The genius of the weavers was in the creation of exquisite woven textiles and the best of Bangladesh’s textile remains in the variety of its woven fabrics.
Extract from the monograph written by James Taylor, a medical officer posted in Dhaka from 1828-46, published by the Royal Society of Arts,
“The cotton plant in this region was cultivated with special care and yielded a ball with a very fine fibre and long staple. The spinning of the thread is done by the women of the villages – the supple fingers of the younger women providing the best yarn. The weaving was done by the men. Before setting up the loom the warp threads were steeped in a rice paste to make them firm enough to withstand the tension of weaving and the humid climate kept them supple as the work progressed.
For cleaning and carding the cotton balls in preparation for spinning the women used the jawbone of the boalee fish. The small, finely spaced teeth were perfect for the job and this ancient tool has never been surpassed.”
Muslins and Jamdanis were amongst Bangladesh’s most prized contribution to the rich textile heritage of the world. The various historical references to the superb quality and the high-esteem in which these fabrics were held, are too numerous to elucidate though it can be said that they form part of some of the most valued textiles in collections all over the world.
Although it is not possible to ascertain the precise period in history from which the sari came to be used in its present form, its origins can be traced to the garments displayed in the numerous sculptures and terracotta’s of the country. From mediaeval Bengali literature one can have a fair notion of the types of sari which were greatly prized, though they are described more by their particular colours than the place of manufacture of technique. Thus we read about the dark blue meghadambur (dark feathers), the floral designed asmantara (star studded sky), and the agniphool (flower of fire) saris. These elaborately designed saris are no longer woven and have now been replaced by saris of simple but elegant motifs and colours.
Production continues to be specialized amongst weaving communities: the tantis of Tangail, even today weave fine cotton saris with patterned borders. From Comilla, comes heavier cotton fabric, known as khaddar or khadi which is used for shirting, dress material or bedcovers. The yarn for this cloth is hand spun on a charkhi. Pabna was an old weaving centre, where traditional techniques are used to produce saris and lungis. Not only is there a regional differentiation in weaving but also in the techniques, for instance the jacquard loom is used to weave the Tangail saris. While jamdani weavers are usually Muslim, Tangail weaving has through the ages been carried on by the Hindu caste of Basaks.
Most of the handloom goods are brought by the weavers to the local haath or weekly bazaar, where they are sold to traders, wholesalers and their agents. Finally the goods reach the retail shops in the towns. The two major cloth markets in Bangladesh are in Narsingdi near Dhaka, and Shahjadpur in Pabna. But other markets exist for specialised goods, like jamdani saris are sold at the Demra hat, whereas the Tangail cottons are sold at Patiya.
New handloom products have been developed by Grameen Bank- a leading non-government rural-oriented financial institution with trade name “GRAMEEN CHECK” which is soft, colour fast and 100% cotton, The “Grameen Check” fabric and the apparels made out of it have already made a breakthrough in the European markets.
There are a number of other handloom textiles, relatively lesser known, which have made their district of origin well known for their distinctive design and quality and have created a niche for themselves.
Textiles have been an extremely important part of Bangladesh’s economy for a number of reasons. The textile industry accounts for approximately 45% of all industrial employment in the country and contributes 5% of the total national income. At present it is estimated that the number of handlooms in Bangladesh is about five hundred thousand and there are over one million weavers. Handloom products have shown decisive upward trend in the export market since 1972 The product range of handloom is large and includes Muslin Jamdani Saris, Bedcovers, Bedsheets, Tapestry, Upholstery, Place mats, Rugs and Blankets, Satranji Durees, Crochet, Muslin, Tribal textiles, Silk fabrics, Sofa covers, Block Prints, Table cloth and Napkins, Towels, Dusters, Kitchen towels, Bed sheets and other household linen in printed, plain or embroidery.
Since independence of Bangladesh, there has been a revival of traditional weaves such as jamdani, Tangail, satranji and other furnishing fabrics. Although techniques remain unchanged, differences in the yarn used have increased. In jamdani, for instance less cotton is used, and weavers have replaced this with a mixture of cotton and silk or pure silk. In Tangail, although weavers continue to use old designs, some innovations have taken place particularly with growing communication between the weavers of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Traditionally men have always worked on the loom and women have processed and spun the yarn. As the yarn used is now procured from mills; in some places, it is interesting to note that women have taken to weaving.
Of all hand-woven textiles, however, none is more renowned in history than the closely woven muslins of Bangladesh. The earliest known reference to this superlative fabric is in Kautilya’s Arthasastra which alludes to the fine cottons of Vanga, now Bangladesh. Pliny mentions the muslin as a prized import from Bangladesh and Arrian’s account Circumnavigation of the Erythrean Sea bears testimony to its extreme fineness and transparency. Sulaiman, the Arab traveller who visited India in the ninth century, refers to the muslin as “cotton fabrics made in the kingdom of Rahmi (identified as Bangladesh) are so fine and delicate that a dress made of it, may pass through a signet ring.” Ralph Fitch, the English traveller, and Abul Fazi in Ain-I-Akbari, both refer to Sonargaon as the place which produced the finest cotton in India. Under the patronage of the Mughals, and in particular the Empress Nurjehan, Dhaka muslin acquired an unprecedented standard and celebrity. Throughout succeeding times, this legendary fabric excelled in beauty and fineness of texture over any other product of the loom. Dhaka muslins were so famous they were used as shrouds for Egyptian mummies. Egyptian, Grecian and Roman aristocracy wore them. So fine was the cloth that names such as abrawan (running water), Baft hawa (woven air), shabnam (morning dew), vapour, woven winds, mist, nebula were given to them.
The superiority of Dhaka muslin was partly due to the superb quality of the Dhaka cotton. The vernacular name of this cotton is uncertain, bairati kapas or photee. Dr Roxburgh in his Flora Indica praises its matchless qualities, but the most important factor that contributed to its superlative qualities, was the exceptional skill required in the spinning and weaving of this fabric. The process used for the carding and testing of the yarn was extremely complicated, but even more specialised was the actual spinning wheel. A certain degree of moisture was absolutely essential along with a particular level of temperature. Therefore all spinning was done in the early morning or late afternoon, when there is greater moisture in the air. The spinners were young women, between the ages of eighteen and thirty, after which their expertise was said to wane due to failing sight. They belonged to a few families around Dhaka and had acquired their remarkable skill over generations.
There are numerous fables and stories describing this excellent fabric with its extraordinary qualities and patterns. In his account Dr. Watson lists them in sequence of superiority; mulmul khas (king’s muslin) was the finest quality and was proven to have been superior to the finest European fabrics. Abrawan (running water), the second quality muslin was the one which led Aurangzeb to chastise his daughter for being immodestly clad! Shabnum (evening dew) circar ali and tunzeb followed as the third, fourth and fifth qualities. Of the other muslins of Dhaka, jungle khassa, nyansook and nilambari were also of considerable beauty.
The best known and most popular textile of Bangladesh is the specialty Jamdani. The word jamdani is of Persian origin from jam meaning flower and dani a vase of container. For over ten centuries, the Dhaka area has been renowned for this fine fabric. So fine was its texture and quality that it was said to be woven with the “thread of the winds” and the Greek and the Roman texts mention the “Gangetic muslins” as one of the most coveted luxury items for kings and their retinues, for whom jamdani fabrics became a most desired item of clothing.
A light, translucent fabric, jamdani is usually made in lengths of six yards and worn primarily as a sari. For the Mughals it was fashioned into elaborate angarkhans or dresses worn by both men and women. In pictures of European courts at Versailles and London we find women in dresses that are made out of yards and yards of jamdani fabrics, or embroidered muslin. Trading accounts reveal how the fabric travelled to the Courts of the Mughals in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and became a most prized item in the overland caravan trade from Dhaka through to Agra, Bokhara, Samarkand and further west in Asia. Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, over a hundred different assortments were exported by the European companies from the Soubah of Bengal to the ports of Hamburg, London, Madrid, Copenhagen and elsewhere in Europe. The most treasured were jamdani weaves from Dhaka. The Dutch, Portuguese, Danes, and the English competed and fought with each other to maintain their primacy over the trade, until eventually the English East India Company gained territorial control in 1757. This is led to an expansion of their trade and to their control over weaving centres.
