Celebrating Bengali Culture Fabric & Craftsmen: Jamdani Festival 2019

As the Jamdani Festival 2019 begins, Maimun Ur Rashid Mustafa delves into the proud heritage of the craft in Bangladesh, its contribution to the nation’s culture and prospects for Jamdani’s international branding.

If culture is the book of civilization, the chapter of clothing provides some of the best experiential understandings of its heritage. An individual’s garment acts a storyteller of the thread’s history. Every embroidery brands culture across borders creating a lasting emotional connection with audiences. As Jamdani fabrics and craftsmanship is a significant part of our identity, the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh (NCCB) in partnership with Bengal Foundation is organizing the Jamdani Festival 2019 from Sep 6, 2019, to Oct 12, 2019, at Bengal Shilpaloy to showcase the rich art form and its skilled artisans.

The Journey of Jamdani

Jamdani is a proud heritage of the Bangladeshi weavers of Sonargaon, Rupganj, and Siddhirganj in the Narayanganj district. The geographic and ecological context of the Sitalakhya River has also helped make Sonargaon unique in the production of its fine cotton to sustain Jamdani communities for centuries. As one of the finest muslin textiles in Bengal, a 50-metre long piece of fabric could be squeezed into a single matchbox. The Jamdani reached its epitome during the 16th century under the Mughals and was popular textile of choice for all genders and also became a favourite of European women courtiers. In the era of the British colonial period, the deprived craftsmen of their most influential patrons. Moreover, the use of mechanization technology in conjunction with low quality, cheap yarn from Europe contributed to the decrease in the demand for the Bengali cloth. However, in 2013 UNESCO recognized Jamdani as intangible cultural heritage and it received Geographic Indicator status in 2016.

Hanging By Threads

The identity of Bengal is sewn between every fibre of Jamdani. The skilled artisans of this craft are the preservers of this identity. Moreover, Jamdani is an art form that is time as well as labour intensive. Men, women, and children of the village are all involved at some stage of the production process, and most adult weavers often work as long as 18 hours a day with breaks for meals or prayers. The final delivery of some of the exquisite handloom weaves in the world are results of patience, dedication, and resolve of the regional weavers. This aspect must be considered when comparing to any other clothing material that can be mass-produced. It is integral for the preservation and growth of this sector, that it is recognized nationally and globally so that these craftsmen can continue their legacy with fair compensation. When a fair price market can be reestablished for their dedicated technical expertise the craftsmen will be able to market the Bengali culture through Jamdani in the global arena.

A Timely Initiative

In present times a lack of fine cotton yarn and the rising cost of production has affected the quality of Jamdani. The NCCB and Bengal Foundation, in an attempt to restore the fabric to its original excellence, is organising the Jamdani Festival, as a celebration of the proud heritage of Jamdani weaving in Bangladesh. The Jamdani Festival 2019 is a culmination of two years of research, exploration and technical practice in the craft of Jamdani weaving to display the craft, methods, innovation and technical aspects behind Jamdani via multiple segments. A general exhibition of old Jamdani reproductions, live demonstrations by weavers, short films on the Jamdani weaving process, an awards ceremony for weavers, seminars by stakeholder and a publication are a few of the activities to be organized in the event.

Stitching Partnership

The initiative has led the organizers to collect original designs from museums and private collections from within the country and abroad. Masterweavers, as well as some of the finest artisans of the younger generation, have been supplied with the best quality Khadi yarn and tasked with replicating these designs. After substantial training and investment, Weavers have also been commissioned by Aarong, Aranya, Tangail Saree Kutir and Kumudini – four of the largest organisations in the country working with crafts – to ensure a market for future production. The recreated work will be on display during the month-long exhibition.

Dialogue for Development

The Seminar discussing the ‘Past, Present, and Future of Jamdani’ is scheduled to be held on September 7, 2019, at the Women’s Voluntary Association (WVA) premises in Dhanmondi and will feature academicians, industry decision-makers, international experts and distinguished members of NCCB. One such notable speaker is Ruby Ghuznavi, Chairperson of the World Crafts Council-Asia Pacific Region’s Natural Dye Programme who is credited for reviving and promotion of the use of natural dyes in Bangladesh. Another prominent presenter is Chandra Shekhar Shaha, a pathfinder in modern crafting, textile designs, and curating craft exhibitions in Bangladesh.

Commemorating Contributions

The National Mastercraftspersons Award is one of the most prestigious awards initiated by NCCB and is aimed at acknowledging and honouring the artisans and their time-honoured traditions biannually. Since 2010, NCCB partnered with the Bengal Foundation, and the Mastercraftspersons Award has been presented every year. 2019’s Awards will be presented at the Festival and is a recognition to four of the most gifted Jamdani master weavers and apprentices for their skill and contribution to the community. This year the recognition will be exclusively provided to Jamdani artisans, a first in the awards’ history.

Rebuilding with Recognition

The Festival has proposed to the World Crafts Council to grant Sonargaon, the ancient capital of Bengal, the status of ‘World Crafts City’. Such validation would provide much-needed branding to the possibilities of Jamdani fabrics and the work of the artisans. It may assist in widening the market of the Jamdani craftsmen. Saving this craft from mass-produced goods is the first step to revival and then the growth of this art. Just like food, clothes also transcend borders. The day international apparel players become aware and source Jamdani fabrics on a mass scale at fair prices, Bangladesh can realistically dream to be on par with high-end Indonesian Batik or Egyptian Cotton.

Weaving for the Future

Jamdani is a store of wealth of the richness of Bengali heritage, but also provides invaluable inspiration and evidence of the integral contribution of their makers to our culture and tradition.

The combined, sincere efforts behind organising an open event of this scale is to raise awareness about the fact that culture and heritage are undeniable parts of the human identity that provide so much depth and richness and it is this awareness that resonates throughout the Festival. The inclusion of the partners and stakeholders in this event offers great value to the craft and the Bengali culture.

There are $200 blazers and there bespoke suits. In the same context, there are ordinary fabrics and there is the artistic craftsmanship of Jamdani. Just like the Kimono and Flamenco are synonymous to Japan and Spain respectively, an event such as this sows the seeds for a future where, in any part of the world, the Jamdani will be instantly recognized as ‘Bangladesh’.