Ratnottama Sengupta, who has edited an encyclopaedia on culture and is a renowned arts journalist, gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle
“Chhenra kanthay shuey, sinhasaner swapna?!”
(Sleeping on a rag, and dreaming of the throne?!)
Sarcasm dripped from every word when the Bengali proverb was missiled at a person who might have ignored his limited means when planning a revolution. But revolution indeed was wrought by the womenfolk of Bengal in the late 1890s and early 1900s when they discarded the brightly coloured drapes from factories across the seas and opted for the desi taant or handloom cotton saris that were less vibrant, even coarse. They were rising in response to Chaaran Kavi Mukunda Das, the itinerant singer who appealed to them through ballads such as “Chhere dao reshmi churi, aar poro na Banga nari (Leave behind silken threads, do not wear these on Bengali women)”. On the streets, in response to Gandhi’s call for Non-cooperation, men were burning clothes from the mills of Britain. The womenfolk, though confined to the inner courtyard, were not to be left behind in the struggle for the dignity that is freedom.
Jnanpith winner Ashapurna Devi, in Subarnalata – the second part of her timeless trilogy on women’s struggle for empowerment which begins with Pratham Pratishruti (The First Undertaking) — records Haridasi, the housemaid who washed dishes round the clock in the wealthy joint family, bring back the expensive vilaiyati (foreign) sari she’d been given for the Durga Pujas. “Here, even if you can’t replace it, please take this back as this is an absolute no-no in our basti (colony) now,” she tells the karta, head of the tradition-bound family. Muktakeshi is stung by this insolence and threatens to sack Haridasi. But her daughter-in-law Subarnalata uses the incident as an excuse to make a bonfire on the terrace, with all the foreign made clothes the family elders and children had been gifted. If she’s chastised for this, so be it! When even little boys were submitting to police atrocities and men were sacrificing their all to sing Vande Mataram (Salute Motherland, authored by Bankim), how could the walls lock out the liberation cry?
Subarnalata, born and raised in the City of Palaces, is not alone in the silent war. Phuleswari, an elderly aunt-in-law she visits in the countryside, asks her if she has the borders of discarded saris. She needs two colours, black and red, to complete a kantha she has worked on. “But make sure these are not from vilaiyati saris,” she tells Subarna. “Those are far more attractive. The desi (Indian) ones are not half as shiny. But if I fall for the shine, my son Ambika will be offended. He told me, ‘It’s only because you have embroidered Yashoda-Krishna, else I would have fed this half-done kantha to fire!’” Subarna, who has not come armed with worn out saris, takes out her newly acquired hand-woven saris, tears off the desi borders and gives them to Phuleswari.
Yashoda chastising Krishna, gopinis (women friends or the milkmaids) pleading for their clothes, or dancing the Raas with Krishna, Duryodhan disrobing Draupadi, Durga slaying Mahishasura, Jagannath on the Rath with brother Balaram and sister Subhadra, Dasarath in a forest, Rama hunting the golden deer, Royal Bengal tiger, alligator, rows of elephants, horses, peacocks… Legends and icons were the major themes tackled by the ladies who inherited the evolved art of the needle from their mothers and aunts and grand aunts in the Hindu families. But these intricate lores were for the especially worked ‘lep’ kathas or sujnis – bedspreads primarily meant to be quilts or perhaps light wraps. Since these were given at marriages or at childbirth, soon ‘secular’ motifs such as boats and palanquins too entered the rectangular ‘playfield’, as did jewellery and ornaments like bajubandh which lent itself to the snake motif, and paati-haar or mat-patterned necklace.
But what kept the womenfolk busy round the year was the khoka (baby) kanthas used in the days when diapers were unknown, and every branch of the family tree became proud parents several times over. These small sized kanthas widely used the central motif of lotus and water lilies that were seen all around in the land of rivers, ponds, jheels or lakes. Surrounding the flora would be vines, the betel leaf, hand fans, fish, parrots, sparrows or some other small birds.
