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Dhaka Tribune

Keeping the heritage alive

Update : 04 Jan 2017, 02:51 PM
At the age of 82 the mild spoken Sarat Mala Chakma is still able to carry a sweet smile on her face and still retain the marvellous dexterity in weaving on the Chakma waist-loom. National Crafts Council of Bangladesh has bestowed her with the Mastercraftsperson Lifetime Award 2016 for her immense expertise in weaving on the loom and her contribution to 'alam'. Alam (also known as 'aalum') is the catalogue that is handed down from the previous generation to the next Chakma generation. The catalogue is the record of all previous designs done by weavers in the past generations. In this interview Dhaka Tribune's Saudia Afrin speaks with Sarat Mala Chakma, accompanied by her daughter Kanak Chanpa Chakma, to learn about Sarat Mala's work, and to learn about the current challenges faced by waist-loom artists.

Because of your age you cannot weave as much as you used to. How do you spend your days now?

To me, each day of my life is a worthwhile one. Why? Because, despite being a women of above 80, I prefer doing most of my chores from cooking, washing to gardening by my own. Yes, I may not be able to weave with my waist-loom much like as I did before, but I love to weave and try to do some weaving everyday, even if its very little.

How many new designs have you added to the alam catalogue?

I weave what comes to my mind. Many designs of mine are a combination of two or three original design in the alam. The chilli flower (Mora) can be designed in three of four forms. Also, the design of Mora (stool) was introduced to the alam by me.

Which one of your designs you like most?

There is design of fish that I like most and the best part is that I can make three to four designs from one fish.

Is there any design, you haven’t woven yet, but its on your mind and you want to design it on your fabric canvas?

There are many and I cannot really explain the ideas in words.

Which design in the alam do you like most?

All designs in the alam has their own distinctive beauty. And my fondness for each has its own distinctive reason. Some designs can be done within one day, some need several days. There is one design called Kati Chabang Gach, mostly harvested on the edge of khadi, that takes at least three days to complete. The final contour in this design is enchanting. I like this one the most.

How do elements in nature, such as shrub, hills, flowers, inspire your work?

Growing plants of flowers and fruits remains a passion in my life. When I start weaving any design on the canvas, the union between influences from surroundings, for instance colour, pattern or shape, and my design occur naturally and subconsciously.

What colours are your favourites?

Because of the nature of it, alam works best in three colours: white as a base colour and designs over it in black and red. It is hard to say which colour I like most. During weaving a particular design, I opt for certain colours based on the thought of what would define the concept more vigorously and authentically. Essentially, I call this the weaver's creative call.

What do you do when you make a mistake during weaving?

Errors occur during weaving and its quiet common. If it can be identified in the initial stage I usually redo the whole design. However, for big complicated designs the weaver is often left with no choice other than continuing with the mistakes.

You have travelled to a number of countries. Could you share your experience with us?

The entire loom is constructed by pieces of bamboo with only one wood stick to press threads. While demonstrating my work on the waist-loom at the Commonwealth institute in London, visitors were observing with amazement wondering how it was possible to weave such beautiful designs using only some pieces of bamboo. Watching their admiration for my work was a great experience indeed.Courtesy Courtesy

How encouraging have the members of your family been towards your work?

The most precious achievement of my life, is being loved and inspired by everyone in my family. As a child whenever I showed interest to weave something, my mother patted on my shoulder and said 'make it beautiful so that your in-laws praise you.' As per our tradition, young girls were highly motivated to weave, as it is considered a sign of dignity in the in-laws' house.

When you first started weaving, did you find it difficult?

It is quite difficult to absorb the process of weaving alam. Initially small designs need to be mastered appropriately. Only then you can move onto weaving big designs. Even though my mother inspired me most to learn it, my aunt actually taught me every little aspects of alam with tremendous patience. I would go to my mother with a bunch of queries and she would lose her patience very quickly. I believe the quality of patience is at the essence of learning both on the part of the learners and the instructor.

How did you manage your family responsibilities and continuine your passion simultaneously?

Without having a dedicated place and time, continuing weaving work is very difficult, because setting up loom requires a lot of time and often kills the eagerness. There is a dedicated place in my home that has the waist-loom set up. Whenever I wish to, I have there and weave. Whenever I got spare time during the whole day I prefer to weave. Often, after lunch I would sit down to create designs rather than taking a nap.
Because of not getting fair payment, people are gradually losing the motivation to continue this ancient tradition. Before, weaving was a compulsory practice

Have you got any chance to discover other swing patterns of Bangladesh?

I have seen people weaving a plain shawl on the waist-loom and many embellish it further with embroidery and other stitches. I also got the chance to see stitches such as the nakshi stitch done by nearby Bengali families and during my visits at the Commonwealth Institute.

Any memory from childhood that still makes you happy?

I was born and grew up at what is now called Kaptai Lake. I used to live there in big joint family including grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunties, and cousins. I often reminisce having food in a large brass- plate filled with various items accompanied by other members. Over time, my friends, sisters and I got married and separated. Sharing memories and tittle-tattle with these people fill my soul with joy.

Any wish you want to fulfil?

During my visits in temples I pray to god that 'god yield me the ability to give charity as much as possible till the last breath of my life so that I can reborn as a more intelligent and better human being. In our society, a girl has to live under her father till marriage, and then under her husband and in the latter part of her life under the protection of her son. I want be a man in the next life so that I can live a freelife.

The tradition of weaving alam seems to be on the decline and decreasing popularity day by day among women of different indigenous tribes. What are the reasons?

Two main reasons are the absence of proper marketing strategy and right payment. The income is so inadequate that you can barely make ends meet doing weaving work. For instance, one khadi takes five to seven days to complete in waist-loom, whereas the same thing takes much less time using other looming mechanisms. Thus, the lattar ones cost less and people would prefer to buy the same design at lesser price. Because of not getting fair payment, people are gradually losing the motivation to continue this ancient tradition. Before, weaving was a compulsory practice. Now, modern education has created more possibilities of earning for the people. We need to revive it through support from different sources. One way of doing it would be ensuring right payment to encourage people to take up waist-loom again alongside pursuing education.

What role can families play to revive the tradition?

Even though my mother has taught me weaving on the waist loom, I am not practising it. I have moved to painting; I am a painter. None of my siblings have pursued this form of art whereas my cousins have learnt looming from my mother. Some of them are extraordinarily deft at waist-loom. If my mother has forced me to continue this art besides painting then I would have continued looming. Personally I think if the motivation and inspiration comes from family, that works best

How is your mother helping pass down her knowledge and creativity to the next generation?

Little girls from our area Patharghata as well as from other nearby places come to my mother to acquire knowledge on weaving on waist-loom. Often young and adult women come also for her suggestion on design and colour combination.Besides taking part in different weaving competitions inside Bangladesh, Sarat Mala Chakma demonstrated her weaving skills in a crafts festival at the Commonwealth Institute. She also won the national award from BISIC, for her design catalogue. This year, she was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement award at the Weavers Festival.
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