Jamdani: A Threatened Legacy

Around 50 years old, Based Mia runs a tea stall near Tarabo Upazilla in Narayangonj, having left leaving his ancestral profession of producing Jamdani Sari. This has been one of the golden heritages in Bangladesh since before the Mughal period. Yet, like the Muslin, this a heritage is under increasing threat of extinction.
Based Mia is not the only one who has left the inherited profession, but gradually many of the professionals are now going to leave this ancestral gift. When asked why he had left the Jamdani Sari trade, Based replied, “When the cost of required materials for making Jamdani was started becoming costly, I started earning less. Soon I realized that it was impossible to make a living for my family in profession, and I was forced to give it up.”
“The sorrow of giving up my forefathers’ profession was almost unbearable for me,, but what more could I do without any sort of government support?  It is quite strange how the prices of everything go from peak to peak in such a short time,” he adds.

While talking to another weaver Kabir Hossain, who has 18 years of experience in Jamdani weaving, with deep grieve asked, “We see every day on television that women ministers and others rich women wearing our handmade Jamdani, but did she ever think where this jamdani comes from and what is the present situation of Jamdani weavers?’’

Historically, the area around Dhaka and Narayanganj has always been the hub of handlooms. The surrounding area grew the finest quality cotton, Karpash, a key raw material for weaving Jamdani.

Besides, the aesthetic senses of the royal patrons helped Jamdani weavers make the embroidered fabrics with eye-catching design.

Still the villages in Rupganj, Araihazar, Sonargaon, Shiddhirganj and other places around the Shitalakhya remain the main Jamdani-making belt. Weavers in many other places in the country and in West Bengal tried to make Jamdani, but what they made were not comparable to that made by the weavers of Narayongonj.

The weavers are found busy at their looms, creating probably the most exquisite handloom weaves in the world. Men, women and children of the village are also involved in some stage of the production process. Most adult weavers’ work as long as 18 hours a day with breaks for meals or prayers. The work itself is very laborious and requires extreme concentration.

These expert weavers can create the design mentally during the weaving of the saris. There is no mechanical technique involved. Jamdani weavers have remained largely illiterate or semi-literate. However, despite the lack of any primary education in its formal sense, the mental faculties of the weavers are as sharp as mathematicians. How so ever complex the pattern might be, it is imprinted in the minds of the master weaver and passed down from generation to generation through apprentices who eventually through years of toil become master weavers.

There are no written documents for the incalculable motifs used in Jamdani. The motifs are repeated with remarkable accuracy and there is hardly any inconsistency in the design. Nothing is sketched or outlined. The weavers just know the exact number of times to do a certain stitch to combine the yarns to come up with a particular motif.

“Many researchers from different countries come here to see our works and try to reproduce this handmade artistic works with modern technology, with little success,” says Faruq Hossain another weaver of jamdani who works about 10 years.

Jahangir, another weaver, says, “This ability of weaving Jamdani we have learnt from our ancestors and despite many challenges, we are still struggling to save our heritage. We do not get adequate wages for our labour. We have to wait for our owner’s instructions to fix Jamdani manufacturing cost, as we do not know about the market price.’’

He also says, “If we tell our owners to raise the price they tell us to do it by our own. But how can we do that if we are not able to reach the main buyer? All the dealings are done by our owners. ’’

A Jamdani weaver gets half of the selling price of a sari from which a weaver has to pay his helper’s wages and half of manufacturing cost. A weaver can make maximum 3-4 saris a month which can be sold for Tk 3000-10000 per piece. But the main concern is that this Tk 3000-10000 saris are sold for Tk 5000-30000 in the market, but the weavers do not get any profit from this selling price.

The exploitation of weavers start by their owners first, after that come moneylenders (Mohajon), middle man (dalal) who have contact with many businessmen and BSCIC officials. But it is a matter of regret that at every turn the weavers are being exploited.

Babul Hossain, owner of a Jamdani retail shop, said, “The condition of our market now is not good, we can’t sell a sari more than Tk 200 above the main manufacturing cost, so how we provide more labor cost to the weavers.”
He further adds, “If our government provide us small loan system and reduce the cost of yarn, cotton, color required to make a jamdani sari then we can make some profit and can offer the main weavers more for their labour. In 1987 we got some loans from the government of that time and the market of Jamdani was excellent, but after that we haven’t received any loans from any of the governments. ’’

“We can manage loans from different NGOs like Brac, Asa, Grameen Bank, Prosika situated in our locality or from moneylenders, but that loan system simply make us poorer because we have to pay the high instalment by the end of week or sell our manufactured saris to mohajon at low prices. But we have to depend on that process because we don’t get any government loan or financial assistance.’’

Dhaka Regional Director of Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) Mir Omar Faruque says, “We have no loan system at this moment, but we had four credit line system in past for the development of jamdani weavers. We help the weavers by recommending them for loans from different banks and also we are planning to provide some help to the weavers by providing them some money, or giving them loan without interest.’’

It is found from the visit to Rupgonj , Araihajar, Tarabo, Sonargaon, Shiddhirganj that for the increasing price of raw materials required to make a Jamdani, many artisan or craftsman stopped making Jamdani.

The price of normal cotton yarn shot up from Tk 70 to 170 per lasi (measurement of cotton) on the other side the price of silk yarn went up from Tk 20 to 90 per tola (measurement of weight). A low-priced Jamdani needs ten lasi cotton and a good quality Silk Jamdani needs 6-7 vori (measurement of weight) silk cotton to make.

There has also been fingers pointed at Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC). In 1992, with the aim of developing the Jamdani Industry, BSCIC started a project in Noapara, Tarabo name d‘BSCIC Industrial Area’. They procured the entire and of Tarabo to make it Industrial area, and intended to provide the land as plots to weavers of Jamdani. But many old aged weavers, such as Tareb Ali, Motaleb, Shaheb Ali and Fajlul Haque said to this reporter that they did not receive any land from BSCIC.

They claim that they have no extra money to bribe BSCIC officials for getting their land. They also claimed some wealthy persons are misappropriating their land by providing bribes. Some weavers who did get their land were eventually forced to sell it because of their inability to build a house which is ordered by BSCIC. One such weaver said, “Where were we going to get the money to build a house in line with their instruction. Now we are working as labourers on our own land.”

Local commissioner of Noapara Mohd. Anwar Hossain says, “If BSCIC wants they can make our Jamdani industry famous all over the country. They can bring many buyers from different countries here in this Jamdani Pallii to introduce them to our Jamdani industry and influence them to buy directly from this area. Then the weavers will be inspired to weave Jamdani and be able to earn more for their labour. BSCIC can sanction the weavers some money or loan for their Jamdani business well.”

While speaking with this reporter, State Officer Golam Morshed of BSCIC Jamdani palli said, “We are looking into complaints of corruption, and are trying to trace the original weavers to provide them their land. Already we have given 406 plots according to main layout and another 10 plots will be given as soon as possible. We have made a committee to trace the illegal inhabitants living inside Jamdani Palli. We are also taking some initiatives to export this artistic product to more countries. Jamdani is currently being exported to India, Nepal, Oman, Srilanka, and also in many European countries.”
Shahid Hossain Shamim, owner of Prabartana, says, “Bangladesh Government can fix the price of Jamdani so that the weavers get to know the true picture of market places so they receive accurate prices or wages. The government can also launch weaver’s service system which is active in neighbouring India. This service system can provide some services from government to the weavers. Government and non-governmental institutions like BSCIC, Bangladesh Handloom Board, Bangladesh Karu Silpo Parishod should work together to protect our glorious history of Jamdani and Jamdani weavers.”

Abu Mia, a weaver for 25 years, says, “If we get adequate facilities from the Government we can reinvigorate the old heritage of Jamdani sari.”

Chandra Shekhar Saha, Vice President of Karu Silpa Parisad says, “We the Bangladeshis have the responsibility of saving the legacy of our Jamdani Industry. Every woman can buy a Jamdani sari instead of Indian and Pakistani saris. If the women of Bangladeshi can be inspired to do this, then the weavers will not be forced to leave their trade.”

“Simply being aware of our tradition and using Bangladeshi Jamdani Saris will help the ailing industry regain its golden past,” he concludes.

This article is published at Weekend Independent magazine

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