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Aesthetics and Vocabolary of Nakshi Kantha

 

Perveen Ahmad

The Author is 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 put Bangladesh on the World Crafts Council, an affiliate of UNESCO in 1978. She set out to motivate and convince thousands of village artisans, for their heritage and it's immense value. 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. We present here a lecture she delivered at the IGNCA.

The subject on Nakshi Kantha has barely been researched and the few scholars who wrote on the subject, such as Stella Kramrisch and Ajit Mukherjee wrote their pioneering works 58 years ago in 1939. The long gap between then and now has only been filled with several descriptive articles, both in India and Bangladesh.

In my search for background materials, I visited the British Library, London which was the India Office Library, and also the Philadelphia Museum in USA, where Stella Kramrisch's collection is kept. I found no mention of kantha in the British records. The absence of documentation on kantha automatically set limitations on my investigative efforts. I became convinced that the nakshi kantha had not been researched in depth. Kantha is like a personal diary, a letter one writes to a particular person, and is not meant to be read by all. In East Bengal the kantha was a personal expression, an art-craft that was made spontaneously, even whimsically. It was never commissioned by rulers, nor ordered by the landed gentry. It was a craft that was practised by women of all rural classes, the rich landlord's wife making her own elaborate embroidered quilt in her leisure time, and the tenant farmer's wife making her own thrifty, coverlet, equal in beauty and skill.

The lack of research material on the subject of kantha has, in a way, been a blessing in disguise. I was able to undertake my study with an open mind and build up my analysis based on investigative methodology. The Bangladesh National Museum Collection is the largest in the country comprising 994 objects, though more have been added since my study. These kanthas have been acquired from the districts of Faridpur, Jessore, Khulna, Rajshahi, Pabna, Rangpur, Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Kushtia, Bogra, Kishoreganj, Tangail and Dhaka.

In the course of my study I made identification of the various types of kantha based on size, shape and utility of the object, and in some cases I was able to categorise the genre of the kantha. Establishing the genre is a task for further in-depth research, but in some kanthas the ritualistic or iconoclastic symbols were strong enough to point to magico - religious roots. As I sifted through almost a thousand pieces, I discovered certain streams of motifs and designs flowing through, and decided to classify them for purposes of a better interpretation. I was able to categorise through 600 line drawings valuable resource material of images and forms such as the tree of life, the kalka or paisley, birds, horses, elephants, abstract and tantric symbols, linear patterns and figural objects.

 

A major outcome of my study was the realisation of the sociological heritage in the objects. There are distinct features which led me to reading the aesthetics and vocabulary used by past society to express their culture. At this stage I decided to base my study on the methodology of Lˇvi Claude-Strauss, a great theoretician whose 1962 book on 'Totemism' changed the approach and understanding of studies on primitive and ancient cultures. According to him, symbols or totems may be looked at through, "structural reading of forms". 

He believed that, "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." By following the guideline of Lˇvi Claude-Straus's 'structuralism', I resorted to a study under the synchronic method, that is viewing the contents of the kantha, and I quote, "as it exists at a given time" and "contents itself with a minute examination of a system at a given moment of evolution, laterally." I have thus endeavoured to show the way to view the subconscious life of the rural people as it figured in myths, rites, social behaviour, and how the aesthetic sensitivity and abstract vocabulary took shape in the folk art of kantha. Of one thing I am absolutely sure, that is, the creative art of kantha has carried the objects beyond the level of mere skilful embroidery, to levels that reflect a spoken language and signify communicative discourse through its symbols.

The remarkable quality of kantha needlework as a purely spontaneous expression based on the personal desire of the embroiderer, is even more extraordinary because it appeared as a phenomena of a particular region as well as of an ethnic group and of a gender group. Only the women of rural East Bengal make and create exquisite kanthas. No two pieces are the same. There is no doubt that these inspired creations reflect abilities of a hand charged with powers beyond the realm of logic or training. That there is something special in the ethos of the women of East Bengal, is aptly described by Stella Kramrisch who says, "the kanthas of East Bengal are saturated with and express a numinous power, the shakti of this region, working through its women and given form by innumerable disciplined stitches".

