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     Volume 5 Issue 126 | December 29, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Runa Khan Marre
Reviving an Ancient Art

Elita Karim

"I believe that each of us have something to offer to this beloved country of ours,” says Runa Khan Marre. “This is a country filled with extraordinary elements which we seem to take for granted, yet these are threatened with nonentity in the near future. Once we take notice of these elements - realisation becomes a responsibility.”

As Runa Khan Marre sits at her office desk, she seems the epitome of sheer determination and motherly gentleness. Now in her late forties, Runa is full of life, compassion and courage. One would find it hard to imagine this sophisticated woman as the smiling angel to the islanders at the chars in Gaibandha, where yet another of her major projects, the Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital, is located. Her organisation “Friendship” also works in health, education and development of the people of the chars of the Jamuna.

On December 5, 2006, one of the most prestigious awards in Europe was given to Runa Khan Marre in Paris for seeking to break new grounds with the project of re-launching a boat-building heritage. She is the first Bangladeshi Rolex Laureate who has been awarded the 12th Rolex Award in the field of Cultural Preservation. Known for her pioneering work of preserving the shipbuilding tradition of Bangladesh, she alongside her husband Yves Marre from France, has revived these traditional boats, a 3,000-year-old shipbuilding tradition on the brink of disappearing in just two decades. “This technology carries with it the history of the evolution of a civilisation and pride of generations of sailors on this unique delta of our planet.”

The Rolex Award was created in 1976 on the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, one of the most important innovations in the history of watch making. The jury met in the spring of 2006 in Geneva, chaired by Patrick Heiniger, MD Rolex SA. Seventeen hundred projects from 117 counties were considered. From these, after several days of intensive work the jury settled on five laureates and five associate laureates.

This award aims at nurturing the spirit of enterprise around the world. The Rolex Awards recognise the pioneering concepts and innovative thoughts of individuals by awarding them with the means to implement original and creative projects.

Miniature replicas of traditional boats at an exhibition at Bengal Gallery.

“The best part about this award,” says Runa, “is that it appreciates the individual involved as much as the project itself.”

For almost two years, agents from the Rolex Awards have been researching on Runa's life. “It was like having the CIA behind me!” she exclaims. “People seemed to be determined to find out everything about not only the project but about me as well. They wrote to my family, friends I had not seen in years and some of my sponsors. We had more than a 20-hour interview sessions. They had to be absolutely sure as to what they were getting into with the laureates that they were selecting from all around the world.”

According to Runa, many of the countries, which have been successful in preserving their heritage, had let their maritime traditions vanish till they were faced with many difficulties in trying to revive oral traditional techniques, immense funds and technologies needed for it. Runa's project involves preserving the techniques of artisans, and documenting this unique heritage by creating a 'Living Museum.'

“The museum will be located in Savar, where Abul Khair Litu of Bengal Group was kind enough to donate a part of his land for the building,” says Runa. The museum is being planned in such a way that it will be divided into a 'Living Museum', where carpenters would show their techniques and revive boats, a 'Display Centre' with a research unit and the 'Museum of Tomorrow'. Emphasising on the 'Museum of Tomorrow', Runa says that she wants to use this section of the museum to share the skills and knowledge of boat-building with students and the actual technical boat constructors (e.g. welders) of today. “Ready architects can register for special practical courses on boat architecture here, where the best naval architects and technicians of the world will be sharing their skills,” says Runa. “For instance, some teachers and architects from BUET have come to me and said that they are interested to learn practically about boat-building architecture. Graduates from BUET and other institutions can come and acquire skills on boat architecture after a short training.”

Yves Marre and Runa Khan Marre posing with a model boat.

Marc Van Peteghen, a friend who is also one of the best naval architects in the world today, will be sharing his time with the carpenters and boat builders in Savar to design new types of boats suitable for Bangladesh. He was observing the shape of a baich (a particular design of a boat) and commented that it could hardly be improved. “Its shape is perfect,” he said. “He was impressed by the design, built on a certain architectural concept which he claimed was extremely difficult to accomplish,” says Runa.

Since it's beginning in 2001, the boat-building project has come a long way. There are now over a hundred replicas of boats from different areas of our country. Documentation has been completed on some of them. Marine ethnographers from international Research Centres are helping with the documentation. Well-known Architects and Museulogists are getting involved with the designing. The architect, who, with Renzo Piano, did the interior of the Museum of Modern Arts in Paris, will design the interior of the 'Living Museum'. The top Marine Architects and ship builders have agreed to work with 'Friendship' for the 'Museum of Tomorrow'.

Runa has been awarded with a gold and steel Rolex chronometer and 50,000 US dollars, which she has already put into the building of her massive project of the boat museum. When asked by the Rolex Awards authorities how the recognition and funding from Rolex would help her in her project, she said that the award would help preserve this unique technology and shapes of the boats of Bengal, for posterity. “It will also provide,” she added. “credibility, prestige and recognition, giving the Bangladeshi boats a stamp of international quality.”



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