Then, there were the Aasan or carpet-like spreads meant for sitting on the floor. If they were to be used at mealtime, they would be patterned with kitchen utensils like ladle, kadhai, boti – the Bengali all-purpose knife, sickle or kaita, coconut dessicator, and fish that spells prosperity. The ones meant for daily pujas in the prayer room were adorned with floral motifs, leafs from nature, the paisley off a mango or recurrent curvilinear swastikas to ward off the evil eye. Such kanthas also served as covers for the mirror, on pillows, or even as rumal (kerchiefs).
In households that would spread out the jainamaza (prayer rug), dastarkhan (for mealtime spread) or gilaf to cover the Quran, the running stitch — mostly in red and black or green and blue thread drawn from worn out clothes — would conjure the tree of life, the pond laden with lotus, or simply abstract the rippling effect of water and of chatai, the mat in every Bengal home. In short, the craftsperson’s aesthetics built upon utilitarian objects of every shape from the landscape of everyday life. In this respect, kantha shared a kinship with Alpana, the art of drawing patterns on the earthen floor with rice powder.
The coming of the British changed the age-old tradition that is believed to have originated with the famished Buddha lying in the open, covered by patchwork rags or quilted cloth. Until, roughly, the 1800s the rag and the needle accounted for only the material half of the kantha: the hand that stitched and the imagination that determined the pattern to be embroidered spelt the other half. Both, the material and the motif were altered, subtly and gradually, by the historical and social metamorphosis that set in with the advent of the Europeans. For, with the imperialists came the tapestry inspired art and the needlework on matte cloth that relied upon the cross-stitch for its staple.
Now, this form of crafting spreads – be it for the bed, the table, or the floor – used designs that were published in books that came from England, France, Germany, and depicted European floral bouquets, pups and kittens, girls in bonnet or with umbrella, fairytale cottages, Greek warriors, even Zodiac signs. These mirrored the social reality of the landscape in which the rulers had grown up and left behind when they set out to conquer and rule. So, for the ‘natives’ this was as remote geographically as it was historically or in terms of tradition.
When the British rulers set up schools for girls and colleges for ladies, the students naturally took to crafting cross-stitch tablecloths and napkins, hand towels, tray cloth and tea cozy that were a part of the colonial lifestyle. The more enterprising ones even stitched the yardage together to make bedspreads and wraps but the amount of labour that went into it was immense. More importantly, the kantha was a unique, creative way of recycling that simultaneously conveyed the love of the elders who would make them in their minimal spare hours. Their kanthas may not have been autographed – though some were, but they certainly were ‘Stay Happy’ blessings even when the words ‘Sukhey Thako’ were not embroidered in by the unlettered grand aunts when the monsoon showers forced them to cut down on the outdoor rituals of preparing vadi, papad, achaar(pickle), kashundi(sauce) and sundry items for consumption round the year, or by widowed aunts with little wherewithal.
In later years, the creatively endowed craftswomen who could stitch layers of cloth without using a single knot, would also start stitching Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati or Ram Sita on the matte. But by this time the Kantha had also come to grips with the social upheaval and had started depicting guns and cannons on the quilt! By this time, the Bengal Partition of 1905 had been reversed and the Nationalist movement had surged. Durga slaying the Bull Demon had acquired a renewed meaning as Sarbajanin Durgotsab – people’s celebration – took on a nationalist fervour. At the same time Khudiram, Netaji and Tagore gained wide popularity as icons to be mounted on the wall or even to be gifted as swaddle cloth for newborn to signify such blessings as “May you be like them!” or “May you live in a Free Country”. Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel) also gained popularity as a motif along the border of the kantha – this was another quiet way of joining the bandwagon of khadi that was spreading the unarmed war against the rulers into the interiors of the land.