At what point in time the nakshi kantha took shape may never be accurately known but it most likely had a precursor in the humble kheta, (khet in Hindi and Bangla means field), a coverlet used by village people made through the thrifty recycling of old saris and dhotis by sewing them together with linear stitches. The kheta was invented out of necessity and made in varying sizes and layers, starting with small pieces of cloth spread in the courtyard to lay new born babies on while they were massaged with mustard oil, to the light covers that adults use at night, and wrap over their shoulders in winter mornings.

The development of kantha art as it grew in the East Bengal region, emerged out of the collective folk expression of rural women using signs and symbols as personalised invocations. The transition of religious rites from high temples and the remoteness of Brahmanic scriptures underwent changes, transmitted through ascetic Hindu sadhus, Buddhist monks and tantric sign language. The village women became empowered with broto or vrata rites enabling her to seek the godheads and act as protector of her family. The absorption of hitherto inaccessible mantras calling upon cosmic forces to yield their benefits and to disperse evil, gave the Bengali-Hindu rural woman the knowledge of signs and symbols, right inside her home.

The ritualistic art of alpana became the well of folk design, steeped in meaning and drawn with a firm will to invoke and control supernatural powers. The shape of concepts and of wishes evolved into the diagrammatic forms of vrata ritual worship. The circle, (as earth or cosmos) the square, (as sanctified space) polygons, geometric shapes, curving meanders, plant life, the planets, creatures of sea and air, land, mountain and river, and all nature's forces were rendered a potency through their confinement in the alpana enclosure.

But alpana was and still is a ritual and follow certain rules, with which the artist needle-woman sought more liberal expressions. Something special in the ethos of the rural women of East Bengal must be attributed to the transformed images that became, what I call, the kantha motif vocabulary. While kantha art contains strong elements of alpana, there is a marvellous amalgamation of other traditional art knowledge, culled from the store house of prolific folk design, such as those etched on rice cakes peetha, milk sweets sandesh and ceremonial fish. The integration of cult and ritual symbols was metamorphosed through the creative spirit of the rural women. She juxtaposed ancient classical icons alongside her familiar domestic objects - the paan leaf, hair comb, mirror and sindur casket, the scissors and oil lamp; the winnowing tray and hand fan, all find comfortable place near Lakshmi's footsteps or rice stalks, or Vishnu's thunderbolt the vajra, or Kartik's peacock. The kantha motif vocabulary gave freedom to the artist. There were no boundaries, no parameters. There was no top or bottom to her design, nothing was upside down, one could just look at her kantha from the angle she had worked and the message was clear. By removing the barriers of a single frontal perspective, she opened up vistas of imagination, drawing the viewer to enjoy from any angle, her rivers, fields, gardens and the pomp and ceremony of weddings, festivals and rituals.

I will now delineate on the streams of design that emerged during my study. The aesthetics and the vocabulary that surface through the kanthas visual expressions, became their own spokesman. I found obvious and stunning distinctions in the kanthas pointing to the likely roots of the motifs. Some of the kanthas displayed well known symbols of the Hindu religion (the lotus, sun, wave etc.) and consequently deserved separate analysis. For instance the conch shell, the lotus, the trident, the peacock, the swan the water pot and a series of mythological figures, such as the snake, alligator, lion, fish, shell, wave and birds bearing religious and ritual content. Some kanthas also carried legendary human figures from the Hindu Pantheon such as Rama, Sita and Brahma in the first line, Vishnu, Mahadev and Ganga Devi, in the fourth line, Krishna, in the second line and Ganesh and Shiva in the third line. Some kanthas spoke through symbols of plant life known to signify certain gods, such as the kadamba flower for Krishna; rice stalks and the lotus for Lakshmi; the sun for the Vedic Surya and Indra; animals such as the bull for Shiva; lion for Durga and cat for Shosthi Devi. The familiar godhead sign drawn from alpana, called putlee, is seen in several kanthas. All these forms engaged my attention and led me to categorise kanthas bearing such designs into a section labelled Hindu symbolism in the vocabulary of kanthas. These symbols do not appear in formalistic classical images, but are beautifully and imaginatively interspersed among a variety of folk patterns and rural household objects, like the hand fan, betelnut cutter called shorta or jatee, the palki, oil lamp and the all pervading paan leaf. By thus placing sanctified religious deities or symbols along with objects of daily use, the East Bengal village woman developed a symbolic language. It became a classless language that reached out to all. The origin of kantha traces its history to a period not less than a thousand years. Its images reach back to even earlier sources, pre and post-Vedic. Some symbols such as the tree of life, the swirling cosmos, and the sun are taken from the primitive art. The later influence of Hinduism, in the making of kanthas for religious ceremonies, pujas, weddings and births, gave the art its place as a vehicle of significant cultural meaning. This kantha is an asan or cloth, used to sit on at the time of the puja.

