Inside the Collection

Stories on cloth: Surayia Rahman’s kantha embroidery

A large, square, hand embroidered quilt on a cream background. The outside edge has been bound with red stitching in a zig-zag pattern. The dominant central motif is a black elephant embroidered with trappings and flowers, surrounded by four padma (lotus), amidst a profusion of gaily coloured plants, birds and symbols of everyday life. The central panel is surrounded by dark red herringbone stitching. The outer border consists of red and pink flowers and green leaves which are varying interpretations of the lotus flower, being different on each of the four sides. On each of the long sides the lotus are interspersed with a sweeping 's' line. Inside that border again, on a pale blue background, there is a row of yellow boteh (in Bangladesh, kalka) motifs.
Nakshi kantha (embroidered quilt), cotton / silk, designed by Surayia Rahman, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1983 – 1984. MAAS Collection: 2002/146/1. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Susan Tuckwell, 2002. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS

How many hands does it take to create a kantha tapestry like this? In this instance, it was the work of eight women embroidering every day for one year. Threading not only a story of traditional motifs, but also the international recognition of an ancient craft and women’s socio-economic emancipation in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Kantha work, an embroidery technique using running stitch, is a centuries-old tradition from the Bengal region. It was utilised to produce functional household items by layering old saris and dhotis (garments) on top of one another, covering them with handwoven cotton and embroidering through all the layers with geometric and figurative designs. This contemporary example is representative of a revival and transformation of the craft into wall hanging art by Surayia Rahman.

close up detail of embroidery featuring multi-coloured floral motifs using a combination of running, chain, herringbone, satin and cross stitch.
Close up embroidery detail of nakshi kantha, cotton / silk, designed by Surayia Rahman, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1983 – 1984. MAAS Collection: 2002/146/1. Photo: Bronwyn Dunn, MAAS

A self-taught artist, Surayia Rahman (1932-2018) spent many years producing oil paintings as well as designing decorative pieces, dolls and stationery before focussing her artistic practice towards kantha. Kantha making in the home had become uncommon by 1925 and the practice lay dormant for nearly half a century.

It was after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 that kantha work experienced a revival as a commercial activity to support women in destitution. During this time, Rahman began to imagine what her folk designs and stories would look like on cloth and what possibilities there might be for hanging kantha on a wall like a painting, ‘envisioning kantha as some of the finest tapestries in the world’. The style came to be known as ‘kantha tapestry’ and her vision to refine the domestic craft has since helped hundreds of impoverished women generate a livelihood.

In March 1982, Surayia Rahman and Maureen Berlin, a Canadian expatriate living in Dhaka, set up the Skill Development for Underprivileged Women (SDUW) program. Rahman provided the designs, selected colour combinations and supervised the production.

Close up of the production and provenance information embroidered on the reverse. Text says 'Skill Development for Underprivileged Women. DEc 1983 - Dec 1984. Eight women working per day. Designed by Surayia Rahman. Sue and Allan - Wedding Anniversary. 28.1.85'
Close up of the production and provenance information embroidered on the reverse. Sue Tuckwell and her husband Allan Tuckwell purchased the nakshi kantha in Bangladesh on 28 January 1985 to celebrate their wedding anniversary; they were living in Dhaka at the time. The textile was donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Susan Tuckwell in 2002. MAAS Collection: 2002/146/1. Photo: Bronwyn Dunn, MAAS
Image of Surayia Rahman with three fellow artisan embroiderers. One woman has an embroidery hoop and Surayia is seen guiding the embroiderer while the other two women watch.
Surayia Rahman (left) guiding her fellow artisans of the Bangladesh Arshi project. Surayia established this enterprise after the SDUW project. More information about the Arshi project can be found in the journal article link above. Photo: Anil Advani for Kantha Productions LLC. Image courtesy Leonard Hill, Producer, Kantha Productions LLC

As well as generating income for communities, the project has ensured the preservation of traditional skills. The figurative designs used in this tapestry are all traditional kantha motifs. These include birds, flowers (e.g. the lotus and the sunflower), trees and animals. If you take a closer look, you can also find a bed, a snake, a comb, a babys cradle, fish, butterflies, a loti or water pot, a fan, parrots and caterpillars – all of which are traditional motifs.

Wooden linen chest hand-painted to match the nakshi kantha. It is decorated on the top and all four sides. On the top is a black elephant with yellow red and blue trappings surrounded by flowers, leaves, fish and some articles of everyday usage. The border is a red line with a blue 'ribbon' pattern outside it. Each end of the box is decorated with a stylised lotus flower in the centre surrounded by more flowers, leaves and insects. On the front of the box is a whole row of stylised lotus flowers surrounded by swirling fronds of vegetation. There is a row of yellow boteh (in Bangladesh, kalka) around the top.
The donors also commissioned a Dhaka rickshaw painter to decorate this wooden linen chest to match the nakshi kantha. MAAS Collection: 2002/148/1. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

To learn more of Surayia Rahman’s inspiring story, ‘Threads’ is a thought-provoking short film documentary about the women behind the needlework. In the words of Rahman, ‘Art is necessary for every corner of the world. Art is love.’

Rahman’s kantha tapestry is on display on Level 2 of the Powerhouse Museum until December 2019.

Written by Vanessa Thorne, Assistant Curator
September 2019

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