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The art of nakshi kantha

The terminology itself, if you look carefully, is descriptive enough. Nakshi is derived from 'naksha', which means design, pattern or motif. Kantha is the word we use to refer to a light quilt used in mild winters. Nakshi kantha, therefore, is nothing but a quilt with designs on it. In fact, prior to the popularisation of this name by 'Polli kobi' Jasimuddin, called Nakshi Kanthar Math (The Field of Embroidered Quilt) people simply called them phool kantha -- flowery quilts.

The flowery quilts, by every right, are works of art. A nakshi kantha may not require a canvas or brushes, but since time immemorial, in many parts of Bengal poor, rural women have made nakshi kantha a creative form of self-expression which is now a matter of pride for our country, a unique art form with its own set of tools, ready to tell a story.

Although nakshi kantha is an art, it serves the very practical function of protecting oneself from mild cold. Poverty-stricken women saved their families from the cold with patches stitched from old, torn clothes. Once upon a time, nakshi kantha, therefore, one may argue, wholly symbolised poverty. In Bangladesh, nakshi kanthas are made mainly in Nawabganj, Jamalpur, Rajshahi, Kushtia, Faridpur and Jessore. Places where poverty ran rampant saw more interest in kantha.

Nakshi kantha was never meant to be sold in the first place. It was mostly made and used by the poor who could not afford to buy new quilts. After the war of 1971, which left many women homeless and widowed, the notion of selling nakshi kantha emerged in an attempt to rehabilitate such women. This slowly marked the revival of nakshi kantha, after the Pakistan regime which discouraged the making of nakshi kantha.

But nakshi kantha has made the revival for good, because this is an art we can't afford to lose, a discipline where one artwork can take months to complete, following a long and fascinating process. There are different types of nakshi kantha, but there is nevertheless a basic process.

First, the canvas needs to be made. This is done by spreading and layering old and discarded saris, lungis or dhutis. In Rajshahi, a thicker cloth called 'kapa' is sometimes used. The more the layers and the thickness of cloth, the more warmth the kantha can provide. The torn clothes are placed inside, sandwiched between the better top and bottom covers.

The upper layer is usually a plain white one; after all, this is the canvas on which the artist will work. Sometimes, red shalu is used with rich greens and blues to give it a bright look.

Then, the semi-finished canvas is pinned to the ground by the four corners. After checking that the layers are properly in place, the edges are stitched. Next, two or three stitches are made down the length so that the layers inside do not get displaced or wrinkled throughout the process. Now, you can move the kantha without causing any disturbance to the layers inside. The canvas is now ready..

As a painter first draws an outline of the motifs or designs on the canvas with his pencil, the rural artist also draws the rough outlines of the motifs on the kantha, often with charcoal or other materials which can be erased when washed or rubbed. An idea of what the final product may become is slowly forming. True nakshi kantha artists are rather spontaneous. They go by the flow, letting their fingers speak out without any restrictions.

The next task is border embroidery, which is often done borrowing from the design of the sari with which the kantha is going to be made. After that, outlines of motifs are stitched.

There are several motifs or sceneries prevalent in nakshi kanthas. But one thing is for certain, they reflect the musings, sorrows, experiences, imagination and surroundings of rural women.

The rural women depict what their tiny keyholes allow them to see or believe: flowers, trees, birds, village landscapes, or even a scene from a mythology. The subjects used reflect the musings of the artists. Hence, nakshi kanthas also vary with region.

A lot of interesting motifs are used in nakshi kanthas, each saying a lot about the artist's culture and background. We may attach them with meaningful symbols, but quite possibly, the artists perhaps use them because they are now common and everywhere around them: lotus motif, solar motif, moon motif, chakra/wheel motif, swastika motif, tree of life motif and kalka motif. The motifs, as you can guess, are deep historical, cultural, religious and philosophical symbols.

However, it can be questioned how much meaning they hold to the rural women who are drawing them. How far do they understand the value of these symbols? Or do they create them because that's the way it has been going on for generations?

Once the outline has been stitched, the inside is then filled up. Again, colours play a vital role. Again, the rationale behind their usage for symbolic or religious purposes or just merely deciding according to aesthetic appeals can be questioned. Regardless, the use of colours has also been passed down from one generation to the next.

Finally, after filling the motifs, the work is completed by filling the entire kantha with fine, running stitches, which also brings out ripples all through the nakshi kantha. The art is now complete.

Today, nakshi kantha, that once upon a time only served the purpose of shielding oneself from cold, holds a lot of value, so much so that people now proudly hang them on their walls as a work of art. The real use of nakshi kantha too has not faded, rather more people now use it.

Amidst all these, there is a sad story. Given the international and national demand, commercialisation has called for perfection and standardisation in the motifs and designs. However, the beauty of nakshi kantha lies in the independent musing of the artist. But many of them are now forced to conform to demands most organisations that deal with them impose, such as pre-determining the design, style, etc. Doodles replaced by strict outlines to be followed and the objects stitched looking more like photographs than hand drawn pictures, spell the demise of the nakshi kantha's originality.

What makes nakshi kantha great -- no matter how strange it may sound -- is its imperfection. Sometimes, being imperfect is the perfect thing to do.

By M H Haider
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Product: Living Blue

Special thanks to Arshad Siddiqui, technical coordinator, CARE Bangladesh, for sharing his insights and presentation report on nakshi kantha.

