Emma Rogers is an Assistant Curator in the South and South East Asia section of the Asian Department. Part of her job involves working with the V&A’s wonderful collection of textiles from South Asia, and she is particularly interested in export textiles made in India.
One of the many beautiful textiles included in The Fabric of India exhibition is an embroidered quilt that was made in Bengal in the early seventeenth century. It is a large object, measuring over 3 metres high and 2 ½ metres wide and made from cotton cloth that has been embroidered in both un-dyed and red silk using simple chain and running stitches. The textile is known as a colcha, the Portuguese word for quilt, and is the name given to a group of surviving textiles, many of them similarly large, that were made in Bengal, near to the Portuguese base at Hugli (not far from present day Kolkata). The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish trading settlements in India after Vasco da Gama’s first sea voyage there in 1498, and a number of Portuguese settled in merchant trading posts on the coast of Goa and in the Bay of Bengal.
The majority of the surviving quilts were probably made for Portuguese patrons, and were intended for export to Europe where they were treasured and admired and used as room hangings and bed covers. Others, however, were exported to other European countries. One of the earliest surviving quilts can be found in the collection of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and another is recorded in the inventory of a sale in London in 1618 which describes a “Bengalla quilt […] embroidered all over with pictures of men and crafts in yellow silk”. This sold for the significant sum of £20 (more than a thousand pounds at today’s currency rate).
Most of the surviving quilts, including one currently on display in the V&A’s Nehru Gallery of Indian Art, were embroidered using tasar silk, a silk with a distinctive natural yellow colour that is native to the area in India where they were made. It is this silk that is also recorded in the London sale records where the quilt is described as being worked in ‘yellow silk’.
The embroidered designs of the quilts display a mixture of artistic influences, combining motifs and floral designs typically found in Indian art with elements that are modelled on European elements. The quilt displayed in The Fabric of India includes depictions of figures in European dress, with long pantaloons and peaked, feathered hats. These figures populate the border friezes of the textile where they are engaged in various pursuits; hunting deer on horseback, dancing and playing musical instruments.Other popular images can also be seen above – for example, European galleons with billowing sails, fish and fantastic beasts and sea creatures. Also popular were scenes from stories of the Old Testament, particularly the story of the judgement of King Solomon. The embroidered quilt on display in the Nehru Gallery belongs to this group of biblical quilts. Other motifs that were often included in the embroidery designs were heraldic devices. Many quilts bear the coats of arms of particular European and Portuguese families, suggesting that they were specific commissions, with drawings of helms and shields being supplied for the Indian embroiders to copy. The quilt on display in The Fabric of India displays the arms of the Portuguese noble family of Lima da Villa Nova da Cerveria at its centre, framed in the corners by crowned, double-headed eagles (another European heraldic device).
Although these textiles were made for a European market, they represent some of the earliest surviving pieces of Indian embroidery. The quilting technique from Bengal is known as kantha and the V&A has a number of quilts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but few earlier examples aside from pieces made for export as quilts or clothing. Kantha quilts made and used in Bengal were worked by women in the home. The embroidery had both a functional and decorative purpose, to sew together layers of cotton recycled from day-to-day clothing after it had been worn though. The imagery on these quilts reflected daily life in India, fish and boats from the rivers, gods and goddesses, stories and local religious and political events. They have a different aesthetic to the earlier examples made for Europe, but still use the same simple stitching and are often painstakingly detailed.
The example above, probably made in the first half of the twentieth century, combines tigers and elephants with images of temple chariots, or ratha, used in processions on festival days.