The Field Of The Embroidered Quilt

An embroidered bed spread inspired this post today, a story that was set in motion when a dear friend of ours had to make a hasty exit from Dhaka this week as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was getting ready for a complete lockdown. She had earlier lived in places considered very difficult and stressful, where one could be expected to leave within the hour in case of an emergency, but never quite predicted the present day Covid-19 scenario, in peaceful countries like Bangladesh for instance, where movement has been compromised like it may be in zones of conflict. As per a recent government circular, in view of the  current surge  in  Covid-19  cases, beginning the first of July, movements  all  over  Bangladesh  have been  strictly restricted for one week with exception  to  movements  related  to  emergency  services  e.g.  health  services, police  stations,  fire  service,  electricity,  food  and  water  supply,  gas/fuel  supply, pharmacy, internet and telephone services.

As an expatriate, meeting or connecting with family members who live in different time zones has never been easy, more so during these times. Human society grows increasingly insular with invisible walls in place and now, through disease. Something about the pandemic makes me apprehensive for global diversity through free movement or perhaps that’s been an idealistic notion all along. In any case, our friend is safely with us until things stabilise in Dhaka.

It has been an extremely busy week and I missed posting, although my writing continues with the same intensity. Blogging sometimes takes on a retrograde flair and the writing moves inwards, given perhaps, severe blog fatigue. Then comes along a bed spread from Bangladesh; I believe it merited a post, because it is very much like poetry.
Earlier in May this year, I had posted a poem on Sashiko, [1] which is the art of reinforcing fabric through running stitch embroidery in Japan. In Bangladesh, rural women have long engaged in a similar pursuit of reinforcing the fabric of old sarees (a traditional garment worn by women) through running stitch embroidery and motifs in a form called Nakshi Kantha [2]. In West Bengal in India, kantha is still a very popular form of embroidery as is the Tepchi straight stitch of Chikankari in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Our friend brought me this beautiful specimen of Nakshi Kantha on a huge bedspread that looks so divine, a result of many hours of painstaking needle work by hand. It has artistic motifs  or ‘naksha‘ (in Bengali) all over, an intricate border and a straight stitch runs through the entire fabric.

In earlier times the kantha stitch was used to embroider red, blue and black patterns on [usually] white fabric, by women, during their leisure time or on rainy days. Sometimes years were spent converting old sarees or dhotis (Men’s traditional garments) into thick, embroidered quilts. Designs were outlined by needles and thread and simply filled in, each product distinctly different from another. Today, patterns are stamped or traced and Nakshi Kantha is produced commercially. Traditional designs are influenced by religion or the environment. Motifs in this form, range from lotuses, wheels, solar or lunar depictions to the tree of life, birds, kalka or paisley, and leaves too, that can employ a vast variety of stitches, with the basic being the running stitch or Kantha, followed by Chatai or pattern darning, Kaitya or bending stitch, weave running stitch, Jessore stitch (a variation of darning stitch), threaded running stitch, anarasi or Holbein stitches as well as the herringbone stitch, satin stitch, backstitch and cross-stitch.

Quite a few of these stitches found expression on the bed spread I feel so privileged to receive. The pictures include the bag it arrived in, which in itself is a fine, hand embroidered work of art, on a fragment of a colourful saree. Kantha is used to embroider various articles of daily use ranging from quilts, prayer mats, covers for the Quran, bed spreads, wallets, kerchiefs and other such.  Essentially,  kantha is an expression of creativity, an embroidery of a poem on a lazy day or perhaps an intense passion. As the writer of one blog [4] said about this form “kantha making is very rewarding. The concentration and contemplation that is required in building the harmony in color, design and execution is akin to a spiritual exercise. The kantha maker has to put all her energies into a single basket of mind and execute the design. At the end the kantha means more to the maker than to the viewer. Hence it is a lonely art and is totally bound by the whims of the artist.” It makes me think of what poetry is to me along the lines of a creative solitude and a solitary pursuit. It is the kind of embroidered expanse you hold in your hands and wonder how you threaded those words into existence, those patterns and hues that make you happy, yet sad that there is no undoing an old design, you balk at the thought of repeating one too, so you simply start over with fabric, thread and a new pattern, in a spurt of growth, like life.

