12:54 PM

A Century of Kanthas: Women’s Quilts in Bengal, 1870s–1970s

On view May 19, 2023–January 1, 2024
Mitchell and Hilarie Morgan Galleries 150, 151

Through their embroideries, women speak across generations

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting the first exhibition ever to bring together two  important types of embroidered textiles from Bengal, the region known today as Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India. A Century of Kanthas: Women’s Quilts in Bengal, 1870s–1970s contains more than 30 selections, among them nakshi (ornamented) kanthas that were produced on soft white repurposed fabrics, as well as multi-layered quilts called galicha kanthas that offer strong geometric forms punctuated by vivid cross stitching on commercial fabric and backed by upcycled fabrics. Both types of embroideries were typically made for household use, often for special occasions. Those that survive today were usually passed down as family heirlooms. All reflect the voices of Bengali women who were often unheard during this period. The works are drawn from the museum’s extensive collections of textiles, among the most comprehensive in the United States.

“Beyond their sheer beauty, the quilts of Kanthas open a unique and important window into the artistic contributions of women in Bengal. The nakshi kanthas are from the major donation that Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz gave to the museum in 2009 which greatly expanded our holdings in this area. Their gift created a rare opportunity to make close, illuminating comparisons with the galicha kanthas that Dr. David Nalin collected in Bangladesh in 1975 and later gave to the museum along with his brother Richard. PMA is deeply grateful for these visionary gifts,” said Sasha Suda, the museum’s George D. Widener Director and CEO.

These nakshi kanthas were produced between about 1870 and 1930 while the galichas reflect later traditions that peaked in the 1950s and 60s. Delicate stitches, faded tones, and intricate imagery strongly distinguish the historical nakshis, which were made on fabric created by layering together scraps of white used family clothing. The fabric is often covered with lines of parallel white running stitches to provide a distinctive ripple effect. They offer imagery ranging from household objects and everyday life to deities and implements of Hindu and Muslim devotion. Softened by years of wear and washing, used and reused, they also express familial love, comfort, and belonging.

Galicha (carpet) kanthas offer a different aesthetic with their bold colors and dizzyingly intersecting geometric forms. These heavy quilts were made especially after 1947, the year of India’s Independence from Britain and the region’s Partition into India and Pakistan. They were produced in the north-westerly part of what was then East Pakistan and is today Bangladesh. The women who created galichas took great effort to adorn the surface of these thick cloths with designs in cross-stitch embroidery, a European-derived technique first taught to Bengali schoolgirls during the colonial period and that eventually found its way into their domestic production.

A Century of Kanthas: Women’s Quilts in Bengal, 1870s–1970s is organized by Dilys Blum, Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles and Head of the Department of Costume and Textiles, and Darielle Mason, Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art and Head of the Department of South Asian Art. “Like quilts produced by different cultures around the world, these works reflect labor, imagination, and thrift,” said Darielle Mason. “While today we don’t know the names of every artist, these women’s voices come through loud and clear in the cloths they created. Kanthas were made for many uses, from ritual seating to bedcovers to baby swaddling. Those that have survived reach through time to express women’s individuality, creativity, and their love for their families.”

A Century of Kanthas: Women’s Quilts in Bengal, 1870s–1970s is made possible thanks to the support of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and their gift of a significant collection of kantha textiles.

Historical Background
By the 1870s, Calcutta (modern Kolkata) had long been the capital of British India. It was also the heart of the rising movement for Independence from colonial rule, a movement that culminated in 1947 when the subcontinent gained Independence and was partitioned along religious lines—Hindu-majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. Another independence war led East Pakistan to become the nation of Bangladesh in 1971.

In the 1800s and to the present, Bengal has long been noted for its rich literature, art, and technology. But between about the 1870s and 1970s, the region also experienced famines, wars, genocides, mass rapes, and forced migrations that caused ruptures in its cultural fabric. During this century, women of all religions and social strata reflected both the richness and the ruptures through their embroidered quilts.

Most kanthas have disintegrated from household use. Of those that remain, it is often difficult to locate the precise place in Bengal where a piece was made since, during this period, a girl usually married in her early teens and moved into her husband’s family home in a different village. There she merged what she had learned of needlework with the practices of her husband’s female relatives, leading to an exciting artistic vocabulary shared across the region.

Collection Background
In 2009, to celebrate the gift offered by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, the museum organized the exhibition Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection and the Stella Kramrisch Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was the first exhibition of these embroideries to be presented outside of South Asia and paired the Bonovitz additions with works in the museum collection. To accompany the exhibition, the museum also published a catalogue of the same title in association with Yale University Press, edited by Darielle Mason. It explored their production and cultural contexts and traced their reinterpretation both as emblems of national identity and works of art. 

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