American Patrick J Finn travelled across India researching the country’s many wonderful quilting traditions.
Quilts of India; Timeless Textiles by Patrick J Finn
Rs. 4,500; PP 386
Drive down Mumbai’s thoroughfares, the ones hemmed in by tin shanties and makeshift homes and chances are you’ll spot an intricately hand stitched quilt hung out to air on a rickety balcony or a road divider. It flaps there proclaiming to passers by the talent and industriousness of the lady of the house — for it is almost always women who quilt in a domestic setting, who repurpose tattered bed sheets, clothes that the children have outgrown, and old saris, and transform them into patchworks of art.
Of course, it isn’t only the impoverished who quilt. In many families that are enthusiastic about needlework, it is a domestic art form that’s passed on from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, one that stitches them together as surely as the invisible threads of familial love. Men quilt too though most often as a commercial activity.
You dimly perceived all this, your inner hausfrau sometimes propelled you to rework ruined bits of cloth — never managing, of course, to achieve the brilliance of those sheets flapping in Mumbai’s coastal breeze — but it is Patrick J Finn’s wonderful book Quilts of India: Timeless Textiles that has opened your eyes to this country’s many wonderful quilting traditions.
The myths and motifs that are part of Bengal’s intricate kanthas, the koudis of Karnataka, the resplendent gudris of Rajasthan, the intricate Indo-Portuguese quilts of Goa, quilted palampores,the ledras of Jharkhand, the razais of UP, the reverse appliquéd dharkis and the godris of Gujrat, and Odisha’s appliqués are all studied here. The author makes connections to religion, folklore, the landscape, nature and historic trade routes while also honouring expert craftspeople.
Here’s Shekhawat Hussain Khan, master of the balaposh — the unquilted quilt — who is unsure that his family will continue with the tradition; Here’s Deviben Kodiyatar of Chhaya Porbandar whose patchwork quilts dazzle with their repetitive geometric shapes; and here’s Lakshmi, a Siddi from Yellapur sitting on her bright patchwork koudi.
Finn has crisscrossed the country, going to remote pockets where the sight of a foreigner is probably rare and has come away with information that is as fresh to an Indian as it is to an outsider. Beautifully produced and painstakingly detailed, Quilts of India strikes the balance between being scholarly and accessible; a book to read and to periodically revisit for inspiration.
In an email interview, Patrick J Finn, spoke about why Indian quilts — so ubiquitous you never really ‘saw’ them before — are so special.
Can you recall the first Indian quilt you saw? What struck you about it?
It was a small kantha with rows of embroidered men on it. I was impressed by the delicacy of the craftsmanship and simplicity of the design.
This book is clearly the result of a lot of travel, research, and hard work. What were the joys of putting it together and the challenges?
It was wonderful to meet the quilters across India and get some insights into their lives. Travelling was a bit of a challenge however I was fortunate to have local people and drivers who were very helpful.
Do you think as urbanisation spreads, as more women join the formal work force, this domestic art will cease to exist?
Some quilting genres are already dying out like the balaposh and the more intricate kanthas from Bengal. One of the reasons for writing this book was to document the craft, as done by the women at home.
All quilts are beautiful, but to many Indians, the quilts from Saurashtra, Gujrat and Rajasthan are the most striking. Which are your personal favourites?
I am partial to the older kanthas of Bengal. The craftsmanship and attention to detail make them intriguing. The quilts of Gujarat are especially beautiful and I am glad that women at home are still making them — they are even passing the tradition down to their daughters.
Do you think quilting in India can be viewed as part of the culture of poverty, that as a society gets more ‘prosperous’ it will cease to value/practise these lovely domestic arts?
I believe that home quilting will always remain a craft in India — although it may change. I have met women who are taking up the craft the same way it is done in the west where it is not so much a “culture of poverty” but as a personal expression of creativity.
Are you planning another book that looks at quilts from states you haven’t included?
I do not have plans to do another book at the moment. Although there are states I did not cover, my current research did not warrant further fieldwork. That said, should other genres emerge, I would be open to further investigation and a second volume.
What sets Indian quilts apart?
Quilts are a basic part of the material Indian culture with a long history. They exemplify the continuity intrinsic in the Indian way of life. Perhaps it is the variety of quilting genres that set them apart from quilts in other parts of the world.