Four images appear frequently on Bengali kanthas. As the sacred flower of India, the lotus represents the essence of life and often dominates the center of the piece. Or a mandala, the circular design used for meditation and signifying the cosmos, may be embroidered in place of the lotus. In the four corners, a tear-drop-shaped kalka (the Western paisley shape) or the Tree of Life often appear, pointing toward the center design. Both images remind us of the interconnectedness of life, the fertility of the world, and our participation in its abundance.
Around these images appear a variety of plants, flowers, vines, and geometric forms. Men and women performing various tasks may be ordinary humans or prove to be gods or characters from folktales. We are provided clues to their identities through their clothing, head coverings, and accessories.
Animals have a multitude of meanings depending on their context within the kantha. Cows, elephants, horses, snakes, and tigers may relate to well-known stories, or symbolize specific traits such as strength and power. Among the birds, the peacock is a South Asian favorite. In addition to its beauty and perceived wisdom, it also serves as a vehicle for several Hindu deities.
Most of Bengal resides on river deltas making the images of boats and fish relevant to daily life but they also refer to the hope of an abundant food source for the family. Pasher dan, a board game, appears on one of the exhibition kanthas. Played by a bride and groom on their wedding night, the game determines the gender of the couple’s first child. Another less frequently seen image is a four-level temple chariot with wheels used to carry local deities in parades.
Click images below to view larger and read more information about some of the quilts included in the exhibit.