Weavival: Returning Value to Heritage Handloom

The Association of Fashion Designers of Bangladesh (AFDB) and SME Foundation organised the first Heritage Handloom Festival from 4-6 October 2018. The 3 day event was aimed at preserving and promoting traditional handloom by featuring the creative work of top designers and weavers from remote areas of Bangladesh. The exhibition was inaugurated by the Honorable Finance Minister, Mr. A M A Muhith and Honorable Minister for Cultural Affairs, Mr. Asaduzzaman Noor.

The exhibition was the host to over 30 stalls displaying unique products from seven heritage fabrics: Jamdani, Nakshi Kantha, Mirpur benarasi, Tangail Taant, Sirajgonj Taant (Lungi, Gamcha, Sarees), Rangamati Handloom and Monipuri Handloom.

The main highlight of the event was the art of weaving where expert artisans from each sector demonstrate the different techniques of weaving. Visitors were acquainted with firsthand experience of handloom production exhibiting in real time how much effort, time and material goes into making a simple 6-yard fabric.

ICE Today speaks to Mantasha Ahmed, President of AFDB and designer at Reela’s fashion boutique to understand the issues faced by weavers in Bangladesh and discuss solutions for the revival of a diminishing industry.

Do you think traditional textiles in Bangladesh are dying out?

Yes, of course they are dying out. Mostly because of a lack of patronisation. There’s a strong influence of foreign culture in our country. TV channels from neighbouring countries sadly influence our culture which creates a lack of willingness from our buyers to patronise local handloom. The market is flooded foreign products that are coming illegally into Bangladesh, meaning without paying proper taxes and duties. If they did pay these, the price would have been much higher, allowing our local industry to compete. You really can’t compare handloom with machine-made goods.

Even in India where they have a booming handloom industry, those products are not as cheap as machine-made things. Similarly, our handloom products will be more valuable. I wouldn’t call it expensive, but a weaver invests a lot of time and effort and raw material into producing a single 60 yard fabric so we need to tell people and show people how they are doing this.

What is your objective of setting up this exhibition? Is this the first time it is taking place?

This is the first time in Bangladesh that weavers and designers are working in the same platform. Normally we have designer exhibitions or weaver melas. We wanted to show people that no matter how good a designer is, without the weaver they are incomplete. At the same time, weavers are producing things but the designer is actually showing how you can use them in everyday life. The two are inseparable. You cannot have a designer without a weaver, or a weaver without a designer. Actually you can still have weavers without designers, so in that way weavers have more power. It is definitely our duty to protect this industry and I don’t think the government alone can do this. We need NGOs and private sector and associations, even foreign agencies. But what we need the most is the customers – an educated market that understands the value of handloom and how much we need to protect the industry.

A large proportion of the customer base is in urban areas. Do you think there is a disconnect between urban buyers’ tastes and what weavers in regional areas are producing?

The rural beauty of the handloom is what makes it Bengali. The traditional jamdanis that we have are exquisite. You can distort it, you can make it look different but it won’t have that same effect. We do need variations though, that’s why we have designers. But the original form has its own beauty and you have to have an eye and appreciation for that. Designer will make special things but it is not for the mass market. At the end of the day, you are Bengali and you have to hold on to that heritage.

There’s a focus in this particular exhibition on the youth. Why is that?

That is a very important question. We want to show and motivate the youth into getting involved in handloom. If you ask any of the weavers in the exhibtion if they would want their children to get involved in their work, they would say no. I’ve visited handloom centres in India where they have sent their children to get educated abroad so they can come back and make the industry better than it is. That is the sort of motivation we want. But I can see where they are coming from, they don’t have much of a future in handloom in Bangladesh. Unless, of course, it is revived and people appreciate their art. It is not about making a lot of money. Maybe they will sell a lot of things but that will not give them prestige until and unless we respect their hard work and time.

The weavers I spoke to in the exhibition said that most of their customers were tourists visiting their hometowns. How can we improve the connection between the artisan and the customer so as to provide them with a market?

In today’s perspective, you can’t expect a weaver to go door to door to sell their products. That is why we are trying to create an online platform for them to connect them with local and international buyers.

Does such a network exist?

We are working on it. We are in the process of having an e-marketing solution for the weavers. These days everyone has a smartphone, they can take photos and upload them on to the website.

Will it be social media based on a website of its own?

It will probably be social media based because a website needs to have a central control centre. They can do it independently on social media.

You are a designer yourself at Reela’s. How do you use local textiles in your own work and how do you maintain a connection between weavers in remote areas?

Actually it is through my work at Reela’s that I came across all these weavers. My mother is the original designer and founder of Reela’s and she used to source jamdanis from the weavers themselves. She was using Tangail sarees and Sirajganj taant or block prints and in this way she was supporting them. But I thought I can do something bigger for them. So that’s when I started talking about them to various associations about how to organise them together. That’s how it all happened. We only use local fabric at Reela’s, or locally sourced at least. Some fabrics, like georgette or velvet are not produced in Bangladesh so they are imported but due to customer’s demand we have to use them.

What kind of support do weavers get from the government?

We need the government for policies, not only for financial support. Like I mentioned, the products that are coming in from India and Pakistan illegally is something that should be strongly regulated by the government. In fact there should be heavy duties and tax on foreign products, wherever they are from. Training-wise they also get support in many institutes around the country but another gap lies where they don’t know what to do after getting the training.

I think the best solution for this problem would be public-private partnerships where the private sector can recommend what they need and the government can help facilitate those things. That is why we had a seminar here where three research papers were presented on the issues that the weavers are facing. From there we hope we can formulate some points which will help bring a better policy for them.

Is there are a dedicated ministry that weavers can appeal to for support?

There are many ministries that are involved – the Ministry of Industries, the Ministry of Textiles and Jute, the Ministry of Commerce to regulate the market, indirectly we need the Ministry of Cultural Affairs so that he can influence our people through cultural activities to appreciate and promote local culture.

What would you like this event to have achieved after three days?

We do not want that we do three days of an exhibition and that’s it. The fair finished in three days but the problems faced by the weavers still remain. That is why we had the seminar, in order to bring their issues to light and find solutions on how to resolve them. How we can work with the government or the private sector. The fashion show and the music are just to attract the audience but the real motive behind it is find some facts and figures that will allow us to publish a report that we can present to the relevant ministry who hopefully will follow up on this.