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Bengal beauty

The intricate art of Kantha embroidery comes alive at Shilpi's exhibition

THE PERFECT stitches create the patterns of life and Nature. These embroidered materials are proof of a living tradition — Kantha work. Deep blue silk transforms into shimmering ponds filled with gaily plumaged birds. On stark black fabric, acrobats and strollers, plump owls and smug cats, verdant foliage and riotous blooms, houses and gardens, bullock carts and elephants co-exist without the slightest contradiction.

Here, there is life's profusion but there is the discipline too of artistic vision, a creativity that evokes pride in the design skill of the simple craftswoman. The embroidered pieces are the labour of love of the women from Bengal's villages. But they are not the usual items you find in a crafts exhibiton. These are pieces that can become family heirlooms, to be worn with pride and preserved with care.

"Pictures in Embroidery", a limited collection of Kantha embroidery on dupattas and sarees in silk and cotton is on display at Shilpi. Some of the items here are a collector's delight. "We have never, in 25 years of dealing in traditional textiles, seen anything like them. We would like as many people to come to view them to realise the riches we have in terms of artistic talent. The younger generation should see these to appreciate our crafts heritage," say Arundhati Menon and Bhamini Narayanan of Shilpi.

Born of a blend of frugality and imaginative skill, Kantha-stitched quilts have rocked generations of Bengali children to sleep. Since the quilts are usually fashioned out of old saris, they bring the softness of constantly washed cotton and the soothing touch of mother to infants.

But they have other uses too: blankets to embrace one in winter, pillow cases called "Oor" , for tying up books and valuables, the "Bayton Kantha" and the wrap for mirror and comb, the "Archilata". The almost reversible "Sujanis" are used in festivals and marriages as spreads.

Kantha is a woman's preserve and reflects her ingenuity in giving a fresh lease of life to discarded material. The simple and elegant running or darning stitch is worked across the surface of the material. The designs are marked and filled in with coloured thread. Figures, temple festivals and representation of deities make up the pictorial vocabulary of Kantha embroidery. Kantha embroidery by Muslim women is non-iconic.

If Kantha is from Bengal, can the fish be far behind? Along with its graceful form, the multi-petalled lotus is a recurring motif in this craft and is part of every Bengali household.

For those who cannot afford the silk creations, there are cottons though not as exquisitely worked, at the exhibition on at Shilpi's outlets — 29, C.P. Ramaswamy Road, Alwarpet, and 1,Gee Gee Minar,Nungambakkam — from September 24, 10 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.


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