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     Volume 5 Issue 124 | December 15, 2006 |

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Book Review

Our Amazing Textile History
Aasha Mehreen Amin

Delving into the past is often the best way to boost self-esteem, especially when it comes to recalling tangible symbols of glory and fame. The textiles of Bangladesh born from simple handlooms can be traced to the most ancient periods and are intricately linked with our history. They tell a hundred tales of the creativity, perseverance and resilience of the people of this land. The ancient craft of weaving that has been passed down from one generation to the next, has become the livelihood of thousands of weavers in Bangladesh. The end products, the textiles, have reached the most sophisticated niches of the market, both home and abroad. They are age-old traditions that have found their place in contemporary lifestyles. They bring into the present, the treasures of the past.

With a deceptively bland title, 'The Textiles of Bangladesh' a major publication of the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh (NCCB), is certainly a treasure that traces the evolution of these textiles from the past to the contemporary marketplace. The book is a follow up of an exhibition organised by the NCCB in October 2003 that showcased a special collection of traditional hand-woven textiles. The exhibition tried to demonstrate the ability of the craftspeople to respond to changing tastes while retaining the originality of traditional designs and techniques. The book as in the case of the exhibition, aims to revive interest in the richness of the handloom industry.

Written with amazing historical detail, by some of the best authorities in the field, each of the nine essays in this book, is an in-depth account of a particular textile tradition, documenting the history of changes in techniques, designs, patterns and motifs. Enriching this book are the reprints of rare paintings collected from foreign and Bangladeshi museums showing how these handlooms were weaved and what they looked liked in ancient times. There are also photographs of traditional designs, many of them being part and parcel of contemporary fashion as well as the innovations and changes in these patterns and the way they are used.

As pointed out in the foreword by Sayyada Ruby Ghuznavi, one of the writers, the publication will be of use to several target groups including producers and consumers. The extensively researched writings are likely to help designers to use these traditional designs in their creations. The illustrations will familiarise the weavers and embroiderers with their own lost traditions. Even policy makers and businesspeople can benefit from knowing how traditional artisans can work with designers and craft developers to innovate and diversify their products. Ultimately, the publishers and writers of this book hope that this book will benefit the more than one million weavers and related craftspeople such as dyers and printers in the handloom sector.

In the first chapter, human rights activist and founder General Secretary of NCCB, Hamida Hossain traces the history of Dhaka's handloom weaving and how it catered to and was exploited by the European companies in the 18th century. Many changes took place in the weaving industry at the time, changes dictated by the overseas market. The role of the East India Company changed from a commercial buyer to an employer. The end result of the competition between multiple buyers was that the weaver did not have a bargaining edge and many weavers were forced to abandon the livelihood of their forefathers.

Of all the textiles that have originated from Bengal, it is the delicate muslim fabrics and jamdani that have earned the most fame and eminence in the world because of its sophisticated texture. Sayyada R. Ghuznavi in the second chapter, traces the ancient and mediaval literary sources of reference to the finest cotton product of Bengal, its manufacturing techniques and the incredible range and diversity of its patterns. As Ghuznavi, a founder member and former president of NCCB, recounts for instance, the writings of Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta who referred to the “flowered garments made of the finest muslin”. Ghuznavi writes that 'these embroidered garments were probably the precursors of the loom-patterned jamdani, the most expensive product of Dhaka'. Ghuznavi provides an interesting insight into why the jamdanis were primarily the forte of Muslim weavers, muslins being traditionally woven mainly by Hindu weavers or tantis.The current resurgence of jamdani thanks to government agencies, craft development organisations and NGOs, is also documented in Ghuznavi's essay.

The sari with its ancient origins, has always been an integral part of the wardrobe of the women of Bengal, a tradition that has been retained even today. Zulekha Haque, former Chairman of the History department in Government Eden University Women's College, explores the origin of the sari through references to archeological and literary sources. The different styles of saris in different regions and by different classes of women are brought to light. The latter section of the essay focuses on the history of the silk sari and the production and development of silks in recent decades, especially the famous Mirpur silk industry.

Niaz Zaman, Professor of English at Dhaka University, gives a colourful account about the origins and development of the Nakshi Kantha, another characteristically Bangali craft. Zaman traces literary references to the kantha from the mediaval period onwards and gives details on the history of these embroidered quilts for Indo-Portuguese trade. She writes about the variety in stitches and motifs used by women in these kanthas and also the ceremonial uses of the kantha. Zaman ponders on the indigenous roots of the kantha in Bangali culture and modern attempts to replicate the traditional kantha.

Jamdani master weaver Haji Kafiluddin Bhuiyan

Riaz Khan, who has extensive experience in seri-culture development in BRAC and the World Bank, discusses the origins, development and present revival of the silk industry in Bangladesh. Khan, who now teaches at North South University, gives details of the annual exports of Bengal silk during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Founder Director General (retd) of the National Museum Enamul Haque gives a detailed account of the remarkable diversity of the textiles made by major ethnic communities how they are made, the patterns and designs that are used by each culture and ways in which these valuable textiles can be preserved.

Shahid Hussain Shamim, a former Secretary General of NCCB and presently Director-in-Charge of Prabartana, a leading enterprise for fabric development, concentrates on the findings of his study of four major historical haats or rural markets in different regions of Bangladesh. The research is on the weaving of gamcha, a traditional fabric of rural Bangladesh, popular for its durability, softness and low price. Shamim also discusses how certain handloom products are made by different type of looms.

Known as the Golden Fibre and once abundantly grown in Bangladesh, jute has lost much of its past glory. Muhammad Sirajuddin explores the traditional as well as recently introduced uses of jute in the production of textiles and handicrafts in Bangladesh. He gives an array of ways in which jute products can be innovated and popularised in local and foreign markets.

Textile Traditions of Bangladesh is therefore a comprehensive history book that contains all one needs to know about the origins of handloom products in this region. The language is formal and there are repetitions of historical references that are however, relevant to each essay. But to be able to go back into time and retrace the amazing antecedents that formed this most cherished part of our traditional craftsmanship, makes this book, a fascinating read.


Picture and Illustration: Textile Tradition of Bangladesh.


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