As collections in some Museums of Folk Art such as Gurusaday Dutta’s show, the change in motif also saw the head to toe ‘Gora Sahib’ – a white-skinned European, as Bengal had also gone through periods of French domination – make his appearance in kanthas. This was not unique to the needlework art, though. The coveted Balucharis of Bishnupur and Murshidabad that were conventionally identified by their depiction of battle scenes from Kurukshetra or nawab-begums smoking hookahs or driving horse carriages were now sporting Europeans – suited booted and donning hat, and sometimes along with their automobiles!
This change carried itself into the terracotta tiles too: the terracotta temples of Bankura and Birbhum that stand to this day, singing paeans to the heroism of the Devatas who vanquished the Asuras, or of Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati and Sri Chaitanya, now showed Bengali Babus wearing ‘chapkan’ like the ones we see on social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy or litterateur Bankim Chandra.
There is another, more subversive side to the use of motifs on kanthas. At the peak of the Nationalist movement, when almost every house in Bengal Province was proud to see their youngsters follow Shahid Khudiram’s way, when Master-Da Surya Sen and Binoy-Badal-Dinesh were inspiring the curbs to join organisations like the Bengal Volunteers, and when women like Bina Das, Kalpana Dutta and Pritilata Wadedar too were picking up guns and bhojalis (daggers), the preteen girls played messengers and couriers. Often, when they could not openly send out a message, the revolutionaries would code it through the motifs on the innocuous kanthas that would be draped on babies in arm.
This last bit of history comes from my personal family. My father-in-law Kshiti Prasanna Sengupta, first cousin of Shahid Dinesh Gupta and active member of Bengal Volunteers, was jailed in 1933 right after his Matriculation Examination to be released only at the crack of 1947. His incarceration followed the bombing of three consecutive District Magistrates in Midnapore – of James Peddie in 1931, Robert Douglas in 1932, and B E J Burge in 1933. His sister Rama, then in her pre-teens, was often one such unaware courier as she was asked to reach innocuous objects to one or the other household – among them, baby kanthas.
Kantha, as mentioned before, were crafted by women in their moments of leisure carved out of a daily household routine that enjoyed little assistance from mechanical tools and kitchen gadgets. Stitching together three, five or seven layers of saris or dhotis was an arduous pastime to say the least. Yet they took pride in this pastime as the result was their very own creation, not only putting to good use what would otherwise be considered waste but also adding to the wellness of family members, many of whom would not even have the comfort of sleeping on a charpoy. Away from any thought of carrying forward a heritage, our grandmas were not even doing it for economic benefit or ‘self-help.’
Then came the generation of my mother Kanaklata, mother-in-law Aparna and aunt Smritikana, who had gone to schools where they mastered the art of cross-stitch on matte and knitting woolens that would then be sent off to British soldiers on the Burma border of 1944. They were game for the simple art of running stitch; they were adept at crotchet and could weave silken laces by using the hook that interlocked yarns or thread. No longer were they confined to the inner courtyard although they did not have the compulsion to go out to earn their bread. Neither did they crave for an identity in the world out there save by preparing their offspring to usher a brave new world. For these mothers and aunts, the needlework creations were a matter of self-dignity alone: they took pride in preparing the trousseau of their daughters and daughters-in-law with the labour of their own nimble fingers.
The turbulences in the outer world are the stuff of history. The luminescence and crevices, the glories and betrayals of those events mould the rock bed of idealism for the generations that follow. But do we realise how the hand that rocked the cradle helped us rule our own nation? Until recent times we failed to take note of the demolitions and reinventions witnessed within the inner courtyard. The turmoils our mothers and aunts lived through changed the complexion of society, of their age, of the way people of their times thought. So much has changed since, too. But women like Ashapurna Devi started relating the story of Subarnalatas, we too were indifferent to the significance of such restructuring. It is time to celebrate those brave women who fought with bare needles and midwifed liberation in the dark quarters where maids would lose their jobs for refusing to wear foreign clothes.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
(This essay will be published in Traditional & Contemporary Kantha, edited by Jasleen Dhamija, made possible by the effort of Siddharth Tagore. It has been shared by the author with permission of the editor and publisher.)
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