On the 5th of January, the day after we visited Prabartana’s partner organisation Ubinig in Tangail (see entry below on new found paradise) we returned to Prabartana. We met with Shahid Shamim, the director of Prabartana and currently the director for the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh. Based on our visit the previous day we had a morning of discussions about craft, design, textiles and the possibilities and opportunities for Bangladesh. In most cases the perceived value does not match the quality and craftsmanship for the work. Both Gary and myself feel there is enormous potential for Bangladesh to use its material resources and skilled artisans to develop a strong brand. We talked at length about ethical production, working environments, sustainable practices and product development. The seemingly carefree life in Tangail is not the norm and our visit to see the weavers at Mirpur later in the afternoon confirmed this.
Mirpur is a densely populated area in Dhaka, known for a type of silk sari weaving called Benarasi.
I found a blog from a Laura Watson, a woman working on an NGO programme in Mirpur focusing on child rights and education and she has an interesting explanation about the working and living conditions here. See more on http://deependdhaka.blogspot.com/2005/07/work-and-weavers.html
‘The Biharis are called stranded Pakistanis, although they are nothing of the sort. They left India at partition in 1947, and in 1971 fought with the Pakistanis against the Bangladeshis in the War of Independence. Many of them lost their property at this time, and since them have been living in refugee camps in Dhaka. There would be in excess of 500,000 of these people, living in conditions of absolute squalor. They have no passport and no rights. Pakistan has little interest in them. They lack the normal extensive network of kinships and family, as their families were splintered between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the aftermath of war.
However, they do have a traditional craft, handloom weaving the Benarasi sari. These Saris are made in only a few places in the world – Varanasi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, a small number in Pakistan and Mirpur in Bangladesh. The master weavers in the weaving families can trace their origins back to a single heritage.
The Benarasi saris are traditionally used for wedding saris. They are made in a gorgeous fabric, with old motifs (both Victorian and Moghul in their origins) woven into the design. Sometimes the saris are embroidered to improve their gorgeous look. The work has a gender separation, with men working as weavers and usually women doing the embroidery in the home.
There are around 100,000 people engaged in this craft in Mirpur, many of them children. Child labour is a fact of life in Bangladesh, but is deemed as ‘bad’ when it negatively affects the children (either through its hazardous nature, exploitation, or its effect on their long term development and education). There are a number of reasons for child labour : poverty, the contribution that the child can make to a family income (in Mirpur on average children contribute 38% of household income), lack of schools (so work becomes a defacto day care centre), and a culture that sees working as ‘good’ for the children.’
We visited a weaving set up and observed the weavers working on pit looms fitted with jacquard systems operating with punch cards. Despite the basic technology the textiles woven on these looms are spectacular, with elaborate patterns and striking colours. The warp is fine silk, mostly 2 ply (finer than hair) and the weft is a combination of silk and metallic threads. Most of the weaving equipment and materials are available in the area. A few blocks near the weaving set ups we saw the jacquard designer and card cutter, a father and son shaping shuttles out of cow horns, a young man making jacquard heads, and an array of small shops selling yarns and sequins.
Later on we met with Masud and his team at the British Council that evening. A 30’ journey took over 2 hours each way, so we spent Gary’s last night in true Dhaka style, stuck in traffic!