Jamdani, because of its intricate patterns it has always been the most expensive product of the Dhaka looms. Jamdanis manufactured for Aurangzeb in the sixteenth century cost over thirty pounds; it is therefore understandable that they were meant only for the affluent nobility. To this day, the jamdani weaver is deemed the finest weaver in South Asia.
The dominant feature of the jamdani is its magnificent design which is said to be of Persian origin. The method of weaving is akin to tapestry work in which small shuttles of coloured, gold or silver threads, are passed through the weft. Of classic beauty, the jamdani effectively combines intricacy of design surface of a sari is scattered with floral sprays of great delicacy. When the ground is covered with superb diagonally striped floral sprays, the sari is called tercha. The anchal is usually decorated with bold corner motifs, it is known as a jhalar. The most prized design is the panna hazaar (thousand emeralds) in which the floral pattern is highlighted with flowers interlaced like jewels in gold and silver thread. The kalka, whose evolution may be traced to the painted manuscripts of the Mughals, has become one of the most widely used motifs in the region. Artisans and designers have altered its shape in innumerable ways, keeping within the tectonic form of the kalka’s linear and floral characteristics. The traditional nilambari, dyed with indigo, or designs such as toradar preserved in weaving families over generations are now being reproduced. Other jamdani patterns are known as phulwar, usually worked on pure black, blue black, grey or off-white background colours, these and many other delicate motifs, denoted by the indigenous names of different flowers, reflect the versatile genius of the jamdani weaver.
Jamdani has remained a favourite with women in Bangladesh, and even today no middle class women’s trousseau is complete without a red and white jamdani sari. More recently the fabric has been tailored into modern dresses, coats and shalwar kamiz, or used in straight lengths for household hangings or curtains.
Today price constraints have obliged the weavers to simplify the designs greatly making them more stylized and geometric. The names too have become more indigenous, having a pleasant vernacular ring dhaner, sheesh par, korelajal, banshphool, punaphool terchi, inchipar, baghnoli buti, taraphool, and the colours are more diverse and imaginative.
It is estimated that the production is carried out in over 200 villages in Demra, Rupganj, Sonargaon and Siddhirganj districts in Dhaka. An incredible continuity is visible in production techniques and use of equipment. The main visible change today is that yarn is no longer spun by women in their village homes, but is imported and sold at large yarn markets which are located near the weaving centres. A visit to any weaving village will find women, men and children involved in different stages of the process. Outside the village hut, women are to be seen rolling the yarn onto spindles and preparing shuttles, while nearby, men wind the yarn onto drums, and then prepare the warp across bamboo sticks, the length generally being equal to that of six saris. For jamdani weaving a very elementary pit loom is used and the work is carried on by the weaver, the ostad, and his apprentice, the shargid. The latter works under instruction for each pick, weaving his needle made from, buffalo horn or tamarind wood to embroider the floral sequence. With a remarkable deftness, the weft yarn is woven into the warp in the background colour from one weaver to the other. The motifs (butis) across the warp, the borders (par) and end piece (anchal) are woven by using separate bobbins of yarn for each colour. The fine bobbins are made from tamarind wood or bamboo. After completion the cloth is washed and starched. It is then ready to be taken to the local hat or informal market, or reserved for the retail trader who has paid an advance.
Traditionally silk fabric was woven in the northern areas of Rajshahi, Rangpur and Dinajpur. A family based occupation; the women cultivated the cocoons and spun the yarn while the cloth was woven by male weavers. Besides a domestic market silk was exported to Europe in the eighteenth century.
Today different varieties of silk including tassar, matika, endi and pure silk are woven on handlooms and on machines. While Tassar is a natural silk, endi yarn is made from cocoons reared on castor leaves and dupian or matika are woven from thick yarn waste and pure silk. As Bangladesh does not have a very large area of mulberry cultivation, much of the yarn for weaving silk is imported from China, Korea and other countries.
