dhakais in danger
Let us just rehash a few basic concepts of our traditional muslin weave. Muslins are of five categories, the fine plain fabric was known as malmal or addi, stripe muslin was known as duriya or durey, charkhan or check was third on the list, chickon or needle point special work on malmal was fourth in line while Jamdani or figured muslin was the fifth one.
Excerpts have been taken from writings of Maleka Khan
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A Dhakai sari is truly poetry on muslin yarns, composed by designers who are but villagers of pastoral Bangladesh. A Bengali woman's wardrobe is simply incomplete without these elegant pieces.
The unique hand technique of weaving figured muslin was called jamdani in olden days and the weave was called Dhakai. So the mere fact that we call it 'jamdani sari' today is incorrect; as mentioned, the right word is 'Dhakai sari' referring to today's jamdani sari. Jamdani is Persian figured loom embroidery with geometric and floral designs. It is an heirloom weave, which we are all passionate about and there is no denying that muslin jamdanis were a big part of our rich heritage.
Weavers who were brought in from Central Asia did Jamdani weaving, since inception. When Muslim gentries and sultans came to this land they bought their own artisans like goldsmiths, architects, weavers and it is their influence that we see in this particular weaving technique; it is more akin to carpet weaving. In earlier days because the yarn count was very high we could make saris that had detailed intricate pit loom embroidery in it; with complicated and sophisticated work. Over the years we have seen that quality of cotton despoiled, even as the engineering became more basic.
However, it did little to tarnish the glory of this art, and even today every woman, regardless of the strata of the society has at least one piece of these beautiful saris. Recently, Dhakais have again woven their way to the hearts of our womenfolk and their popularity seemed to have leaped double fold. However this story has a twist. Like all things, Dhakais are being given a contemporary look; some try to call it a designer's touch and others, in rather a blunt manner call it murder.
How the old happened
The weavers' sheer sensitivity to create a new art form is translated into exquisite Jamdani design through a technique only known to them. Not all weavers are designers. And this fact comes across in today's Dhakais. To explain it further, master weavers of yesteryears took inspirations from their natural surroundings, be it the solar system, the stars in the night sky, or even a broken comb; they took inspiration from what they saw. This fact is reflected on some of the traditional designs- bhanga kahoi (broken comb), kauar thang (crow's feet), chinir bashon bhanga (broken sugar bowl), and ek anguilla (one fingered). Who would think that a crow's foot has aesthetic value? Everyday life struck the designers and mind-blowing designs flowed freely on the handloom.
The master weaver translates and interprets his imagination in the loom by creating a design. In this way he creates many designs and chooses names for them, in order that he may store them in his memory. The apprentice or sagred repeatedly recreates designs as instructed by his master weaver. This process helps the apprentice to memorise the buli (language) of a particular design. Thus he becomes a skilled designer. So judging by one's appearance you cannot undermine the ones talent. Their rustic, lungi clad look can be deceiving. These are designers who have no formal training but they were weaving attires for Kings and kin for ages.
To create a Dhakai jamdani muslin design, there is no short cut. It needs one's devotion, sincerity and commitment. It is not a mere profession; rather it can be called a passion, Maleka Khan, former President, Bangladesh Handicrafts Manufactures and Exporters Association recalls with pride.
“When I hear people saying 'I designed this Jamdani sari,' I feel at a loss. Now if every ordinary person could design a motif and weave it through jamdani technique, our story would have certainly changed. I always say it and will continue to say it, until it no longer falls on people's deaf ears, that Dhakai saris' designs are nobody's designs. These belong to the nation and if anyone abuses it, it should be a criminal offence,” explains Maleka Khan.
There are many valid reasons for such a passionate claim. It has become an 'in' thing to claim this technique as someone's own property. “When weavers come to your doorstep and you restrict their options with specific instructions and colour combination, which you proceed to ruin by embroidering or adding a border to it, you are actually choking this art form to death. A Dhakai is in itself a stylish sari; it does not require added embellishments. Wear it the way it is, that should be graceful enough,” Maleka Khan explains.
While on the matter Chandra Shekar Shaha, Vice President, National Crafts Council of Bangladesh(NNCB), feels that, “Demand of the times is a lame excuse for embellishing a Dhakai.” His arguments are clear: to make a jamdani attractive you do not need to accessorise it, you can analyse old motifs, re-create some, create new layouts, but there is no need to destroy purity to give it a contemporary look.
Even if we try our utmost we cannot produce Dhakais like they used to be, say a 100 or 200 year ago, simply because they used 200 or 300 count yarns which are impossible to find now. We use 80 counts yarns and at the highest 100 count cotton by cotton or cotton by silk yarns to weave these saris.
To explain the matter in an easier manner Shaha says, “For example steamed rice and khichuri are not the same dishes, though both are made from rice grains. Likewise, a sari that has embroidered roses on it, has lace borders, cut-work borders, hand painted ornamentation and at the same time, has motifs weaved through jamdani technique cannot be called modern day Dhakai. In that case this fusion has to be given a new name.”
Retaining the true form
“New will always be lucrative but how will this 'new' affect our heritage and purity is the question of the hour now. Pause for a while and think twice; will anyone ever distort a baluchori or benarasi or kanchipuram. Will these traditional classic weaves be cut into halves added with another and worked upon with sequin and laces? Then why are we doing it to our Dhakai? Do we lack in confidence? Are we not proud of ourselves, can we not trust the time tried heritage and keep purity in tact?” Shaha queries.
Maheen Khan, designer Mayasir adds, “During the Pakistan era there was a dearth of patronization, the environment didn't help the weavers. But big names in the late seventies and early eighties like Kumudini, Aarong, Aranya dedicated their lifetime work in this sector. We who are conformists do not want it to be distorted; we want jamdani to revive its hay day but in its true form.
Jamdani is a loom embroidery since weavers didn't have skill to document their design but did it all from mind. Over the last 30 years, lots of documentation has been done. We do not want to re-invent the motifs, rather re-apply or re-design in order to preserve the richness of the designs.
But to make matters worse, now jamdani is being treated as fabric yardage. I agree with Shaha, they are distorting it; because they are being called exclusive designer saris. Those who pick up ideas from couture stores are not designers; at the best they can be called retailers. Ninety percent people who wear saris will agree that Dhakais should be worn in its true form.
Fearing the fusion
The two main reasons why researchers fear fusion is because of the confusion it is going to create in the minds of the younger generation. How would they be aware of the purity and heritage if we all go for fusion? Then 200 years from now will this be Dhakai? Now this is an anxious issue that demands an answer. Shaha believes that those who patronize these saris should put together a pure Dhakai along side a fusion piece, that would sort of help customers understand the difference between the two.
People who want to exercise their creative mind a bit, mostly do fusion. Here the question is how you will handle your creative attitude. “I am doing it, it is my wish and I like it. It is one way of handling, it is your hobby, you can make a hanky with embroidered rose, you can design a dress, and you have that right when it is your hobby. But if you call yourself a professional then you must be academically linked. A professional needs to know the history, heritage, sense the market pulse, understand time context and must be able to make all these act logically together,” Shaha explains.
On the other hand, weavers are also creating fusion. Some aggressive middlemen are manipulating ignorance. 'If we weave this sari then we have the market', is how these weavers are distorting the motifs and manipulating the trade.
"It is indeed sad to see these master weavers coming to your doorstep for a few orders and instead of helping their profession to survive, you do otherwise,” Maleka Khan debates.
“In reality you are doing the job of a 'foria', facilitating the unknown weavers marketing means. This doesn't make you a 'saaud' with overall knowledge and command over the entire making of the sari. My point is, one has to encourage creativity; if one gives these weavers a drawing, one is killing them. In our times, stores like L Mohammad, Khan Brothers, Fabric House, Pabna House, Amrita Bostraloi, Dhakeswari Bostraloi sold Dhakai and they never dictated the foria to bring new designs.
"Today when you say, 'bring in or show me a new design' you are again bracketing the art form. That is when the foria goes back and asks the weavers for new designs and they break up the traditional ones to create cheap new ones. These weavers do not think or weave a design on their own; like those master weavers, they just weave to cater to their client,” Maleka Khan says.
If the practice of an individual's unprofessional hobby grows, then the fear is, that an unusual mixed chaotic situation will flourish which will confuse people's idea and knowledge about jamdani and Dhakais. A designer's awareness, a weaver's awareness, a consumer's awareness an entrepreneur's awareness; if these awareness' are not practised then a distorted transformation of jamdani will develop, this is how Shaha analyses the current scenario.
Maheen Khan, however has a positive view. She says “I believe those of us who wear saris know how the true form of jamdani looks, so I am sure this haphazard embellishment will not stay for long. These pieces have no finesse, no sophistication. Those who wear these saris want to grab some shock attention. Shock value in our country is regarded as a good thing. This special loom-embroidered weave should be appreciated in its true form. Nowadays in all seminars, national events, political leaders, cabinet members all wear jamdani and are flaunting it with pride. So I see light.”
Ruby Ghuznavi of Aranya also feels in similar manner. “Frankly I am very optimistic about the rise in Dhakai jamdani sari demand in the last five years. People are willing to buy one gorgeous sari with a hefty amount. But I worry that if you are not a qualified designer than you will be cannibalising it, simply because you don't have that knowledge about this rich weave. Retaining its true form and purity and then popularising it should be the priority. It will always remain high value product. Put up a beautiful sari on your store and people will be leaning towards the exquisite, hand them rubbish then their likings will also be biased towards the rubbish,” Ghuznavi places her point.
Opening new avenues
“My point, and concern too, is that there is no harm in reproducing the old designs, in fact new marketing avenues should be opened for them. This rich fabric can be made into yardage and incorporated into household accessories like curtains, runners, table accessories, napkins, scarves, and so many other items. Increase the product range, create businesses, but don't adulterate them. Give the weavers scope to design on their own, that way you can help this heritage to flourish,” Maleka Khan pleads.
Ghuznavi reiterates on this point saying, “Product development is a great way to create market avenues for jamdani. Earlier there were turbans, cummerbunds, duppatas with this muslin jamdanis. We can go into yardage with 60 count, this would produce a coarse weave, which will be suitable for cushion covers, curtains, table runners, mats etc. Even men prefer this coarse weave for punjabis. However the problem is the weavers have a limitation, they can't weave more than 45 or 46 inches width wise. This I say from experience I believe I was among the first few to experiment this weave as yardage material for household and lifestyle accessories.”
Helping the weavers
However, with time commercialism did reach the weaver's doorstep and everyone is looking for a quick way up. You must keep in mind that if you are truly passionate about Dhakais help create marketing avenues for these weavers but in the process do not choke the art form. Don't create new designs but help create new designers.
"NCCB has approached the Commerce and Industry Ministry and asked them to remove duty for all 100 count cotton yarns for handloom sector and also ensure fair trade because at the end it is the weavers who get squeezed," Ghuznavi says.
"I think weavers support centres should be opened here to monitor their work done to provide them with documented motifs give them support and see that the weavers too are benefited from it all. Large NGO and government initiative are needed in this regard," Maheen Khan says in a positive manner.
So all said and done the final note here is: to keep it stylish, let Dhakais be.
By Raffat Binte Rashid