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An Indian Kantha and a Japanese “Boro” Kakejiku with a Cinnabar Handprint

Written on January 22, 2009

This corner of Sri showroom shows a little cluster of diverse works: above the couch is a wonderful and densely stitched Indian or Bangladeshi cotton kantha, on the abutting wall is a Japanese “boro” scroll or kakejiku that bears the imprint of a human hand in cinnabar ink and  below that is an Indian Tanjore painting depicting the Hindu god, Vishnu, reclining on a bed of a coiled snake, Ananta-sesha, while Vishnu’s consort, Sri Devi, is at his feet.

I am in the process of researching this scroll as I would like to learn more about its details: I believe it relates to a Buddhist pilgrim and his participation in a prescribed pilgrimage route, however I am going to get the kanji, or Chinese writing, translated for accuracy.  I refer to this scroll as “boro”–which means “ragged”–even though this is mentioned sort of tongue-in-cheek.

This scroll is being offered for sale on my website, here–and the mysterious message on this scroll is now decoded!

Below are detail images of the heavily stitched kantha, which measures 49″ x 40″, 124.5 cm x 120 cm and could be used as a throw or a baby quilt.  If you scroll down to the second posting, I discuss kantha in-depth here.

Kanthas were made in West Bengal in India and in present-day Bangladesh by both Muslim and Hindu ladies: old, white cotton saris were salvaged, layered and stitched together to create a large area upon which to apply embroidery, or darning stitches.  Originally, the saris’ colored border threads would be drawn out of the ruined cloth to be used in the embroidery process, but I doubt this lovely tradition was still widespread during the heyday of kantha making, which ended mid-century, last century.  If you look closely at this kantha, you can see that the white ground is made from several scraps of white cloth hand sewn together.

A Hindu lady made this kantha as the imagery is based in ideas of her religion: the central lotus symbolizes the universe and the stitched images all around this are images derived from the earthly realm familiar to the kantha-maker, and often images are household objects–in this case we see ceremonial pots, scissors which could be a jati or a betel cutter and either a shovel or a small spoon for applying lime paste to the paan so loved by Indians.  Birds, elephants, dogs, betel leaves, and flowers adorn the field around the lotus, as well as some Bengali writing, most likely the maker’s name.

Notice the pinwheel-like flower forms which are cross-stitched and the whorling forms which most likely are meant to suggest the turning motion of the universe.  The four corners are anchored by lively tree-of-life images.  The imagery of this kantha is full of domestic vitality with a respectful, central tribute to the vastness of the universe.

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