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Kanthas: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal

Kantha (Embroidered Quilt), second half of 19th century, Bengali

Stitching kanthas (embroidered quilts) was an art practiced by women in Bengal, a region today divided between the nation of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal, India. Traditionally created from the remnants of worn white muslin garments, kanthas are characterized by a gently rippled background usually done in white thread using a running stitch, the intricate motifs stitched in rich colors.

Often made as gifts or for a woman’s dowry, kanthas served a wide variety of domestic and ritual functions. They might be seating for special guests, shroud a Muslim tomb, wrap a newborn, enclose meaningful personal items, or act as a warm blanket. Elaborately embroidered or especially beloved kanthas were—and are—passed down through generations; others were used around the house until they became rags and disintegrated.

The kanthas in the museum’s collection were mostly made between about 1875 and 1950 by women of diverse backgrounds—rural and urban, Hindu and Muslim, unlettered and highly educated. Their makers shared a collective Bengali culture that they invoked in their creations, drawing motifs and tales from an abundant local repertoire as well as from their own lives. Stitching kanthas was one of the few means of self-expression open to women. Each artist demonstrated her rich imagination and creativity through her palette, stitch selection, composition, and imagery.

The museum’s kanthas combine the historic collection of Dr. Stella Kramrisch and a major gift by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz.