Crossing boundaries through heritage textiles | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 03, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:29 PM, October 03, 2017

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Crossing boundaries through heritage textiles

Fashion is not merely the clothes that a person wears — it is much more. It involves a strong connection to the roots of a nation, a link to its past, a vibrant present, as well as a scope for the future. With millions of workers dedicating their time in the commerce, it has a strong link to social obligation and communal responsibility.

Ismail Hossain, an artisan weaver, has been involved in the trade of weaving for many years. As far as he could recall the story of his forefathers, they were involved in a similar trade. But he hopes for a different future for his son. He wants him to move away from the family tradition onto something that is more relevant and pays better. 

Hailing from a country that is famous for Muslin, Khadi, Jamdani, Nakshi Kantha, Gamcha and other similar traditional and unique clothing materials that the entire world is in awe of, this very response from Hossain is indeed a heart-breaking note to history.

Fashion with a social obligation 

Muslin, a heritage textile with thousands of years of history, made an important mark in the Mughal chronicles. It is no secret that the Mughals were patrons of art and crafts and they showed a keen interest in this legendary fabric.

It is also depicted in history that the Roman ladies were avid enthusiasts of the special material, spending a great deal of their husbands' fortune towards accruing the luxurious fabric from across the seas. It was certainly a golden era for the weavers; the artisans earned their due recognition for mastery.

And then came the era of imperialism, loot and theft by the British Raj; with their colonial manipulation, not only did they plunder the subcontinent for almost 200 years but also destroyed the business of handcrafted looms permanently. 

This they did by introducing an advanced fixed-pay system 'dadon' which was much lower than the deserving rate. When the weavers refused to continue production at the unworkable rate, the power loom was introduced to completely replace their efforts.  

History also speaks of the many atrocities that were inflicted on the weavers to stop the production of Muslin, once and for all. The most horrendous of the crimes included chopping thumbs of weavers and throwing them into the river Meghna so that they could never again produce the 'much sought after' fabric. 

With time, the famed heritage textiles, especially – 'the Malmal of the subcontinent' and the famed 'Jamdani' became a part of folklore and regional lyrics sung by bards.

Khadi is a different story altogether. Khadi existed at the very same time as Muslin.

While the latter was the most refined version with a thread count of over 800 to 1000, Khadi had a count that was below 200. It was mainly patronised by the masses and was quite popular as well. But with the industrial revolution and the ascent of power mills, and the influx of British textile, the demand for handcrafted Khadi died along with the Muslin. 

Thousands of weavers involved in the commerce lost their jobs and their comfortable way of life was permanently lost. The Indian subcontinent became completely depended on the products of the power loom, set by the supreme colonial authority. 

However, with Gandhi and the 'Swadeshi Andolon' the story of Khadi re-emerged, becoming very popular in the united India including East and West Bengal.

“Today, we see a growing demand for Khadi, Muslin and Jamdani because of their ethical production lineage. Both men and women in rural areas can generate income from production of the hand spun yarns. To develop income generating ethically green products, there is a market, although niche, has developed for handloom products,” said renowned fashion designer Maheen Khan, also the current president of Fashion Design Council of Bangladesh (FDCB). 

And she also expressed that “a lot of government support is placed in this area. FDCB has taken upon itself to promote the initiative for Khadi with the help from private institutions and the Bangladesh government. We are keenly looking into the possibility and feasibility for the product.”

So, all is not lost as there is still hope for revival in this sector and artisans like Ismail Hossain may one day notice an upsurge towards his long-lost business tradition. We are still hoping for that very day, when he will encourage his children to join the hereditary business, to take to broader horizons.  

On the trail of  Bangladeshi fashion

With a rich history, Bangladeshi fashion goes back a long way in the past. Through this article, we have discussed the legacy of Muslin, Khadi and Jamdani. No one is alien to the rich history of the famed Bengal textiles. There is also the Nakshi Kantha with at least 500 years of history attached to it. The Nakshi Kantha is a unique weave popularised by the rural women of Bengal where they narrated the story of their lives through both simple and special types of embroidery. 

While most forms of art are considered elitist, Nakshi Kantha is a craft that has a down-to-earth touch and feel attached to it; developed by hardworking straightforward people and their undemanding lifestyle and dreams. Many designers today are working exclusively with the rural women to bolster the practice of the traditional art form and legacy.