During the course of my study, I placed the Buddha Stupa Image right after the Hindu symbolism, and have thereafter focussed on Islamic Decorative motif. It is interesting that this was not the sequence in which I discovered elements of the three great religions. In fact I came upon the Buddhist stupa image almost at the end of my study and as I reviewed hundreds of kanthas carrying linear and geometric designs, surrounding a central lotus or sun, I came upon only three pieces in the collection in which the lotus is girdled with a pattern that has four mid-centre passages, opening to the larger square. It struck me that these openings were worked into the design intentionally, to establish a symbol. The central lotus placed thus, did not appear to have its Hindu content, and the distinct four passages were held at the four corners by cutaway triangles, having an architectural flavour. As I concentrated further, seeking to explain the roots of the image, I recalled that two of the earliest symbols of Gautam Buddha, the lotus and the stupa, with its high plinth platform, four distinct approaches and central cardinal point for the Buddha relic, did remind of that structural image. I turned to resource material and found drawings of the central diamond throne at Bodh Gaya, the vajrasana. The aesthetics of these three kanthas point to an abstraction of the solid contours of the stupa platform, magnificently reflected in the flattened graphics, or bird's eye view of the diamond throne, interpreted by the kantha artist.

In one of the kanthas the pattern of approach passes towards the central flower held by four lotus buds. It reflects the imaginative style of the embroiderer who, not satisfied with just the central lotus symbol of the Buddha, marks the entrances with tiny lotus buds, reminding us of the legend that when Buddha as a baby took his first steps, a lotus blossomed wherever his feet touched the ground. Buddha's longest lasting image before his human form was sculpted, the stupa, may have found its way into the assemblage of the kantha artist. Further studies may bring to light other Buddhist influences in the vocabulary of kantha art.

The discovery of Islamic Decorative patterns in kantha came about as a gradual realisation during my study. When I first went through the Rajshahi kanthas I was already aware of the formalised geometric designs laid out in planar formation. I also knew that Rajshahi kanthas were locally referred to as carpet-kanthas. This served as a pointer to look more closely at the layout of design and I discovered a distinct similarity with the Central Asian carpet tradition. I found photographs of Turkoman, Caucasian and several Central Asian states such as Kirghistan, Dagesthan and Uzbekistan carpets, sharply similar in format and motif. This led me to investigate once again the possible roots or origins of design. I came to the conclusion that Rajshahi kanthas are among more recent developments in the kantha making tradition. Several factors showed me the way. First was that the material used for making Rajshahi kanthas was often a new cloth, especially the red 'shalu' material used for making cotton wool quilts or razais. Second the thickness was more than that of the kanthas in other districts, up to six layers. Third that a technique of back stitch called 'bakhia' became visible, which was not part of the earlier embroidery repertoire. Fourth the patterns were block-printed on the surface of the cloth. There is no free hand embroidery in Rajshahi kanthas. Fifth tassels or fringes are attached to the outer edges of the kantha, just as carpets have fringes at the two ends.

 

Once I had noted the newness of the style, I decided to delve into the sociological and political influences which had occurred fairly recently in historical time. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the advent of Islam in Bengal. The living patterns of the people underwent sharp changes. The Muslim conquest of Bengal in 1204 A.D. was carried out by an adventurer from the Turkoman nomadic tribe of Central Asia, Mohammed Bakhtiar Khalji.