Silk is popularly used in the domestic market for saris, fabrics and upholstery. After the independence of Bangladesh, the Government set up a Silk Development Board, which supervised mulberry plantations, rearing of cocoons and larva, spinning and weaving. While the first three processes were a family based occupation for agricultural families, weaving was undertaken by the Board in two factories in Rajshahi and Thakurgaon. Subsequently, several development agencies started credit schemes and gave technical support to encourage family production of silk. This has spread the production to other districts as well. A Silk Foundation was established in 1991 with support from the World Bank to organize production more efficiently. However, it is to the credit largely of family based units or small investors that the production of silk saris and fabrics has advanced in Bangladesh.
The manufacture of silk saris in Dhaka (known as Mirpur Katans) and in Tangail has now led to an expansion in its product range and earned considerable renown for the weaving centres and workshops.
TANGAIL, BHITTI, PABNA
Some of the saris for which Bangladesh is also famous are the Dhaka bhitti, the Tangail cotton and silk muslin and the Pabna saris. In these saris the emphasis is on rich warm colours, both vibrant and muted. The attention is on the anchal/end piece and the border, which may be in alternate lines of contrasting shades with an interplay of small paisley, rosette and geometric designs. These saris are sometimes highlighted with lines of gold or silver thread, to add to their elegance.
Tribal textiles have a variety of textural effects and are decorated with the distinctive designs of the numerous tribes of Bangladesh. Less known, because it is not a commercial commodity, the variety of cloth hand-woven by tribal communities of Bangladesh is impressive. Along the hilly borders of Bangladesh live a number of tribes; the largest number are to be found in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the most notable being the Chakmas, Maghs or Marmas, Tipras, Lushais, Kukis, Bonjugis, Pankhos, Mrus, Murangs, Saks, Bams, Tangchangyas. Daingnaks and Shendus. The Maghs are also to be found in Cox’s Bazar and Kepupara in Patuakhali district. Along the hilly frontiers of Sylhet, at the foot of the Khasia-Jaintia range, live the Khasis, Pangons and Manipuris. The Garos, Hajongs, Hodis, Daluis, Mandals and Bunas have settled in Haluaghat, Sreebordi, Kalmakanda, Barhattia, Birishiri in the vicinity of the Garo hills in Mymensingh and Netrokona district, and in the forests of Madhupur, in Tahgail district. Some scattered settlements of Santhals, Oraons, Hos, Munda, Palias and Rajbangshis are to be found in greater districts of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Bogra and Rajshahi.
The tribal tradition of weaving is one of self reliance – producing their own cotton, spinning the thread and weaving their own textiles. The yarn is dyed using vegetable colours. The women are superb weavers and use different types of portable looms, girls are initiated into the art of weaving from a very young age. As they gradually acquire a fine sense of colour and design they weave much of their own clothes in the patterns particular to their tribe, as a part of their trousseau.
A dominant feature of tribal design is the great emphasis on geometric and linear patterns. Ingeniously used to retain their basic shapes, the geometric symbols are embellished in subtle ways to give cadence and variety. Ornate diamond shapes, rows of stars, triangular forms and zigzags are all interwoven with imagination and flair. Sometimes the diamonds are filled in with smaller diamond shapes in contrasting colours or interconnected in running patterns. Some cloth is woven in deep plain colours, highlighted with striking broad borders, woven in fine linear designs. Others have geometric border motifs at one end with stylised flower or leaf butis sprinkled over the surface area. Shawls are often decorated with field designs of diamonds in complementary colours, enclosed in wide edgings of floral sprays. Broad or narrow stripes are set off with square, diamond and triangular motifs. Diverse arrangements of the hexagon, swastika, trident and other shapes are attractively complemented with vertical and horizontal lines and zigzag emblems.
Colours combinations are a vital aspect of tribal fabrics. Inspired by nature, vibrant shades of green, blue, purple and red are used repeatedly, with one colour often being interwoven with black to give it a very special tone of muted warmth. Black as a background colour is a particular favourite.
Tribal communities tend to be self reliant. They make everything for their own use; they used to grow their own cotton, spin their own yarn and weave their cloth. More recently they have started to use traditional weaves for commercial purposes. Their hand woven bed covers and table cloths have become popular outside their own communities.