If you know how to weave the pinon and the hadi

Everyone will praise you, say the girl is good.

But if you do not know how to weave, daughter,

Your mother-in-law will never let you hear the end of it.

This is an excerpt of a poem called “Song of the loom” by Chiranjib Chakma, which is included in full at the beginning of a beautiful new book about the traditions of weaving in Bangladesh.  The poem’s inclusion in “Strong Backs, Magic Fingers” powerfully demonstrates how times have changed – whereas the practice of backstrap weaving used to be learnt in indigenous communities as a matter of course, nowadays such skills are becoming increasingly rare, due to social and economic changes.  “Strong Backs, Magic Fingers” aims to raise awareness of the perilous state of weaving by showcasing its beauty and skill, as well providing as an insight into the communities engaged in weaving. The book was launched at the Radius Centre in Gulshan last Saturday May 29.

The luminous hardback is co-authored by Manjulika Chakma and Niaz Zaman and it is published by Nymphea Publications and the Independent University, Bangladesh.  The book includes accounts of weaving by indigenous communities in Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban, as well as the Manipuri community, who live in northeast Bangladesh.  Readers can learn about the distinct styles of each indigenous group through detailed descriptions of methods and patterns, which are accompanied by striking photographs of contemporary and historic textiles.  

During the launch, Razia expressed regret on Manjulika’s behalf that she was unable to attend, before describing the book’s modest beginnings.  Funds had not been obtained prior to undertaking the field research, so arrangements were made on a shoestring budget.  She said, “It was difficult to travel – I took all sorts of public transport because I didn’t have money, and a friend arranged for me to stay in a house because I couldn’t pay for a hotel. My son lent me his digital camera.”  Razia told the audience that at one point she said to Manjulika, “We are two elderly ladies – what are we doing traveling around like this?” So they found a young male student who was willing to accompany them, and obtained a jeep and a driver.  Manjulika said, “With every bump I was nearly falling out of the jeep. I risked life and limb, as they say!”  When Manjulika returned to Dhaka she met with the vice-chancellor of IUB and he agreed to publish the book. 

Australian High Commissioner Justin Lee attended the launch as chief guest.  He said, “I congratulate the authors for producing an outstanding reference book that captures in great detail the beauty, diversity and practicality of indigenous handicrafts in Bangladesh.  The book is beautifully presented – it is a work of art in itself.”  He also said that the book was a pleasure to read and that it serves an important function as “a permanent record of one of Bangladesh’s finest indigenous traditions.”  Mr Lee added, “I think this is very important, given the threats to traditions as exemplified by modernity and change.” A spontaneous burst of applause rang out as Mr Lee pointed out that both he and his Timorese wife were wearing her clan’s weavings that evening.

During his address, Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, Department of English, Dhaka University, said that he grew up in a town in Sylhet where the Manipuri came to shelter after being driven out by the British in the 1880s.  He said, “When I was growing up I saw people weaving their handlooms. I could see the dedication they devoted to making the quilts.  Their very life depended on it.  I am saddened by the loss of this tradition, which still exists in remote areas but not in Sylhet town itself.”  Manzoorul also commented on how much the Chittagong Hill Tracts have changed, particularly since the “good old days” of the 1970s when communal tensions did not exist.  He said, “The indigenous peoples are very good, non-violent people and I will our political leaders and members of civil society to improve the situation.”

“Strong Backs” estimates that Bangladesh currently has around 888,115 weavers, around half of whom are female.  Numbers are dwindling though, due to a variety of reasons.  As the introduction of “Strong Backs” states, “The necessity of having to adjust to a dominant majority, differing in race, religion and social attitudes often causes [indigenous people] to adapt, and in the process modify – if not entirely lose – their traditional practices.”  Many indigenous women, once assimilated into mainstream Bengali society, have reported feeling obliged to cover themselves up in public and therefore abandon traditional dress.  Others have given up creating intricate designs because they are so labour intensive, and because weavers often lack access to the retail market.  Nowadays, many indigenous people find it more profitable to work for day wages than to weave.  Weaving used to be done in between household chores or during breaks from traditional slash and burn cultivation, but with less land to cultivate due to settlements being established by Bengalis, indigenous people now often work away from home and are deprived of the necessary time required.  The authors warn readers that unless weaving is given the recognition it deserves as an art form, younger generations will simply look elsewhere for a livelihood. 

“Strong Backs” also contains some fascinating nuggets of information about backstrap weaving.  For example, in Katachhori, Rangamati, the Chakmas moisten the strands of the yarn fringe using their saliva.  The strands of yarn are then twisted by rolling them down their shins.  The Chakmas create a dazzling array of woven pieces, including a bag to keep pan with separate compartments, with motifs that  include pineapples, flowers and starfruit.  They even produce stitched chessboards.

Manjulika has been involved in indigeneous weaving for several decades.  She is the owner of Bain Textiles, which markets both handloom and backstrap textiles.  In 2009 she received the UNDP seal of excellence for her weaving.  Co-author Niaz is supernumerary professor, department of English at the University of Dhaka and advisor, department of English, IUB.  She has been writing about women’s art forms for several years.  Both women are passionate about promoting weaving, and make some convincing arguments in the book’s conclusion about how best to do so.  Amongst other proposals, the authors advocate making weaving an option in the school curriculum, the creation of apprenticeships under master weavers, and holding regular competitions so as to bestow prestige on the most skilled craftspeople.  They urge readers to consider that unless such steps are taken, backstrap weaving may one day become extinct.