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Museum Presents First Exhibition Outside of South Asia of Traditional Embroidered Quilts from Bengal

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Lovingly created from the remnants of worn garments and embroidered with motifs and tales drawn from the rich visual and narrative repertoire of Bengal, kanthas were traditionally stitched by women as gifts to be used in the celebration of weddings and other family occasions. "Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal" from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection and the Stella Kramrisch Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (December 12, 2009 – July 25, 2010) presents 44 examples of this vibrant domestic art, created by village and urban women in the Bengal region, now comprised of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal, India between the mid-19th and the mid-20th century.

The first exhibition devoted solely to this form of art ever presented outside of South Asia, "Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal" focuses on two premier collections. One was assembled and donated to the Museum by its former Curator of Indian Art, Dr. Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993). The other was assembled by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, leading proponents of American self-taught art, who have offered their kantha collection as a promised gift to the Museum on the occasion of this exhibition.

“We are extremely grateful to Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz for their generosity in donating their extraordinary collection to the Museum and for their support of this important project,” Timothy Rub, the Museum’s George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer said. “The creativity and technical skill Bengali women brought to the medium is beautifully demonstrated by these exceptional collections, which seem all the greater as we bring them together for our visitors.”

The quilts on view were created by women who, whether rural or urban, Hindu or Muslim, shared a common Bengali culture from which they drew inspiration. Embroidered kanthas served a great variety of ritual and household needs. Some were made as baby blankets, as seating cloths for special prayers and meals, or to cover gifts of food or clothing. Others were made as wrappers for ritual gifts, utensils, sacred books, and cosmetics. Elaborately ornamented or especially beloved pieces might be carefully preserved and passed down through generations, but most kanthas become ever more stained, faded, and fragile until finally being used as a diaper or dishcloth, making the well-preserved kanthas in these collections especially rare. Kanthas bearing written dates are also rare. Two dated examples are on view, one from 1928 in the Bonovitz Collection, and one from 1875 in the Kramrisch Collection, considered the oldest known dated kantha.

“Like American patchwork quilts, kanthas are about memory,” explained Darielle Mason, the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, who organized the exhibition. “They connect families and generations and they connect the present with the past. The everyday lives of Bengali women were seldom recorded prior to the late 20th century, so kanthas are often the only surviving physical traces of women’s presence, and the only way their personal voices may be heard.”

Also like patchwork quilts, kanthas are an art of household thrift. The traditional base cloth for kanthas was the thin white cotton fabric, handspun and handwoven, that was favored in Bengal for both men’s and women’s garments well into the 20th-century. Women layered multiple fragments of this cloth and then stitched them together with auspicious motifs and patterns using colored threads, traditionally pulled from the ornamental borders of their used white cotton saris. Often they then quilted around these motifs using white thread in a running stitch to create the rippled background for which kanthas are best known.

The exhibition in the Joan Spain Gallery in the Perelman Building is organized by theme. The central space explores the conception of kanthas and the most commonly seen motifs, such as the focal lotus flower and corner trees. It also introduces some of the household, agricultural, and ritual items that make up the kantha-makers’ vocabulary—all of which invoke good fortune and fertility. A second gallery examines the technical process and design variations of kanthas, while the other looks at the imagery, showing how women told stories and interpreted the world around them in thread.

Although Bengal is now subdivided by the national border separating Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, the inhabitants of Bengal continue to share a common language and deep cultural roots, including a heritage of kantha-making. During the 1930s, kanthas took on additional meaning as important embodiments of cultural and national identity. From the late 1970s, kantha stitching was revived in both Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, as a commercial craft that provided women a livelihood. Today, furnishings and clothing done in kantha embroidery are immensely popular as luxury fabrics across South Asian, and found in boutiques around the world.

While quilts from the Kramrisch and Bonovitz collections are intermingled in the exhibition, the differences as well as the complementary nature of these two collections are evident. “Stella Kramrisch was fascinated by how this art shared and interpreted the ancient imagery of the larger Indic world, so many of her pieces are covered in rich Hindu narratives,” Mason said. “The Bonovitzes, on the other hand, were most attracted to lively and often fabulously quirky kanthas that best express the individuality of their makers.”

“I love the asymmetrical aspect of [kanthas]—one corner has one image, another has something else, you can’t predict,” the artist and collector Jill Bonovitz said in an interview published in the exhibition’s catalogue. “It’s the innate genius of putting together something that works as a piece of art, and yet obviously the initial thrust was something that was functional, or ceremonial, or a gift.”

Stella Kramrisch:
Born in 1896 in the town of Nikosburg, Moravia (now Mikulov, Czech Republic), Stella Kramrisch’s interest in Indian art was first sparked at the University of Vienna. She started collecting kanthas in the 1920s while teaching at the University of Calcutta, a position she held for almost 30 years. She came to the United States as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and soon joined the Museum as Curator of Indian Art; she later taught at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. In 1968, Kramrisch organized for the Museum Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village. This groundbreaking show was the first major exhibition of India’s vernacular art in a western art museum and included 32 kanthas, the largest number ever exhibited outside of South Asia until the present exhibition. Kramrisch continued to curate, teach, collect, and write until her final years. Her many honors include the Padma Bushan, one of India’s highest civil awards.

Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz:
Sheldon Bonovitz is Chairman Emeritus and CEO of Duane Morris LLP and a long-serving Trustee of the Museum. Jill Bonovitz is a distinguished ceramic artist. Among the American self-taught artists the Bonovitzes collect is James Castle (1899–1977), whose 2008–9 retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art owed much to the couple’s interest and support. The Bonovitzes formed their kantha collection between 2000 and 2003. Many of these quilts have hung in the Duane-Morris’s Philadelphia offices, in dialogue with other works from the Bonovitzes' self-taught collection.

Philadelphia Museum of Art | Kantha | Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz | George D. Widener |

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