WINTER warmth

Tucked in at the bottom, tucked in on the left and on the right; there you have your perfect winter hibernation capsule. When the alarm goes off in the morning getting out of that cocoon of warmth seems to be the hardest thing, doesn't it? This warm perfection is a luxury of winter that you must experience and in order to optimise the experience you must have that perfect quilt.

So quilts are what we will talk about today. Where you will get them and how much will that hibernation capsule cost you.

Let us begin with the functional and go up slowly to the exorbitantly priced luxury quilts. The most basic quilts can be found in the New Market and Nilkhet area. Before you go quilt shopping you should know the basics.

Quilts come in cotton or in satin. Satin quilts are warmer and lighter than the cotton ones. The Nilkhet market can provide you with the basic forms of the quilts in both cotton and satin. There are various qualities of these available as well; from harsh to baby soft and smooth ones. Designs are of course very limited and the price ranges from as low as Tk.1400 for a single cotton comforter to Tk.2400 for the double satin ones.

If you go a level up you will find yourself in Gulshan 1 market. Here, at the corners of the ground floor and first floor you will find a slightly larger choice of quilts. Once again there are the cotton and the satin varieties but now you will need to add 'lightweight', 'extra soft' and 'set' to your quilt shopping vocabulary.

The lightweights do not get the highest marks for warmth generation but are very easy to pack away for those long summer months. The extra soft are the fluffy ones which will make you want to dissolve and disappear amidst the sea of satiny softness. These will cost you from Tk. 2500 to Tk. 3000 plus. Sets, as you might have already guessed are full packs of bed cover, pillow cases and quilts. These complete packages are available aplenty and can be the perfect solution for both winter warmth and tasteful bed linen.

Finally there are the different home décor shops where you can find high end quilts. Classical HomeTex and Mustafa Mall, the brand new addition to the Dhaka shopping scene, are two such stores. Here you will find the mid-quality to high-quality Thai or Chinese manufactured quilts. Once again there are choices of extra soft and sets and some of the sets come with elaborate Chinese imperial era handiworks. Such luxury does not come cheap and these quilts sets will make your pocket lighter by Tk.29,990 or more!

By RaisaaTashnova


By Tanziral Dilshad Ditan

Meet Eve Ensler
Date: Thursday, 10 January
Time: 10am till 12pm, 6.30pm till 8pm
Venue: Shilpakala Academy Auditorium

Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues, will be in Dhaka from 9-11 January, 2013.

She will take part in two sessions on 10 January. In the morning, "Eve meets the Youth" will be an interactive event to discuss global and local issues related to violence against women. The organisers look forward to having passionate, active, and vocal young people to come and contribute to the day's event. In the evening, performances by VDAY Dhaka, Nagorik, Shadhona and OBR Team have been chalked out. There will also be a special appearance by Eve Ensler.

Seats are limited. For more info, write to obrbangladesh@gmail.com

TheoneminutesJr. Film Fest 2013
Date: 11 to 13 January
Time: Daylong
Venue: Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council (BARC) Auditorium, Farmgate (Behind the Farmgate Police Box)

Children's Television Foundation of Bangladesh (CTFB) is going to organise a Film Festival on theoneminutesJr. on 11-13 January, 2013. The film fest will introduce theoneminutesJr campaign, which introduces the way of making of a film within one minute's duration to express children's rights or thoughts. In this festival, over a hundred films will be shown which are made by the children in theoneminutesJr workshop held in various districts of the country, supported by UNICEF.

The theme of this fest will be “Entertainment; My right”.

New Year's Bash with RENAISSANCE @ Spaghetti Jazz
Date: Tuesday, 8 January
Time: 9pm
Venue: Spaghetti Jazz

Classic jazz-rock, soul, rock n' roll dance numbers till the midnight hour! Go with your friends and have a great time. Buffet dinner and live band all for just Tk.1,800 per person. Advanced bookings preferred. Contact: Rajib. #882 2062, 017 1301 4464.


Date: 9 till 14 January
Time: 3pm till 8pm
Venue: Dhaka Art Center, House 60, Road 7/A, Dhanmondi

Junction is a Group Art exhibition that will showcase an array of artworks -- paintings, prints and ceramics. For those who are passionate about art, the event at Dhaka Art Center is a must see.




Bookreading: Part of the Solution
Date: Wednesday, 9 January
Time: 6pm
Venue: Goethe-Institute Bangladesh, House #10, Road #9 (new), Dhanmondi

The novel is set in Berlin, in the summer of 2003. Sunshine for weeks on end, a weather to fall in love with and that's just what Christian Eich, the protagonist, does. A thirty something freelance journalist, he is researching a story on the radicals of the previous generation in Germany. His path keeps crossing with Nele, a young member of a left-wing group of student activists who resist the increasing control and surveillance of all spheres of life by the state and the commercial institutions. Not just a simple love story, 'Part of the Solution' is in fact a thriller that leads from Berlin into East Germany and finally to Paris.

The author Ulrich Peltzer has written filmscripts and five novels. 'Part of the Solution' by Ulrich Peltzer has been translated by Martin Chalmers.

ISD Shootout - Football Tournament
Date: 11 till 12 January
Time: 8am till 7pm
Venue: ISD Indoor Gym, Plot 80, Block E, Basundhara

Shootout at the ISD is a football tournament arranged to build a charity fund for the distressed. The event promises much for the 'athletes' taking part and also for their friends and family who can cheer from the gallery. To register, contact: Anisul Islam (0168 614 2334), Adnan Khan (0167 490 9337) Sheikh Iqram Mahbub (0173 378 8309) Safwan Rezvi (0167 029 0540).


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