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1 Kantha embroidery, Bengal, early 20th century. 0.71 x 0.81m (2'2" x 2'10"). Victoria & Albert Museum London, Karun Thakar Gift in memory of Mark Shivas, 2011 2 Kantha embroidery, Bengal, early 20th century. 0.47 x 0.84m (1'7" x 2'11"). Victoria & Albert Museum London, Karun Thakar Gift in memory of Mark Shivas, 2011 3 Kantha embroidery (detail), Bengal, early 20th century 1.20 x 1.53m (3'11" x 5'0"). Victoria & Albert Museum London, Karun Thakar Gift in memory of Mark Shivas, 2011

All photos: Longevity, London

LONDONS VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM has recently acquired seven kantha embroideries from Bengal as a gift from collector Karun Thakar in memory of his late partner, the television and lm producer Mark Shivas. The V&As collection of South Asian embroideries is one of the worlds nest, but among its surprising shortcomings is the comparative lack of attention paid in earlier years to the acquisition of domestic or folk embroidery. The reasons for this are not hard to explain when the formation of the collection over a period of 150 years is considered. Much of the museums Indian textile collection was formed in the mid-19th century, when it was seen as representative of the Subcontinents textile production. The spread was, however, far from comprehensive, as examples were collected both through the international exhibitions held in cities such as London and Paris from the Great Exhibition of 1851 onwards, and through collecting trips by agents such as Caspar Purdon Clarke, who acquired about seven hundred textiles from local bazaars on his visit to India in 1882/3. But while embroidery by urban, professional male artisans (such as the exquisite Mochi work from Gujarat) was well known, anything done at home for use at home remained effectively hidden from the eyes of those sending things to exhibitions or to museums. At no point were domestically made pieces considered for purchase, as they were not represented in the international exhibitions, nor were they for sale in the bazaar. Embroideries such as kanthas, along with most other types of domestic embroidery, were womens work and as such were not considered of sufciently high quality to be exhibited. Indeed it is highly unlikely that the male buyers would even have been admitted to their makers homes and thus would in all probability never even have been aware of them. It is worth noting that signicant numbers of the V&As Indian and Pakistani folk embroideries were donated by women collectors: for example the Sindhi embroideries donated by Mrs Shireen Feroze Nana in 1981, or the Gujarati pieces donated by Lady Ratan Tata in the 1920s. Kanthas certainly fell into the category of neglected domestic work when other parts of the V&As collection were increasing. The rst kantha to enter the collection only did so in 1933, a gift from Lady Grace Vincent, the wife of a British ofcial in Bengal. Seven more kanthas were purchased between 1976 and 2008, the

last acquired from the estate of the renowned textile dealer Lisbet Holmes. Although these acquisitions were made in order to provide the museum with a representative selection of kantha designs and techniques, the disadvantage of missing out on early acquisitions can clearly be seen by comparison with superb collections such the one put together by Stella Kramrisch from the 1920s onwards and now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see HALI 163, 2010, pp.42-47). Karun Thakars gift to the V&A is thus a very welcome one. The designs of these seven kanthas were all previously unrepresented in the collection, and although they were




Kantha embroideries from Bengal, made by women for use as gifts or in their own households, were once considered too humble for museum collections, but are now becoming recognised as ne examples of Indias craft tradition.



5 4 Kantha embroidery, Bengal, early 20th century. 0.81 x 1.18m (2'8" x 3'10"). Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Karun Thakar Gift in memory of Mark Shivas, 2011 5 Kantha embroidery (detail), Bengal, early 20th century. 0.91 x 0.31m (3'0" x 1'0"). Victoria & Albert Museum London, Karun Thakar Gift in memory of Mark Shivas, 2011 6 Kantha embroidery, Bengal, early 20th century. 1.04 x 0.82m (3'5" x 2'8"). Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Karun Thakar Gift in memory of Mark Shivas, 2011

collected separately they undeniably reect the personal taste of the donor. Two of the group show variations on a tree theme with monkeys, human gures, birds and sh depicted amongst the leaves with pin-wheel centres. The simpler of the two uses the woven border of the sari from which it was made as the two side borders, while the more complex tree design is edged with a peepal leaf motif 4. Stylised leaf patterns also form the basis of a strikingly beautiful kantha which uses the simplest of colour palettes against a plain white ground to create a superbly dynamic design 6. Dazzling pinwheels, simple daisy motifs and paisley or mango patterns are placed within a grid design in another of the group 1, while another grid-based kantha is far more restrained, with a subtle use of black and red triangles against an exquisitely textured white ground 3. A smaller piece takes the border designs from woven saris and imitates them in embroidered rows as a eld design 5. All of these pieces were made purely for utilitarian purposes, traditionally using fabrics recycled from used garments, by anonymous makers in unknown villages of pre-Independence Bengal. Yet the charm of their designs and the care and skill with which they were embroidered make it clear that they were pieces with considerable signicance for their makers and no doubt also for those who used them every day. Rosemary Crill, author of Indian Embroidery (1999), is Senior Curator in the Asian Department at the V&A. To see more of the Karun Thakar collection please visit