#MuseumJigsaw : Arshilata Kantha of Bengal

There is an age old debate on ‘Beauty vs. Utility’ that involved the likes of the 18th c. philosopher Immanuel Kant. While utility appeals to our rational mind, beauty makes us feel with our hearts. Which is more important? Kant believes that the unification of the two is possible. His philosophy definitely holds true in the case of this 19th century Arshilata Kantha which was hand embroidered by an anonymous craftswoman from the district of Birbhum. It is not only a gorgeous piece of art but also doubles as a cover for mirrors.

In collaboration with Gurusaday Museum Kolkata, we bring you this Arshilata Kantha work.

Can you piece this masterpiece together?

Helpful Tips

# puzzle pieces might just be on top of each other – look carefully!

# make sure you have observed the image before you start. In case you need to see the image again, scroll down or hit the picture icon on the bottom left

#hint: We found it easier to piece together the border pieces first.

#Share your finished piece with us using #MuseumJigsaw and #gurusadaymuseum and tag @theheritagelab on Instagram/Twitter!

The Arshilata Kantha

The kantha is a product of immense skill and resourcefulness, made with discarded household items such as the thread from the border of an old saree, or scraps of textile from torn quilts. Sometimes woven by succeeding generations of women in a family—mothers, daughters, grand-daughters—they embody a unique form of female familial bonding, eventually becoming part of these women’s legacies.

Arshilata Kantha are narrow embroidered covers that are used to roll away and store combs, mirrors, kajal, sindoor, sandal paste and other toiletries. Generally, they are rectangular pieces of dimensions 6’ X 12’ and use motifs such as lotuses, trees, creepers, spirals, inverted triangles, zig-zag lines, scrolls. This Arshilata Kantha employs the use of bright colours and floral and animal motifs. It is embellished with a decorative border. One can see different birds and flowers sewn into the textile. How many birds do you see?

About the Gurusaday Collection

Gurusaday Museum in Joka, West Bengal houses one of the largest single collection of indigenous art and craft traditions from rural Bengal. This collection was built by Gurusaday Dutt, an Indian civil servant who travelled across villages in undivided Bengal between 1929-1939, gathering “folk” artefacts with the intention of reviving Bengal’s indigenous art practices and establishing its unique cultural identity. The collection presently resides at the museum which was constituted in 1963 under the Bengal Bratachari Samity who had inherited Dutt’s collection.

Their vast collection spans over centuries. It houses intricately designed clay moulds for confections (chhanch), papier mâché and terracotta masks, and Dutt’s personal letters from the early 20th century.  From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it includes hand emrboidered textiles (kantha) , scroll paintings made with natural dye (patachitra), Kalighat paintings (Kalighat pata) and hand painted playing-cards (dasavatara tas). Hand painted book covers and printed palm leaf manuscripts (punthi) dated between 17th and 18th centuries co-exist with sculptures from 11th century CE, and ancient pottery that dates all the way back to 1st century BCE.

Some of these material artefacts, such as the kantha and terracotta moulds for sweets and aam-sattwa were created by women from rural Bengal who remained largely anonymous. Although originally intended for practical, everyday use, these works of art are testament to the irrepressible creativity in these craftswomen.

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Chitralekha is a museum professional based in London. She holds an MA in History of Art from SOAS. Her areas of interests include Indian miniature paintings, decoloniality in museums, and open access in the cultural space.

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