On May 13th, the PMA held a mini-symposium to supplement the exhibition Kantha: the Embroidered Quilts of Bengal. Unfortunately I missed the first lecture by Professor Pika Ghosh which explained what a kantha is and how it is made, however, I did previously see the exhibition and was able to piece together parts of Dr Niaz Zaman’s talk in the afternoon.
Dr Zaman teaches English at the University of Dhaka and has done extensive research on kanthas…and by extensive, I mean that she wrote the seminal text on the topic. I can understand her enthusiasm because kanthas are such beautiful objects, made even more special by their rich tradition. Dr Zaman first became interested in researching kanthas when she saw those owned by her husband’s family. From there, she began a journey to see as many different types as possible of the traditional Indian quilt, and discover the technical aspects of its creation. Her lecture on Sunday was mostly about the changing role of the kantha over time, how it went from a woman’s craft, to commercially popular, to the level of fine art.
Originally, kanthas were made using a woman’s old white sari, soft from ware and perfect for a newborn baby’s skin. Layers of the sari were stacked and tacked together by several women before the ‘artist’ began embroidering the quilt. Common motifs included the lotus flower in the center, paisley, elephants, and people running around the center (to be viewed from all angles), and decorate borders on the four sides. Many kanthas told a story through their pictures, and some even contained text. Some kanthas were for every day use and featured only simple patterns. The common ‘threads’ that united them all were the colorful yarn and signature stitches that created a puckered appearance. Over time, artists began using embroidery rings, simplifying the stitches, and incorporating more modern imagery. Fewer kanthas are made today, as the process is so time consuming, and younger generations favor machine-made products, but more and more it’s possible to see these treasured items in a museum setting. Check out the show in the Perelman building before July 25th!