The Telegraph
Friday , November 28 , 2014
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Clean threads

Patrick J. Finn's new book, QUILTS OF INDIA: TIMELESS TEXTILES (Niyogi, Rs 4,500), bears testimony to the author's extensive travels across India and his research into the country's myriad quilting customs. Having conducted his fieldwork in 12 states and New Delhi, Finn divides the book (judging by its volume, it is unsurprising that it took five years to put together) into separate segments and loads it with over 400 photographs, many of which are taken by the author himself in museums, cities and rural settings.

It is possible that those among us who have used quilts or witnessed them being stitched may not have paid attention to their intricate work or viewed quilt-making as a fine skill. For such readers, Finn provides an accompanying text that talks about the social and historical contexts in which the quilts were fashioned. He explores in detail the imagery - a lot of it is inspired by mythology, religious rituals, cave engravings and paintings - that each quilt-maker depicts in his work. From basic quilts for daily use to sophisticated Indo-Portuguese coverlets, Finn has covered different practices as well as quilting traditions that have not been recorded before, including ones that nearly disappeared but are returning now. Two of these are the sujani (Bihar) and the ledra (Jharkhand), both of which are fighting a successful battle for survival.

In spite of the detailed text, Finn's focus is on the quilt as a final product, not on the stories and conditions that led to its creation. As a result, his photographs, in all their steely brightness, take on a rather uneasy, sanitized air. Even the pictures that depict the difficult circumstances in which many quilt-makers pursue their craft (such as the photos of a quilt workshop in Vrindavan) fail to impact the viewer in their entirety - they draw his attention only to the quilt. Could this have been Finn's intention?

Left is a traditional, late 19th-century Bostani kantha. Many of the motifs Finn discusses in the text are evident in this work - the intricate central lotus is anchored by four paisley designs and a paisley border, and two Trees of Life can be seen among the peacocks. The lord Krishna is seen captaining the " moyur pankhi" (peacock boat) and guiding his gopis down a river in which many fish swim; the upper register shows him as a " makhan chor". To the left of the kantha, the goddess Kali is depicted in dark blue, while the right side illustrates a Portuguese man in knee breeches, brandishing a sword and being followed by what appears to be a missionary.

Right is a detail of the silk threadwork on a cotton quilt that may have been used as a summer carpet or a bedcover. Finn suggests that the quilt may have been created in Ahmedabad in the late 19th century, and that the embroidery work was done with the help of an ari. The uniform stitches and the single point of insertion for the needle support this suggestion; the fine quilting lines are about a quarter of an inch apart.

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