Stitch By Stitch

The ef­forts of the women as­so­ci­ated with the nakshi kan­tha in­dus­try have broughtht aboutb a revo­lu­tion in ru­ral Bangladesh.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who con­trib­utes reg­u­larly to var­i­ous lead­ing pub­li­ca­tions.

The nakshi kan­tha in­dus­try has brought about a quiet revo­lu­tion in the lives of women in ru­ral Bangladesh.

Kan­tha stitch­ing is an age-old tra­di­tional craft which orig­i­nated in ru­ral Ben­gal and de­vel­oped as a cot­tage in­dus­try over the decades. The pos­si­bil­i­ties of value ad­di­tion in stitched and un­stitched ap­parel through kan­tha em­broi­dery are very high. The rich and ex­quis­ite kan­tha hand em­broi­dery is highly ap­pre­ci­ated in in­ter­na­tional mar­kets. The pop­u­lar­ity of kan­tha across Bangladesh, and now abroad too, as a fash­ion state­ment has a very hum­ble be­gin­ning, like many other Ben­gali crafts. In Ben­gali, kan­tha lit­er­ally means a quilt. Ben­gali women made quilts from old saris, fold­ing them into lay­ers and us­ing itin­er­ant run­ning stitches with threads picked from the sari’s bor­ders.

It is warm as a wrap and soft for ba­bies too. In the past, women made kan­tha quilts by re­cy­cling old saris and dho­tis (men’s wraparounds) and stitch­ing sev­eral lay­ers of cloth to­gether with a run­ning stitch to make a sim­ple throw or quilt. Mod­ern-day

kan­tha em­broi­dery is done mostly on new pieces of cot­ton and silk cloth and threads. Ru­ral women give free rein to their imag­i­na­tion and come up with color­ful de­signs. It can be the flow­ers they see, the pond they go to bathe in or the conch shell they blow in the even­ing. From an or­di­nary stitch, kan­tha has mor­phed into the beau­ti­ful

nakshi kan­tha, a con­nois­seur’s de­light. But there is a lot more to nakshi

kan­tha than mere aes­thetic ap­peal. Over the past few decades, there has been a quiet revo­lu­tion afoot in Bangladesh – a women's revo­lu­tion. While in many cor­ners of the world tra­di­tional crafts like nakshi kan­tha are be­com­ing rare, women in Bangladesh have taken a lead. With nim­ble fingers and with nee­dles and threads, they have uti­lized their craft to ben­e­fit their house­hold and, ul­ti­mately, their com­mu­ni­ties.

Th­ese women are en­trepreneurs with enough fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity to sus­tain their hand­i­craft busi­nesses. They meet ev­ery day, chat and sew – some of them have been do­ing it for al­most twenty years, may be more. Women like Hal­ima from Jamaplur – the cen­ter of nakshi kan­tha in the coun­try – work at a small-scale home­op­er­ated kan­tha fac­tory, and have paid for their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. Hal­ima has two sons and a daugh­ter, both of them univer­sity-ed­u­cated. It's not a mi­nor achieve­ment given that her fa­ther was an im­pov­er­ished farmer and her mother a house­wife who, like many in Ja­malpur, knew the an­cient art of the stitch. That was a time when sew­ing was used only for mak­ing small ob­jects for the house – to dec­o­rate a cush­ion or a pic­ture frame.

Hal­ima and the other women speak their own lan­guage: of pata kati, anas and seem, bo­rat and sheer – some of the many styles of stitch­ing that go into a blan­ket or a bed sheet. The de­signs are first imag­ined and drawn, then marked upon the cloth with pow­der. Some­times, the women re­ceive de­sign re­quests. Ac­cord­ing to Hal­ima, an em­broi­dered bed sheet might take two women a month to com­plete if they work eight hours a day. Her en­deav­ors have taken her as far as Ahmed­abad, Mum­bai and Delhi. She was cho­sen to par­tic­i­pate in a SAARC Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion of Home-Based Work­ers’ Idea-Sharing tour as one of the 130 Bangladeshi work­ers. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence she never ex­pected and one she will never for­get.