North-West Bengal passed into a period of prosperous rule till 1227 A.D., when Turkish rule was overcome by the Mamluk Sultans from Delhi who ruled for sixty years. They were men of various nationalities of Central Asia, such as Khitai, Turks, Uzbeks and Qipcheks. From 1338 A.D. the governor of East Bengal at Sonargaon assumed the title of Sultan and a new dynasty was formed. It was a turning point. For two hundred years, the Sayyid dynasty, the Ilyas Shahis and Afghan Karranis held sway over Bengal. In 1575 the Moghul general from Delhi eventually defeated the Afghan Sultan, Daud Khan Karrani and by 1612 A.D. Emperor Jehangir finally consolidated Moghul rule in Bengal. The story of cultural developments after that is well known. But I would like to refer back to the earlier entry of Muslim immigrants of various nationalities who came as fortune seekers, administrators, soldiers and saints, from Arabia, Herat, Samarkhand, Tabriz, Bukhara and Balkh and even distant Abyssinia. There were many factors responsible for the Islamisation of this large non-Muslim population, one being the decadence of the Hindu-Buddhist society which was rife with the caste system and esoteric tantric practises, secondly the influx of Muslims was continuous and large in numbers, and finally the untiring efforts of the Sufi scholars to spread a universal faith. Folk songs and traditional literature came under influence of the Sufis, and the non-Aryan masses found respite from the oppressive systems. The frontiers of folk art received fresh ideas and the horizon of kantha art expanded.

Maldaha in North Bengal became a stronghold of the early Turks, Pathans and Afghan immigrants who established a typical Muslim culture. Rajshahi received the ethnic and social lifestyle of the settlers.

At this point a new form of aesthetics entered kantha art. Its entry was through the simplest of ways. The weather in North Bengal being cold, the use of carpets, blankets and heavy robes brought by the immigrants came into close view of the local people. These patterns and motifs had already been evolved by Muslim artisans in other regions, based on the central principle of the new faith, the principle of unity or tawhid. The Islamic infinite pattern which had travelled beyond geographical boundaries entered the storehouse of Bengali masons and builders, carvers, potters, weavers and eventually in the kantha art.

Distinct features of Islamic carpet layout and motifs are seen in the Rajshahi kanthas containing the central panel framed by intricate border patterns. The bold and lavish interpretation of Islamic multi-unit patterns and interlocking motifs reflect the transformation of those designs by the village artist. One sees familiar Islamic patterns like jagged crenellations, geometric meanders and repetition of stylised flowers and leaves. The pattern is not static, the eye travels from shape to shape, discovering the renowned Islamic six pointed star in the short border. The long borders show perfect examples of abstraction of floral pots, the sub-units of stems and leaves appearing as separate units and yet leading the vision to complete its travel.

In the sujni kantha. (sozni is Persian term for sewing) kantha artists developed a splendid technique out of the bakhia or back stitch. The Bengali embroiderer took up this sewing device from the padded quilted cloaks of the immigrants. The village woman with her innate deftness of finger, brought the stitch from the inner layers of the Muslim people's clothes to the surface of her quilt. Drawing with her needle, from her alpana repertory she laced and curved the straight bakhia line with innovative finesse. This kantha maintains the carpet format but resorts to stylised forms of nature, which manifest Islamic arabesques. Sujni kantha consists of beautiful synthesis of ancient traditional motifs, such as the lotus, the four circulating fish in a rounded girdle, buds and leaves, and the interlacing of infinite patterns which have come to signify spiritual exercises through the visual arts.

It is not possible to study nakshi kanthas without being mesmerised by the language of geometric shapes. The secularisation of Hindu and Buddhist ritual and cult objects resulted in an abstraction of incarnations and deities. We find lotus-cum-sun image beautifully placed at the centre of the embroiderer's universe. The four directions of north, south, east and west indicated by linear divisions, spans the kantha. Ancient symbols, a man-horse, lotus, mythical dragons are imbedded in the field. The artist made perfect divisions of space through squares and triangles. From geometry the needle-woman moved on to an extravaganza of linear borders. Many of these patterns appear to be culled from tribal loom designs and a large number from horizontal saree borders. The sewing is done by laying lengths of thread, line by line as seen in loom weaving, and building up the pattern in measured insertions of the needle. No lines are traced on the cloth. The astonishing profusion of variations in motif are called paar-tola (or lifted from border) designs. The best paar-tola embroidery comes from Faridpur, Jessore and Khulna.

