The Queen of Kutir Shilpo
Weak, frail, abandoned, extremely poor and without the means of earning a living are the adjectives and phrases that define a lot of rural women in Bangladesh. It was Jahan Ara Begum of Comilla, who came to answer their call of distress. She has been uniting such women in a collective group by engaging them in Kutir Shilpo training followed by the creation of employment opportunities; as a result she has been giving them the means to survive. The locality, delighted and moved emotionally, has appropriately named her “The Queen of Kutir Shilpo.” Azam Khan, the former Governor of Pakistan, awarded her in the year 1962 with the title “Kutir Shilper Kandari.” In the same year, Governor Azam Khan had visited the annual fair at Comilla Stadium, and was elated by the wooden toys, woolen products and goods made of cane and bamboo on display at the eleven stalls of Jahan Ara Begum. He was so overjoyed, that he presented her with an award of appreciation, besides cash prizes. Consequently, the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth, had noticed the Queen of Kutir Shilpo. Her majesty, Queen Elizabeth, had come to visit Dhaka, in the course of which she went to visit the displays of arts and handicrafts in Dhaka Stadium. She was rapt by Chaluni and Flower Boxes made of bamboo and became curious about who had made such beautiful things. Jahan Ara Begum, thirty years of age at the time, appeared with the answer. The Queen of England, awe inspired by Jahan Ara's creativity and talent, presented her with cash prizes and a gold medal.
Jahan Ara Begum was born in Shuvopur, a city in the Comilla district on the 15th of January of the year 1932. She was born in a family of five brothers and six sisters to Nasir Uddin and Sultana Razia. At the tender age of seven, Jahan Ara first started Kutir Shilpo with her friends as a means to earn money and meet her school tuition fees. She started at her hometown Shuvopur, with a measly 3 taka investment. In the beginning, she and her friends used to make dula, chakni, chaluni and moshta out of bamboo. Her first group of customers were groups of fish wholesalers who used to do business on the banks of the Gomti River, and the demand was enough to keep her working. Jahan Ara had felt the need for education from that early age. Times were hard. Education had not been mainstreamed and most parents did not spend much thought regarding the education of their children, and this fact became even truer if the child was female. People were so ignorant that they used to consider expenditure behind education a waste of resources. Jahan Ara had felt the need for education to such an alarming level, that she even went door to door in her neighbourhood to encourage girls her age to engage in education. During such times, it just so happened that a close relative of Jahan Ara had received a small piece of property to be used as a classroom. Jahan Ara had envisaged to pay the salary of the teacher who would work there and she thought of raising the money through collecting small donations and through selling handicraft products. By this time, the concept of Kutir Shilpo had taken a root in her mind as a full fledged profession. A couple of things helped her in the process of turning her dreams into reality. By the help of her mother and paternal aunts, she had received training from four people. She was trained on cane crafts by cane artist Nuru Miah of Nurupur; on both bamboo and cane crafts by bamboo-cane artist Binod Bihari of Chokbazar, and by Umar Ali of Razapur. Artist Kamrul Hasan had also provided her with technical and training support.
At the age of only 14, Jahan Ara Begum was married to Monirul Islam Miyaji, of Adda village of Baruda thana. Her in-laws were well aware of her skills and her talent at handicrafts. With support and advice from her father-in-law Azmat Ali, she was inspired to come back to Comilla, but now she settled on the northern part of Lake Nanua. Her husband used to be a government employee, and with his moral and financial aid, she started to engage in handicrafts on a much larger scale than ever before. Women who used to live on the south side of Tamukia neighbourhood began to come to her. And soon her list of trainees filled up with wives of daily labourers and rickshaw pullers. Jahan Ara intensified her project, and started to work on Kutir Shilpo with full dedication. A lot of women that came to her were new mothers and so consequently, Jahan Ara launched a day care centre to look after the children of the women. Through a combination of handicrafts training and provision of basic education for the children at the day care centre, a new dimension of popularity was added to Jahan Ara's world.
The founder of BARD of Comilla was so impressed with her work that he did not stop at simply appreciating her; he even created a small rent-free sales outlet for her in front of BARD. Former president of Comilla Zilla Board, Khan Bhadur Abidur Chowdhury, with assistance of the Zilla Coordinator, had arranged some land for Jahan Ara in the year 1958. The Jahan Ara Kutir Shilpo Centre was established on that site. She won the “National cooperative Award” twice for her contribution in the Comilla Shomobay cooperative Movement. In 1972, Jahan Ara took the initiative to establish Bajrapur cooperative Society. Her aim had always been to ensure financial security of women, and with her leadership 86 more women's societies were established. Through the years, she has also established Shahan Ara Government Primary School, Pre-Cadet Institute Kinder Garden and Monirul Israma Forkania Madrasah which was named after her husband.
She had taken an active part in fairs many times in the early 1960s under the Pakistani rule. During her stay in Pakistan, she had displayed her creations at Karachi, Multan, Peshawar and Hyderabad. In 1975, the government had arranged for her to go to The Philippines for training purposes. On a similar occasion, in 1983, the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) of the Government of Bangladesh had arranged for her to go to The Philippines once again. She has also visited India, Saudi Arabia, Bangkok and Hong Kong and has gathered knowledge regarding diverse cultures and forms of civilization.
Her awards and recognitions make quite a long list. She has won the “Comilla Foundation Gold Medal,” in 1977 for her immeasurable contribution to the creation of employment opportunities and for overall development of women; cash prizes in 1985 for creation of cooperative constitution and for playing the role of a leader; the National Social Welfare award in 1988 for her voluntary role in helping the society; the Independence Day Medal in 1993 for her special contribution to rural development; the Rotary Club Award and 10 other top awards in 2000; the award on occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of “Women for Women” for her lifelong contribution to the improvement of lives of other women around her; the Best Zilla Cooperative Title under the district of Chittagong, and last but not the least she has also bagged 126 winning prizes at competitions and exhibitions and has won 18 gold medals.
Although her formal education was only up to Class IX, she has authored quite a few books and papers. In 1983, she was chosen to be a resource person for the development of a national curriculum for the training of women entrepreneurs and contributed in a significant way. The books authored by Jahan Ara Begum include “Comilla Shilpo Bishoyok Pustak,” (1976); “Jahan Ara's Kutir Shilpo Rushiar,” (in English 1980); “Embroidery Design Pustak,” (1984); “Dorji Biddya Shikka,” (1986); “Kutir Shiper Jari Gaan,” (1988); “Utpadito Pather Shochitro Catalog,” (1990); “Kutir Shilpo,” (1988) and “Shonirvor Kormoshuchi Bashtobayone Adda Grame Kutir Shilper Oboshon,” (1976).
To educate the entire nation as a whole, women must be educated as well. That is why everyone must come forward and promote female education. Handicrafts alone can take a country much further than it has come, and so we should work collectively for the enhancement of our Kutir Shilpo. The Queen of Kutir Shilpo, Jahan Ara Begum, urges people to work together, as she believes that such collective initiative can change the nation and can most definitely improve the condition of deprived women in our country.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007