Earth, water, air and fire — these four elements play vital roles in the creation of any artisan's product. But the most important aspect is the environment around him or her. All the crafts in the world are inspired by what a craftsman sees, hears and touches. Earth, water, air, and fire — they shape the environment and give sustenance. The Japanese craftsman will make the 'Geisha' his subject under a parasol, while the one living in the outskirts of a remote village in Bangladesh will mould a Doyel out of clay. The environment is the main instigator; having itself sculpted from the elements hosting it.
Muhammad Abu Taher is from Bhargaon of Kazipara, Sonargaon under Narayanganj district. He was chosen as one of the winners in the crafts fair for his Jamdani Sarees. The 41 year old Taher says that he is fond of both the older and newer styles of the Jamdani, but working with the traditional styles brings him a kind of different joy, which he has been doing for 15 years. He usually produces a Saree in eight weeks, in order to maintain quality of his work. He is not pleased with the current Jamdani since many of them are diverting away from the traditional designs as they require more time and effort. But, according to Abu Taher, most of their designs that are mass produced are inconsistent and they do not hold any unique value.
Lehao Bibi also practices the art of Komor Handloom and was chosen as one of the achievers this year. She lives in Gurahsar in Adampur Bazaar from Kamalganj in Moulvibazaar district. It is a Monipuri tradition to send a girl off with hundreds of woven clothes during her wedding. This, in turn, means that it is common for little girls to learn how to weave from a very early age. The girls inspire each other as they each learn from their mothers and grandmothers to sow such beautiful clothes. She has taken this art as not only her own profession, but also something that she can teach to others. More than a dozen of her students work for her or elsewhere.
Hay Na Khumi is from Monguipara in Raingjhuri under Bandarban district. The 68 year old farmer in her spare time indulges in the world of Komor handloom. Her mother and grandmother used to do the same and now she is joined by her daughters and even granddaughters in the craft. She says she finds her ancestral roots through the weaving patterns of the many colourful threaded designs. It is common for the daughters of a family to weave their own clothes. Just as Hay Na had learnt it from her mother with much care, she has taught five of her descendents to do the same over the years. She thinks that children learn faster and are more attentive.
Muhammad Abdur Rahman was also amongst the four awardees in 2011. The weaver is from Pabna and is known in his area for his adept skills in weaving the Pabna Saree. He has been in this trade for over two decades. He is a master at what he does and is fond of teaching the intricate trade of weaving very delicate stitches one by one to make art on cloth. Till date, he has trained 7 artisans in the craft. He says that the old designs are always in demand, and also feels that, with the right knowledge and patience, one can bring slight variations to the old designs to make them new. He feels overjoyed when his peers appreciate his work.
If we look at craftsmen and their work, unique to every region in the country, we will see that Jamdani Sarees from Tangail, are revered over any other types of Jamdani such as from Demra, Dhaka, or silks from Rajshahi. This rises from how the people from every region have their own traditional ways in making these crafts. The knowledge has been handed down to each generation for ages. This knowledge is unique to each craft coming from every different region in the country, and thus it is safe to say that an art has been mastered when it comes to these crafts. And here lies how all of these different modes of expressions merge together to tell a story from a common ground. Together they become one to show all that is similar within them.
The skill is being handed down to the next generation
But alas! These are dying arts. Mass production has taken over and has consumed the market, making it harder and harder for labour intensive arts to survive. Why would people pay more for something handmade when they can get something made by a machine and comes cheaper that serves the same purpose? Not everyone can afford to pay for the value of unique craftsmanship that comes along with a hand sculpted pot depicting a dancing Krishna. Artisans are falling in numbers from generation to generation as handiworks have little to no popularity these days. The trades themselves are not enough to sustain livelihoods of the craftsmen.
It is not only in Bangladesh that we see more of these artisans migrating to other trades, but the phenomenon is common all over the world. Thus the traditional skills of nations are being lost from regular life and are becoming things of the past, to be remembered only in the pages of history and to be seen only in museums. This is truly deplorable! But such is the reality. Of course the situation can be reversed. There is a tremendous need to evaluate just how important it is to not allow these unique skills to die out; and, in doing so, nations can rationalize the need to step up and subsidize these craftsmen so that the tradition and culture can be preserved.
In Bangladesh, one such initiative to protect and preserve crafts of Bangladesh has been taken up by the Bangladesh National Crafts Council in collaboration with the Bengal Foundation. The two institutions have given out annual prizes for best crafts since 2010. Four categories of leather, Chikonkari and shed work, Boyonnoksha, and musical instruments were honoured last year. A fair is organized with extravagantly decorated stalls to celebrate the crafts of Bangladesh surrounding the awards. In 2011, the four chosen categories were: Jamdani Saree, Monipuri Komor Handloom, Bandorban Komor Handloom, and Pabna's Handloom.
The initiative of awarding the best craftsmen is laudable. But, only one such initiative awarding only four craftsmen every year is not enough to save crafts of Bangladesh. In order to carry on their trade and to pass it on to generations to come, craftsmen need much greater support. A lot more has to be done to motivate people to keep holding onto these traditions so that they are not lost between the pages of history.
Photographs by Mumit M.
Cover Illustration by Ujjal Ghose
(R) thedailystar.net 2012