The renowned cover motif of kantha design has one of the most prominent images in kantha art - the "Tree of Life". Tree worship has been one of man's earliest cults and in almost every country a species proper to that region, symbolises the idea of protection and mystic powers. The Indus Valley and late Indo-Aryan art knew the symbol. Buddhism sanctified the Bodhi tree, and popular ritualistic art, as in alpana absorbed the tree image, recognising it as jeevan vriksha, the Tree of Life. The kantha tree symbols make a distinct diversion from the tree expressed in alpana vratas. They are extremely innovative in form. In this optical, effects are created by 'sinking' the corner tree motifs and raising darker colour patterns in spaces around the tree. The composition follows the floor drawing format of alpana, with central lotus, formal mandala square, and traditional vrata symbols of wish fulfilment for prosperity, domestic happiness and plenty. The Tree of Life in kantha is a highly personalised image, the village artists use a range of motifs like the paan leaf, and paisley or kalka. From the clearly recognisable Kashmiri paisley, we see rounder bulbous forms, and branching triads. The tree in its kalka shape was thoroughly Bengalised by the artist, a marvellous fusion of central lotus and corner tree symbol, giving the kantha its deeply ethnic flavour.

There is a fascinating area of freedom in thought and design in kantha art which grew into universal or secular style combining images from all religious streams and crossing communal boundaries. I came across five kanthas bearing images of the mosque and the rath (the chariot) among a medley of familiar motifs such as the tree of life, peacocks, ducks, paan leaves and household objects. A question arises, why the needle woman did not embroider a mosque and a mandir? Why a rath? This is the beauty of the East Bengali village woman's freedom of thought. Her vocabulary was better expressed through a common image of the village puja chariot, which has a more secular appeal, since both Hindus and Muslims join the procession and share the festival. The artist's complete freedom over her media is seen in the other work, where she gives vent to unique corner tree images beginning with paisleys but branching out into flowers. The lotus-sun holds attention as a unifying nucleus while the rath chariot and masjid with slim minarets are topped with kadamba flowers (a Krishna symbol) while peacocks (of Kartik fame) are perched on the mosque columns. What freedom and imagination!

I have analysed a rather large section under my study on the Decorative Motif Vocabulary. It is a very rich resource of folk art. In the broad category of nakshi kanthas or decoratively designed quilts, these kanthas recreate an ornamental form which is neither Hindu, nor Buddhist nor Muslim. From myriad sources, the classics, cults, mythology and folklore become these fascinating shapes. They merge into a reservoir of homely objects of ideographs, legends from the patta scrolls, clay folk toys and painted vessels. A large number of kanthas in the collection are seen to have no religious or totemic content, and it is difficult to codify the religion of the maker. East Bengal's unique folk expression, full of secular, commonly understood images, drawn from the varied cultural streams and pouring into the countless rivers of Bengal are seen as an art that belongs to all.

I now come to my last section. The connection between folk art, child art and modern art have long been recognised by connoisseurs. I was compulsively drawn to some kanthas in the Museum, which linked my mind to abstract images of the modernist painters of Europe and America in the 1930s. It has been an astounding visual experience to come upon kanthas which had echoes with those painting. A Rajshahi lep kantha worked in bold geometric chevrons, finds a powerful reflection in one of Frank Stella's largest works entitled "Empress of India", in which he magnifies the lines to the edges of the canvas, an eastern Islamic pattern, in western hands.

One of the greatest modernist Paul Klee a German-Swiss painter, created a pulsating canvas 'Park Near Lucerne', which not only expresses similar spontaneity, but engages our attention because of the stylised linear foliage, which is close to the folk artists mode, and reminds of child art.

In a Faridpur kantha, we see thematic image of a horse. It is both folk art and stylised abstraction, the minimisation of lines to express the image. The kantha has subtle shapes of horses embedded in the stitchery. The arched neck of the horse with flying mane and tail in the wind is mirrored in Vassily Kandinsky's painting, 'Lyric'. The meeting ground between traditionalists and modernists is an exciting venture, both as an aesthetic and communication vocabulary. The kantha artist had long ago ventured into, what the sophisticated art world later came to call, abstract expressionism, or imagist abstraction.

I hope, I have been able to present some of the aspects of one of the world's most precious living treasures. The villages of East Bengal are rich in folk art, folklore, crafts, songs and dance, the people are tender and imaginative. The nakshi kantha, has grown out of the rejuvenating soil of Bangladesh. The artistry of kantha craft is abiding. The colour, forms, textures and images are highly appealing and magnetise the viewers with their sophisticated primitiveness. Dream and reality coalesce together in these works of art to express the essence of life.

 

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