The latest line of the uniqueness is continued by our very own globally renowned fashion designer Bibi Russell, with her creative work on the Gamchcha and Grameen Check. Almost everyone knows about the incredible position of the humble Gamchha and how she singlehandedly made it popular in fashion. Because of Russell, the Gamchha has entered the prestigious high fashion market of the western world. Celebrities and international figures like Antonio Banderas and the Queen of Spain endorsed the material extensively. 

The designer reveals in one of her interviews, "Our country is full of gifted people; our weavers are one of a kind with extreme talent and mastery over their field of work.  We also have the abundance of some of the most unique textiles in the world - the 'Gamchha' being one of them. The Gamchha is like a national symbol for our country. There is not a single video or documentary of freedom fighters, where they are not wearing the special material as an accessory, tied in a knot around their waists or as a head covering. How can such a relevant material die out with time? Why should we let it? And hence my struggling endeavours to revive the Gamchha industry." 

Passionately speaking, the maestro let us know that Bangladesh has numerous possibilities, especially in the fashion industry.  According to the eminent designer, while we are set on the trails to revive the legendary Muslin, we could also popularise the comfortable and modish Gamcha and Grameen Check into the global arena.


Jamdani is a royal weave, most sought after, figured Muslins of Bangladesh. The Jamdani belongs to Bangladesh. Sometimes there is a saying that the Jamdani is too precious and pricey for regular people. It is not meant for the mass in the first place! It is a precious art form, an heirloom product that every family must strive to own for posterity.

Maheen Khan

The Kantha art represents the serene and joyous self-expression of a race of creative women artists whose watchwords are thrift, beauty and sound craftsmanship. In their creations we find a combination of a keen power of observation and profound feelings of sympathy to life and nature.

Gurusaday Dutt

Talking with the renowned designer Humaira Khan, we were delighted to learn that plagiarism in fashion did not bother her at all. "To me, plagiarism will always exist in the creative industry. People will be inspired and they will want to copy and put their inspiration to work. However, successful designers do take inspiration from others, but they also do not forget to put in their own ideas into the final sketch. Within every creation, there must be some sort of uniqueness and that uniqueness is what separates it from downright copying.”

Designer Maheen Khan introduced us to the different aspect of plagiarism.  “Existent liberal policies in the creative sector and the absence of patents and protection of intellectual property rights are what mainly cause plagiarism and the flight of consumers to neighbouring countries for purchase of fashion produce. However, the creative industry can save itself from the loss to plagiarism and the flight through the development of supreme quality and competitive work. It is possible, that when high quality fashion textiles are introduced, consumers will be more interested in their own country's products and authentic designer wear. You can't deceive clients doing low quality work and expect them to buy! That's just not how consumerism works. The high-quality work must also be globally trend-setting and people will further appreciate it."

While we stress on plagiarism and the flight of consumers to neighbouring countries, we must also recognise the importance of marketing, where media takes an important role. All applicable tools must be accessible to reach the audience in due time.

Most designers comply with the fact that a sense of nationalism must be created. The consumers and public in general who are also the consumers must be introduced to the heritage story of the nation imbibing a sense of nationalism. As Maheen Khan said, we must inform our customers that the story is ours and significant to the spirit of Bangladesh, only then will we all learn to appreciate the rich heritage of the textiles.

International fairs, symposiums, exhibitions, films, design stores, fashion journals to rocking ramps, the Muslin, Jamdani, Khadi, Nakshi, Kantha, Gamcha, etc. have come a long way from where they began. All of these are art forms indeed -  the art of extravagance, the art of frugality, creating a stronger, warmer tradition that lasts for generations. 

There is one thing common between all these forms, they are all a significant part of fashion and a symbol to our glorious past; a beholder of our rich cultural heritage and most importantly, magnificent contributors to employment and empowerment in Bangladesh.

By Mehrin Mubdi Chowdhury

Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed

Model: Riba, Mashiat, Meghla and Raj

Wardrobe and Jewellery: Aarong and Mayasir

Location: Aarong, Uttara & Lotus Etang

Makeup: Farzana Shakil's Makeover Salon

Styling: Isha Yeasmin


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