Nakshi Kantha, the extraordinary quilted folk art of Bangladesh

So many people have been asking us about Nakshi Kantha, the extraordinary quilted folk art of Bangladesh that we thought we’d write more about it (it’s a Bengali as much as a Bangladeshi tradition!). Made from old cotton clothes, predominantly discarded saris, dhotis and lungis, Nakshi Kantha became particularly popular after the publication of of Jasimuddin’s poem Naskhi Kanthar Math (Field of Embroidered Quilt) (1929). From time immemorial there has been a tradition of Bangladeshi women recycling worn-out cotton saris by converting them into usable and durable quilts, bags, book covers, mirror cases and such articles.

Spreading the embroidered quilt
She works the livelong night,
As if the quilt her poet were
Of her bereaved plight.
Many a joy and many a sorrow
Is written on its breast;
The story of Rupa’s life is there,
Line by line expressed.

She is a daughter beloved at home
When the embroidery begins;
Later a husband sits at her side;
Her red lips hum as she sings.
The self-same quit today she opens,
But those days ne’er return;
Those golden dreams of joy have vanished,
To ashes grey they burn.
Stitch by stitch she carefully draws
The last scene of pain,
The farewell of Rupa, slowly going,
Then truning a littles again,
At the door his peasant wife
Standing dishevelled, gazing at him,
Who is going to leave her for life.
She wept upon the careful stitches,
That last scene shown so weil.
Her face turned pale as ashes
Down in the quilt she fell.
In this way many days have passed,
Carrying unberable pain;
At last came the tempest that smote the trees;
Her body broke with strain…

(Shaju tells her mother)
Wipe your eyes and listen to me mother),
On the floor my quilt outspread,
Propped on pillows, let me hold once more
The needle and the thread.
The pale hand take the needle,
And stitch by stitch she works;
Contemplating the design completed,
Wiping the tear that lurks.
She has drawn her tomb upon the quilt,
A shepherd stands beside;

Dark night there sits like one bereaved
From the grave a little aside,
Playing a flute,. while the ceaseless tears,
Are falling from his eyes.
She draws according to her fancy,
She looks and looking cries.
Weary and calling her mother, she says,
This quilt on my grave shall be spread;
The morning dew will weep on its breast
When I am dead.
And here if he ever returns again
His tears may break the sleep of death,
I may rise at night from the ground,
How will he bear this pain, mother,
On this quilt lies all of mine;
All my pain and ·all my grief,
Emroidered line by line.
So lay it on my grave, mother,
This picture of my grief,
That his and mine upon its breast,
May mingling find relief.

Field of the Embroidered Quilt by Jasim Uddin

The motifs of the Nakshi Kantha depict Hindu festivals, folk festivals, marriage ceremonies, the lotus, Lord Buddha s footprint, fishes, snakes, boats, horses, carts, flowers, elephants, umbrellas, Rathajatra (Procession of Chariots), Jhulanjatra (Swing festival of Krishna and Radha), Swastika (symbolizing the early Indus valley civilization), trees, wheels, etc. Muslim women especially concentrate on geometric and floral motifs, the crescent, star, domes, minarets, verses of the holy Quran and the like.

Nakshi Kantha or embroidered quilt is a folk art of Bangladesh and West Bengal India that has been passed down through generations. People Tree, one of our favourite ethical retailers, have this version made exclusively for them in unbleached cotton. Specialising in Fairtrade, People Tree are amongst the UK’s pioneering eco and ethical fashion companies. You can buy this from their online shop here.