I took the opportunity to put the spotlight on a narrative poem written on Kantha by Bangladeshi poet Jasimuddin [3]. Popularly called Polli Kabi (Folk or Pastoral Poet) he was a Bengali lyricist, composer and writer widely celebrated for his modern ballad sagas in the pastoral mode where his  Nakshi Kanthar Math is considered among the best lyrical poem in the Bengali language. As a key figure for the revival of pastoral literature in Bengal during the 20th century, he also wrote poems, ballads, songs, dramas, novel, stories and memoirs. I don’t know Bengali but it is a language that resembles my mother tongue Konkani, which is spoken in Goa along the Arabian Sea Coast, perhaps because of words that share similar roots in Sanskrit. Jasimuddin’s poem Naskhi Kanthar Math or ‘Field of Embroidered Quilt’ was published in 1929, pre-independence India. An extraordinary book, it sold more than half a million copies before independence. 

The poet Jasimuddin Photo by ~Jennifer A. Cutting, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. 1951 Source: Wikipedia

Featured in the poem are scenes of rural Bangladesh, its traditions, struggles and way of life and begins with a drought scene where the villagers pray for rain at a socio-religious ritual. At this event a young man called Rupai meets a village girl named Shaju in a classic case of love at first sight. The lovers get married in the story but the bliss does not last long for when thugs come to loot the crops of the villagers which results in a conflict, five people die and Rupai is wrongly accused of their murder. To escape the situation, he sees no other way but to flee from the scene and leave his beloved wife. Although rural customs and festivities like the harvest, fishing and a wedding, have been emphasised in the poem, in addition, the love story itself is very tragic, for in an attempt to protect her, the couple are torn asunder by Rupai leaving.  Shaju embroiders in solitude, a quilt in Kantha, depicting stories of her life with Rupai, a quilt that she asks her mother to lay on her grave when she dies. She does eventually die heartbroken, pining for her beloved, without ever seeing him again and the quilt is accordingly placed on her grave. Later in the poem, the villagers discover the dead body of a man wrapped in the coverlet, atop the grave, which is identified as that of her beloved Rupai.

It is the kind of story that captures the imagination of everyone that loves stories woven around themes of love, idyllic countrysides, seasons, passions, conflicts, tragedy and redemption. Excerpts below are from E.M. Milford’s translation of Jasimuddin’s poem, featured on a blog [4]. I managed to translate the original Bengali text through Google Translate which did help me thread the narrative and understand the gist of the poem better.

Jasimuddin brings to life, the pulse of the rural landscape and of its denizens in a way that was befitting of the Nature Cult of other famous Bengali poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam and yet, he very openly spoke of the struggles of rural folk, the sordid aspects of rustic life without denying the subjects of his poems, their basic humanity.

Black is the pupil of my eye,
Black the ink with which I write
Black is birth, and Death is Black
Black is the universal Night.
Black is the Son of the Soil and yet
Victor is he of All!
He who with gold
Has credit small.

Yet, the melancholy of grief and illustrating for the reader, the sameness of it across age and other divides, is his most famous Bangla elegy, Kobor (Graves) from his composition Rakhali ; where in a dramatic monologue he expresses the searing depth of grief of an old man speaking to his only surviving descendant, his grandson, at having lost all his loved ones to death, especially the loss of his wife, whose grave he tends to for thirty years. [6]

“এইখানে তোর দাদীর কবর ডালিম গাছের তলে, 
তিরিশ বছর ভিজায়ে রেখেছি দুই নয়নের জলে।“
“Here, under the pomegranate tree, is your grandmother's grave;
For thirty years my tears have kept it green.”
(Graves by Jasimuddin,Stanza 1, Line:1-2)

Poetry is best understood through the language it is composed in, a translation may not do it justice although it enables a reader to appreciate context, as well as the immediate concerns and passions of those that are separate from us.

Some of the poetry requires that one understand the cultural context as well; for example, breaking bangles and tearing clothes as mentioned in a stanza of Nakshi Kanthar Math,  is a symbol of bereavement and grief at being widowed. When Rupai expresses grave remorse at having to leave his wife, he symbolically compares it to leaving her widowed.

Weeping, his wife says,
"Tell me what has happened. Where have you been hurt?
Let me see! Where is your wound ! Is it very painful ?"
"Painful is my wound, my sweet, but not in my body.
I have tom your sari, broken your bangles,
Broken your anklets, broken the necklace round your throat.

