incarnation of the god Vishnu as well. The Buddhist symbol, the Bodhi Tree or the Tree of Life, depicts an appreciation for family life. Often done with paisley or kalka design, the Tree of Life usually surrounds a lotus from four corners beautifully combining faith on the exquisite plane of a nakshi kantha. The crescent and star and the recurring geometric patterns are the mark Islamic influence in this folk art.

Wedding, birth, child rearing, a journey to return home are frequent themes that inspire nakshi kantha designs. For example, the motifs of palki to symbolize a bride’s new life or a boat to return home are ever present in its needlecraft. Pollikobi Jasimuddin immortalized the art form in his folk epic ‘Nakshi Kathar Math’. Its story of the love and loss of Rupai and Shaju are the finest example of what this form of art seeks to portray.

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Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic symbols coexist side by side with tales of love and betrayal or the personal account of the maker’s life in the designs of a nakshi kantha. Such boundless expression of faith and persona colliding in its tapestry  show the liberty of belief and the extent of the makers’ thought process.

Nakshi kantha has a high demand in the mass market and is easily found both in the shelves of designer stores and by the sidewalk. Its style of embroidery has been resurrected in many different forms such as sari, scarf, shalwar kamiz, bed sheet, pillow cover, purse etc in silk, muslin, chiffon, cotton, leather and others. Nakshi kantha sari has special appeal to buyers due to its intricate embroidery with floral or animal motifs. Given the time and skill needed to finish a piece, nakshi kanthas or items with its style of embroidery can be expensive and range from Tk 2,000 to Tk 30,000 or more. The market around this art form has become a way for women to build their own economic independence and thus forges new life for its makers as it does for its material.

Nakshi kantha represents the contents of the rural women’s minds that are rich with romance, sentiment and philosophy. The American art historian, Dr. Stella Kramrisch, summed it up beautifully by saying,  ‘ The women of rural Bengal act as a repository of knowledge from which each can draw on a given occasion, be it that of a ritual or in restoring wholeness to rags; by joining the torn bits and tatters and by reinforcing them with a design of such a kind that when a kantha is spread out, it unfolds the meaning on which life is embroidered.’

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