Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 5, Issue 49, Tuesday January 6, 2008




Muslin or not

When one hears the word 'muslin', the image that comes to mind is of a flowing, transparent dupatta that can be folded and put inside a small matchbox. The fabric, made of finely woven cotton, was one of the most renowned products of pre-colonial Bengal. Bengal cotton fabrics were exported to the Roman and Chinese Empires, and mention of the fabric from Dhaka can be found in Ptolemy's Geography and the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The practice of making muslin fabrics is an ancient tradition of Dhaka, and one of the identifying characteristics of the Bengali people.

The tradition gathered strength when the Mughal capital was established in Dhaka, and the arrival of European colonialists spread its fame all over the world. It is ironic that it was the presence of the Europeans who, although helping to spread its fame, also catalysed the Dhaka Muslin's decline. A major factor in making Muslin textiles a rich tradition in and around Dhaka was the backing of Mughal Emperors, who were very fond of the material.

With the emergence of the East India Company, the Mughal rulers' spending power and authority decreased. This, coupled with the industrial revolution in Britain, hammered the final nail in the Muslin coffin, as clothing goods could be produced at much lower costs. Nowadays, however, one hears of muslin and it is seemingly found in most reputable retail outlets in Dhaka.

Bibi Russel, designer extraordinaire, is none too pleased when asked about the revival of Muslin. “Nothing in the world will make me call it (the fabric being sold in shops) Muslin. Frankly, I think the press should be a bit more responsible in such matters,” she said of the growing notion that Muslin is back. “Almost every newspaper has jumped on the bandwagon.”

“When Muslin was made, it was all done by hand. Young girls with soft fingers used to get up before dawn to get to work making the fabric,” she explained. “The thread was drawn from cotton by hand, and this required extraordinary skill. The fabric being sold in shops today are all made by power looms, and this means that much of the craftsmanship is foregone. A genuine Muslin sari could be folded to fit in a matchbox. Try that with the fabrics being sold today and you will know what I mean.”

“I call the fabric raw silk or organza,” said Bibi. “If I wanted, I could have passed some of my products off as Muslin, especially because they are made by hand. But I choose not to.”

When asked what the problem was if fabrics were made using power looms, Bibi replied with great passion, “There is a difference. Obviously power looms are used to reduce the cost of production, thereby reducing the price, but the quality is just not the same. If the quality is not the same as genuine Muslin fabric, why are they being called Muslins?”

In the olden days, some high quality Muslin fabrics took up to six months to complete. With the use of power looms they can be completed in a matter of hours.

'I am going to let you in on a little secret,” Bibi continued. “Jamdanis are now being produced using power looms, and that will bring the price down from around Tk 6000 to Tk 1200.”

Although on the surface this seems like a positive development, Bibi thinks otherwise. “It is not just about fashion and quality of fabric, but also the employment of craftspeople in the villages. If the machine-made Jamdanis take hold of the market, and they most likely will because of the lowered price tags, countless such craftspeople will become unemployed. In a developing country like Bangladesh, grassroots development is essential.”

Bibi, who owns eight retail outlets in European cities, thinks that the Bangladeshi craftspeople have magic fingers and that they still have a lot to offer. “Most of my products are made by craftspeople in Bangladeshi villages. They have shown the world that they have magical fingers. Not even one item was rejected. In Barcelona, Milan and Madrid the goods were sold out within the first week.”

She added, “Next year will be the year of the natural fibre, and I think then the fabric that is being called Muslin will be caught out, because it is not natural. The difference in quality is palpable.”

Having seen the raw silk dupattas in Bibi's shop, one can see the difference in quality in machine-made fabrics and those made by hand. A shopkeeper at a reputable silk shop said while pointing to his stack of 'muslins', “These are muslins of varying qualities with a price range of Tk 140 to Tk 150 per yard. They are very popular. People buy them to make tablecloths, dupattas and even saris.” When asked what they were made from, the shopkeeper replied that they were made from silk. The Muslin fabrics of pre-colonial Bengal were made from cotton.

Muslin is a very rich part of our heritage. Heritage should be preserved and not contorted. There is no reason why the fabrics being marketed as Muslin today cannot be called by another name. Calling machine-made fabrics Muslin undermines the heritage of our crafts, as well as the skill of those who worked painstakingly to produce the astonishingly fine fabric that made the world gasp in awe. Let us remember Muslin fabrics as they were when they put Dhaka on the map, rather than dilute their memory by using the name for marketing reasons.


Full circle

For Nathaniel, the journey to Dhaka was coming to a full circle. His quest in search of his father began in Pennsylvania, a distant metropolis from the streets of Dhaka but the journey was not complete before he saw our capital. As he stood in the assembly hall, where near about 300 parliamentarians take seat every session, he saw glimpses of a father he knew only little.

In the words of the architect himself, “I am working to develop the element to such an extent that it becomes a poetic entity which has its own beauty outside of its place in the composition…It was not belief, not design, not pattern, but the essence from which an institution could emerge...” and it did.

Louis I. Kahn is considered to have been the most important architect of the second half of the twentieth century. I. M. Pei, another master architect spoke of Kahn through posing a simple question: "Is it better to have had a successful, high-profile architectural practice or to have designed three or four unexampled buildings?"

While Kahn's creative legacy was a search for clarity, his personal life was secretive and chaotic. His mysterious death in a train station men's room left behind three families- one with his wife and two with women with whom he had long-term affairs. The child of one of these extra-marital relationships, Kahn's only son Nathaniel, set out on a journey to reconcile the life and work of this mysterious man.

In a span of over three years, while making the documentary, Nathaniel Kahn undertook the pilgrimage to the only clues that his father Louis I Khan left for him. To discover the father he never came to know in reality, he sought images of the man through his work. The buildings with their exposed, signature concrete walls, stripped bare bricks conjured an image of a man known better through his work than in reality.

Nathaniel sought closure. The quest that took him across three continents, ended in a land alien to him, a place where people spoke a different tongue and lived a different life. His father's concrete walls spoke to him in a language unheard of. It was the befitting end for a long, arduous journey. Louis I Kahn's greatest work is the signature of Dhaka, a city that celebrates 400 years as a capital. It is the embodiment of the fragile democracy, but iconic presentation of the determination of the people.

By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Based on the documentary 'My Architect: A Son's Journey' by Nathaniel Kahn.

Barbecued chicken (Murg Kandhari)
2 (600g each) broiler chicken, skinned and washed
2 tsp red chilli powder
3 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp pomegranate juice or Rooh Afza Syrup
1½ cups yoghurt, whisked
2 tbsp ginger paste
2 tbsp garlic paste
2 tsp black cumin seeds
1 tsp black pepper powder
2 tsp garam masala
salt to taste
1 tsp Saffron
4 tbsp double cream
butter for basting

Make 3 deep incisions each on sides of breasts and thighs and 2 on each drumstick. Mix red chilli powder, lemon juice, and pomegranate juice together; rub over the chicken evenly. Marinate for 2 hours and refrigerate. Mix yoghurt with remaining ingredients (except butter). Marinate the chicken in this mixture for 2 - 3 hours more. Refrigerate.
Preheat the oven / tandoor / grill/broiler to 180°C (350°F). Skewer chicken from tail to head, leaving a gap of at last 4 cm. Roast for 10 minutes. Remove, hang the skewers to let the excess moisture drip. Baste with butter and roast again for 4 - 5 minutes. Serve.



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