What Was Once Forgotten

Shah Nahian

South Asia is one of the earliest centres of cotton manufacturing.  Bengal’s cultivation of fine cotton and its beautiful textiles were valuable articles of trade. And through this cotton cultivation came forth a fabric revered as the ‘Famous Muslin of Dhaka’, the precursor of Jamdani. There are mentions of a legendary fabric, in various folklore and historical records, so fine and delicate that a 50 metre long piece could be squeezed into a single match box, and a dress made from it could pass through a signet ring. The unrivalled quality of Dhaka’s Muslin was attributable to three important factors: superiority of its cotton, the fineness of its hand-spun yarn and the extraordinary skill of its weavers. The finest and most valuable out of all the Muslins were Mulmul Khas which was exclusively used by emperors and the imperial family, Abrawan (flowing stream) was made primarily for royalty, and Circar Ali was patronised by nawabs of various provinces. However, the Jamdani was the most expensive of all the different Muslins. Jamdani weaving was – and still is – unique to Sonargaon, Rupganj and Siddhirganj in Narayanganj district near Dhaka. Its dominant feature was its exquisite design element, woven to perfection in the discontinuous supplementary weft technique.

Jamdani reached its pinnacle of excellence during the 16th century under the patronage of Mughal Emperors. The Mughals brought with them Persian weavers to work with indigenous master artisans of Bengal, to create this exquisite fabric. Many of the Jamdani motifs and designs were floral and geometric in shape and had Persian names like Panna Hazara, Phulwar, Toradar, Guldasta, Jamewar, and Turanj Ashrafi.

I had little experience about the craft of Jamdani weaving before I worked as a member of  the Jamdani Festival organising committee (as part of Bengal Foundation’s team). The first time I had consciously come into contact with a Jamdani saree was at my cousin’s wedding when all the women from our side of the family were urged to wear Jamdani sarees at the ceremony. The only memories of it which remained with me were: they were soft, they were beautiful, but most importantly they were expensive, very expensive. Throughout the year 2018, while I was taking my baby steps in understanding the heritage of the fabric and its significance, I was fortunate enough to receive the guidance of Ms Ruby Ghuznavi.

At the time I met Ms Ghuznavi, she, and the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh, had been collecting original Jamdani designs (photographs and real antique samples) – some dating back to at least a century –  from various historical records, museums and private collections. The photographs and antique garments were then used to conduct a series of workshops with weavers, who could weave replicas for the Festival.  Ms Ruby Ghuznavi has worked with various kinds of crafts throughout her career. To name just a few of her accomplishments, she is credited for reviving the use of natural dyes in Bangladesh – a pioneering contributor to the revival and marketing of natural dyes, a founding member of Karika (with eight others) – the first craft marketing cooperative in Bangladesh, a founding member and former President of the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh (NCCB), Chairperson of the World Crafts Council-Asia Pacific Region’s Natural Dye Programme…  the list goes on. While working with her for the Festival, at some point I had summoned enough courage to ask her about the purpose of our endeavour. ‘The Jamdani is beautiful, but it was exclusively for royalty then, and it is something only the wealthy can enjoy at present times. What is our interest in all of this?’ And she said to me, ‘My interest  is the revival of its quality – maybe it’s too optimistic to expect a 100% return this early, but I hope that we succeed in reviving at least something. We shouldn’t let it die. It will be very expensive, but it will be worth it.’ She also went on to say something more, something which did not make complete sense to me at the time. ‘While the consumers of Jamdani are wealthy, the creators are not.’

During the mid-19th century, at the time of the British colonial era, the Jamdani industry saw a gradual decline. Perhaps the greatest setback to the industry was due to the fall of the Mughal Empire. It deprived the artisans of their most influential patrons. And a number of additional factors also contributed to the decline throughout the ages: climactic changes disrupted the cultivation of cotton; the industry saw a decline in textile exports caused by political turmoil; use of machinery in the English textile industry, and the subsequent import of lower quality, but cheaper yarn from Europe, saw deterioration in quality. In recent history, Jamdani weavers were also hurt by the devastation caused by the Liberation War in 1971. Loss of homes, looms and stocks combined with perennial shortages of raw materials forced many to leave their profession in search of an alternative livelihood.

‘During the 70’s, Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin, Quamrul Hassan, Tofail Ahmed, Mohammad Sayeedur and others began the movement for the development of crafts in Bangladesh. They had involved me and a few others to aid them in their work. Of course, at the time we were much younger. We learnt about the customs of the artisans back then. In spite of the decline in the Jamdani industry, the weavers had somehow managed to retain their craftsmanship   for centuries.’

The tradition of Jamdani weaving has always involved two artisans, the master weaver (ustad) working on the right while the apprentice (shagrid) followed his instructions from the left. Throughout the ages, Jamdani weavers have memorised the designs as verbal instructions known as buli. The buli consists of instructions with variations added for different designs but the rarer motifs were woven in swatches known as doma for easy reference. Today all designs and layouts are drawn from memory and are passed down from one generation to the next.

The Jamdani for the weavers’ communities, however, was more than just a fabric. The weaving process inspired a syncretistic cooperation between the Hindus and the Muslims of Bengal. Multiple historical records have retained this detail without attributing specific reasons, but the Muslins were woven mainly by Hindu weavers (tantis), and Jamdanis were primarily the forte of Muslim weavers (julaha). This was particularly evident through their practices (customs followed by present day weavers) – when a young apprentice is initiated on the loom, the work is preceded by a prayer to Vishwakarma as an ustad rather than a deity.

‘Vishwakarma Dhaleswari
I touch Guru’s feet
The work Guru teaches
I learn that work
Mother Lakshmi support me
Banish the inauspicious’

The prayer began with Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim (In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful).

‘Woven together like cobwebs… it is only when you feel the fabric, that you know exactly what it is,’ explained Ms Ghuznavi. But as she spoke to me about the unrivalled qualities of the Jamdani, I saw her light up every time we spoke about the weavers.

The Jamdani designs and motifs are shared from fathers to sons and now to daughters. In a village, men, women and children are all involved in the weaving process at one point or the other. But as the industry experienced a decline, many of the original designs were lost. In present times, designers and organisations attempt to keep prices of Jamdanis to a minimum, and in return the craft deviates more and more from what it once was.

‘When we presented the more experienced weavers with photographs of original antique designs, they were shocked. They had a difficult time believing what they were looking at was indeed real. But then something interesting happened. While we were met with doubts by older generation of artisans, it was the younger weavers who were inspired by what was presented in front of them. It was them who took up the challenge of replicating these original designs for the Festival.’

‘During our initial efforts a lot of mistakes were made. The yarn was too thick, weaving techniques revealed inaccuracies, and the overall process was very time consuming. However, we supplied our artisans with the highest quality khadi  yarn, and after a number of attempts they had figured it out. They were successfully able to replicate the old designs. These young artisans had created what their parents and grandparents could not. They were weaving Jamdanis their long forgotten ancestors had created ages ago. That was the very moment when I was truly convinced that what was once lost could be brought back again – not just as garment worn exclusively by the wealthy but to preserve the extraordinary skill and creativity shared by our weavers.’

And suddenly it all made sense.

Shah Nahian is a writer and editor from Bangladesh. A music, art and film enthusiast, he began his career as a journalist and has worked for The Independent and Dhaka Tribune, amongst others. Nahian presently works as the Content Manager at Bengal Foundation.

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