One of the largest em­broi­dery show­rooms in Ja­malpur is known as Karu Polli Hand­i­crafts, the brain­child of Nazma Rashid. From be­ing a house­wife prior to 1995, Nazma has be­come one of the pi­o­neers of the nakshi kan­tha in­dus­try. Her hus­band, Mo­ham­mad Harun-ur-Rashid, a gov­ern­ment em­ployee, was ini­tially skep­ti­cal of his wife's suc­cess. He thought that with his steady in­come there was no need for her to take on ex­tra du­ties and that she would hardly have the time to do it since she had the re­spon­si­bil­ity of run­ning the house­hold. Be­sides, Ja­malpur is a tra­di­tional district, one of the poor­est in Bangladesh, and work­ing was sim­ply not the sort of thing Mus­lim women did. Such views were com­mon at the time.

None­the­less, Nazma par­tic­i­pated in the train­ing cour­ses of­fered by sev­eral NGOs, most no­tably by the Aye­sha Abed Foun­da­tion and the Small and Medium En­ter­prise Foun­da­tion, cov­er­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of the busi­ness from fine sew­ing skills to mar­ket­ing to ac­counts and qual­ity con­trol. By 1998, she had reg­is­tered Karu Polli with the Depart­ment of Women Af­fairs and in 2002 a sec­ond reg­is­tra­tion with the Depart­ment of So­cial Wel­fare was achieved. She men­tions the ef­forts of the gover­nor of Bangladesh Bank, the Ja­malpur­born Atiqur Rah­man, in li­ais­ing with lo­cal banks to free up loan avail­abil­ity needed for ex­pan­sion of the kan­tha in­dus­try.

From an ini­tial 'show­room' that con­sisted of a room in her small house fea­tur­ing a sofa and sew­ing prod­ucts,

Nazma's busi­ness has never looked back. In 2003 Karu Polli moved into its cur­rent cus­tom-built show­room where a range of prod­ucts be­yond

nakshi kan­thas in­clud­ing bed cov­ers, saris, three and one piece suits, tops, dresses, Pun­jabis, fotu as, bags and wall mats are sold. Karu Polli fea­tures the work of 1900 ar­ti­sans from at least five vil­lages, em­ploys a staff of six in ad­di­tion to those in­volved in tracing and print­ing, which th­ese days is done both by hand and us­ing the more ex­act com­put­er­ized 'skin print.'

Now Nazma spends most of her time in help­ing other women, par­tic­u­larly with the ad­min­is­tra­tive skills she has ac­quired, such as how to ap­ply for a bank loan or how to reg­is­ter a busi­ness. Nazma says she has en­joyed wit­ness­ing the changes in her area. She said that when she first went to the De­fulibari vil­lage nearby, the women used to say they needed sugar or flour. Now they speak of need­ing new fur­ni­ture or jew­ellery. Most mud thatch houses have been re­placed by tin and they have san­i­tary la­trines.

Nazma be­lieves that when a woman can earn money and help her fam­ily, she gains con­fi­dence. This is why she says there isn't a vil­lage with­out sew­ing busi­nesses run by women. Their hus­bands, she adds, are ex­tremely proud of them. The women have their sights set on ex­ports. There is cur­rently no easy way to mar­ket prod­ucts or de­velop ex­port sales, and mid­dle­men from Syl­het or Dhaka with bet­ter ac­cess to the cap­i­tal, of­ten buy in bulk both for the broader do­mes­tic mar­ket and for ex­ports. One fa­cil­ity that could be of ben­e­fit, es­pe­cially for larger busi­nesses, would bbe the train­ing of how to or­ga­nize and man­age in­ter­net sales; an­other would be to es­tab­lish a

nakshi polli or a nakshi 'vil­lage' as a cen­tral­ized space where all women en­trepreneurs, large and small, could show­case their prod­ucts. It is thought that the con­ve­nience of a nakshi polli would be at­trac­tive to in­ter­na­tional buy­ers.

It is the ef­forts of th­ese women that have brought about a quiet revo­lu­tion in ru­ral Bangladesh. In­deed, the nakshi kan­tha in­dus­try has put many Ben­gali women at the fore­front of house­hold and com­mu­nity devel­op­ment.

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