Surayia Rahman

Surayia Rahman, 1932-2018. Surayia Rahman, 1932-2018.

Surayia Rahman (1932-2018) was an artist, designer and kantha-maker from Bangladesh who initially painted pictures and designed dolls, but later promoted the development of kanthas, traditionally made for private use, into an art form for public display. A documentary film about her life and work is entitled Threads: The Art and Life of Surayia Rahman, directed by Cathy Stevulak (first shown in 2016).

One of her most famous designs is a triptych kantha wall hanging for the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka, based on photographs from the Stella Kramrisch Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The wall hanging and others that she produced around that time greatly influenced later kantha production in Bangladesh. She co-founded, with funds provided by the Canadian High Commission, the Skill Development for Underprivileged Women, SDUW, but after four years at SDUW she was dismissed (apparently on policy issues). Thereupon she formed “Arshi” ('mirror') to promote skill development, dignified work and income generation for hundreds of women. In 2008 she handed over control of Arshi to the Salesian Sisters of Mary Immaculate (the 'Salesian Sisters'), who by 2018 were still designing, producing and selling Arshi-style kanthas.

Rahman created elaborate story-telling designs (the so-called nakshi kanthas) for kantha wall hangings, believing that kanthas should be seen as a form of art. Her refined designs are often worked on silk rather than on recycled saris made of cotton, and she introduced the use of locally produced bamboo-processed threads. Her embroiderers used a hoop to hold the fabric taut while they stitched the designs, thus avoiding the rippled effect of traditional kanthas, when the fabric was held by hand or stretched with a foot. 

Detail of a kantha designed by Surayia Rahman, 'Colonial Times'.

Detail of a kantha designed by Surayia Rahman, 'Colonial Times'.

Rahman’s wall hanging designs, created in cooperation with the women artisans that she trained, became known as “nakshi kantha tapestries.” Although kantha traditionalists protested that Rahman’s kantha wall hangings were not true kanthas, Rahman persisted in creating this refined textile art in the kantha tradition.

A number of Rahman’s pieces are based on the work of the famous Bengali poet, Jasimuddin, such as The Field of the Embroidered Quilt, from Jasimuddin's 'Nakshi Kanthar Maath' (1929) and Gypsy Wharf, from 'Sojan Badiar Ghat' (1934). See also the kantha designed by Surayia Rahman called Georgian Times, now in Toronto, Canada,


  • Vogelsang, Gillian, and Willem Vogelsang (eds., 2021). Encyclopedia of Embroidery from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau and the Indian Subcontinent, London: Bloomsbury Publishers (pp. 399-400).
  • Zaman, Niaz, and Cathy Stevulak (2014), 'The refining of a domestic art: Surayia Rahman', Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings 886.

WV, 13 May 2021


Last modified on Thursday, 13 May 2021 13:17