This is near the end of a poem written in response to the prompt in my Poetry School Reading Group on Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. We were asked to write a poem ‘in the manner of’ GH. What I learned by doing this was how difficult it was, and how packed and interlayered his poems are. What emerged though was a way of looking at recurring themes and images in my own poems. The poem ends:
Layered. Sun, chalk, intimations. A lickable pink dawn across the fields, falling through to bracken, grass, a sandy bank. I reach the versa; everything dives underground. Emerging to lives reversed, boltholes become new entrances. Entranced, I enter my life backwards.
A confirmed resolution of how important it is to write and publish – for me in a blog. It is part of the scalpel and lifting process that looking back on one’s life entails.
It has been a very good experience taking part in this Reading Group and the discussions and prompts have led me off into valuable side roads and re-united me with images and ideas that I had forgotten. One Hymn celebrates the Opus Anglicanum, embroidery done in England, I linked this with the fact that women mainly do such work either at home in the nunnery. In both places they earn money whilst remaining safe. Here is where those thoughts took me.
Some of my most valued ‘objects’ in my house are the embroidered Khanta quilts, cushion covers and wall hangings that I bought in Bangladesh – most of them from Arong, the commercial wing of BRAC – the largest NGO in the world. I worked with BRAC and other agencies in Bangladesh and was able to meet and communicate with people that I would never have met otherwise. In monitoring missions and workshops I went to villages deep in jungle and hillsides, in urban slums and riverside communities. It was a wonderful privilege.
One of my favourite memories is of visiting an interior village with some BRAC educationalists to make ‘Big Books’ with the children. The children told the story, the teachers wrote it down and we made a shared book using the children’s drawings as illustrations. We were deep in this work when I looked up to see that every unglassed window of the earth and tin built school room was filled with faces. All ages, men and women, they were looking intently at what was going on. Afterwards the village head leader told me that no adult had ever been to school so no-one in the village could read or write. They had been fascinated to see the process modelled, as we do for children learning what reading is for.
Many of the embroideries are done with natural dyes – as they were originally.I met a woman who was running a little school who had no coloured crayons. She had taught the children how to make colours from the soil, leaves, berries around them and they collected every scrap of wrapping paper, envelopes, old fly posters and paper bags to smooth out and make drawing paper. Some of the most lovely and moving pictures I have seen.
Khanta embroidery has a long history in India. The quilts were originally made from old, soft saris that had worn out. They were stitched together to create a warm covering and then embroidered with threads pulled from the sari borders.
In a country where extremes of hot or cold are common this was a way of utilising used cloth to provide covering in winter cold. Khantas were also stitched for brides (up to five were needed) to remind a departing daughter of her mother and her home. Often the symbols stitched reflected the aspirations of the women – mirrors, pots, earrings, bettel cutters. They included fish for fertility and wheat, rice, flowers and trees. The stitches were simple. The layers of cloth were stitched together with a white running stitch and the embroidery added in colour. Couching stitches fill in between running or chained stitches.
In the 1920s the poet Jasimuddin recognised the significance of this art and its association with the lives of rural women in Bengal. His poem Nakshi Kanthar Maath, The Field of the Embroidered Quilt, became so famous that embroidered quilts are now called Nakshi Khanta. In Nakshi Khanta Maath the quilt becomes the symbol of a woman’s life and reflects the life of women in every poor Bengali village.
Two young lovers live in two separate villages. One is well populated, the other sparse. Between the villages are fields of grain and a lovely lake on which float hundred petalled lotuses. Shaju and Rupa live in different villages and although they finally marry Rupa has to leave the village. In his absence Shaju continues to embroider the quilt she started before they married. She embroiders her hopes and fears, her longings and her love.
She is the daughter beloved at home When the embroidery begins, Later a husband sits at her side, Her red lips hum as she sings.
When Rupa eventually returns he finds that Shaju has died. Wrapping himself in the Khanta that tells the story of their love he lies on her tomb and dies. Just like Romeo and Juliet.
Khantas , embroidered to provide a safe wrapping for a babym were made by most women. The fact that Khanta means ‘rags’ and no Evil Eye would be attracted by something wrapped in rags was a way of keeping the baby safe. The Khantas for babies often had religious images such as lotuses or the tree of life.
My wall hanging has a similar story – I like to think it is of Shaju and Rupa – I made a few photographs of the pictures and of a picture showing an elephant and a lot of village activities.
My source for information was ‘The Art of Khanta Embroidery’ by Niaz Zaman printed by The University Press. Dhaka, A fascinating book.