Further in the poem Nakshi Kanthar Math, the act of submitting a life event to embroidery is also described just as it happens in the lives of those women that continue to embroider in Kantha for their personal use. In fact, as our friend tells me, women in Bangladesh have sought to steal time for themselves through the very act of embroidery, even if in the company of other women so they could find some solace in such a collective, away from their familial pressures. Current times have turned a mostly solitary domestic art into a cottage industry, pushing some women towards entrepreneurship.

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 Rupai'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 quilt 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,

I was happy to learn of Kantha celebrated thus in poetry, as it does too the very act of embroidering a life story. It exalts the woman, who in the art of stitching together old fabrics, tries to reclaim her spirit through passionate needlework. It is as if Shaju, in an artful case of transference of expectations and her mortal being, places even the scene of her death and an eventual meeting with her husband in an afterlife, onto a quilt. The product of her passions is strangely prophetic as well. Life to some, may simply be the pursuit of what we find missing in our fabric of existence or an apathetic resigned denial that nothing really matters. In the case of the quilt, there is something poignant yet significant in how Shaju embroiders her past life onto a quilt and in a remarkable expression of agency, even proceeds to weave in her death. It is a story of profound grief, but it is also a tale of seeking pause while parsing life in hue on fabric, it is not a tale of apathy but a tale of creating meaning of something that is inexplicably difficult to come to terms with. It is only a story but for the ones that embroider to express themselves in Kantha and channel their creativity through it, there can be nothing more real than the very act of transcending the mundane through beautiful art. As someone who loves embroidery, I find it heartening that Bangladesh’s pastoral poet embroidered his most famous poem around the theme of a Nakshi Kantha quilt and I was able to learn of it thanks to the beautiful bed spread I received.

Yet, as Jasimuddin notes in his poetry, pastoral poems may give us a glimpse of what appear to be the concerns of others but it is what people actually do, that reveals what is truly important to them and that cannot always be transcribed into words. Sometimes, it can only be embroidered. This post is a tribute to those artisans, not to diminish in any way their creative passions that may not necessarily be reflected in works of beauty they are compelled to mass produce for commercial use. This is for quilts embroidered singlehandedly by them, in their own life stories.

What may we know of the secret sorrow
Of the shepherd in the field?
In vain we search in our joy and our pain
This secret of his to yield.
Our griefs written in verse and book
That those who read may know.
But dumb are the griefs of the shepherd boy
Which only the flute can show.

Not all is tragically bleak and sad in the poem, there is also poetry in the way people express their immediate concerns, like wishing for rain that means everything for the harvest and thereby for livelihood and survival. Verrier Elwin (anthropologist, tribal activist) [7] described these and other aspects of the poem ‘The field of the embroidered quilt‘ so succinctly, (especially of E. M. Milford’s translation) that provide for a glimpse of life in Bengal during colonial times: The latter part of the poem is almost unbearable after this, but that is as it should be. It is a proof of the skill with which the author has entranced us. This is no Shakespearean tragedy-the working out of tragic character to a tragic end, the awful designs of fate drawing to their desperate conclusion. It is the tragedy with which all .who know village life in Bengal are only too familiar; meaningless waste, fruitless despair, hopeless disaster against which man is powerless.· So does cholera suddenly invade a valley, so does the capricious weather destroy the crops or wild animals steal the treasured cattle. Yet out of this strange meaningless existence of loss and separation, hunger and frustration, the villager (as I have seen again and again and as Jasim Uddin portrays most beautifully) achieves the highest ends. His are the values of constancy and courage, love and hope.

I have chosen to include what appears at the beginning of the poem, [8] which a prayer for rain at a socio-religious ritual. It is a beautiful way to see the world even if the heavens are grey and the clouds are dark. This prayerful poem is a way of assuming ownership of sorrow at a drought, in how people demand from the heavens, rain for a parched Earth.

'Black Cloud, come down, come down;
Flower-bearing Cloud, come down, come;
Cloud like cotton, Cloud like dust,
O let your sweat pour down!
Blind Cloud, Blind Cloud, come,
Let your twelve Brother Cloudlets come,
Drop a little water that we
May eat good rice.

Straight Cloud, Strong Cloud, come,
Lazy Cloud, Little Cloud, come,
I will sell the jewel in my nose and buy
An umbrella for your head!
Soft Rain, gently fall,
In the house the plough neglected lies,
In the burning sun the farmer dies,
O Rain with laughing-face, come!'






[6]~ of an old man narrating