Muslin -- Bengal’s prodigal daughter has returned

How the collective efforts of the government and the artisans is bringing back a lost art

An inexorable part of growing up in the 80's and 90’s was to listen to the elders lamenting about all the good things that were lost forever from the kismet of Bengal. The bemoaning over the lost glory of the railways, the lost freshness of the fishes in the market, the lost quality of schools and, when it comes to the textiles industry, how the muslin has been lost, forever.

Grandmothers would reminisce and regale their grandkids with tales of sarees made of muslin that would get past through a ring, and a yard of the finest cloth could fit inside a matchbox. 

To our generation, muslin was more like a fable. It probably was not real to our teachers as well, it never felt real as they kept on droning memorized lines about it for years.  Then again, muslin has always been like that -- a mythical drape, too good to be true, yet very real nonetheless. 

Europeans would call it "weaved air;" Mughals called it Baft-hawa, some believed that it was made by mermaids or spirits. The fabric was so transparent and fine that slight change of light or rain would leave them almost naked to the eyes of the beholder.

For thousands of years, it had a truly universal benefaction, deemed as the only worthy fabric for clothing statues of goddesses in ancient Greece, marveled by countless emperors from distant lands, and draped generations of local Mughal royalty.

There was always this air of fascination and mysticism around the stories of muslin. This manmade, but possibly the closest thing to magic, fabric was produced by the people who hail from the riverside of Meghna, close to Dhaka.  As the Romans used to say, all roads lead to Rome. When it came to the finest fabrics, even Rome’s roads led to Dhaka.

The art of weaving

Mughal regime was probably the heyday of the muslins. There were 18 types of muslins that can be found on the record. The supremacy of a muslin fabric depends on its yarn count. The higher the yarn count, the finer the muslin. Under Mughal patronage, the highest yarn count had reached up to 1200.

It took a whole community to produce the muslin. There were 16 strenuous steps to achieve the successful process of producing this fabric. Each step was so specialized that villages were formed to carry out that business.

The best Phuti Karpas flower would be gathered from the banks of Meghna. Some would make the yarn, some would weave, some would make the necessary tools for the process. A plethora of craftsmen were engaged in various supportive professions, and all those roads led to the finest quality of fabric this world has ever seen.

A lost craft

But two hundred years of English colonial period has wiped out this amazing form of art. They have tried to acquire and control this artistic process like a cutthroat monopoly.  That has put immense pressure over the industry to produce more at a minimal price.

Crafting muslin is a delicate and strenuous process. Since the weavers couldn’t keep up with that demand and low payment, they started going into debt. 

Moreover, they were given the payment in advance for the fabrics, and it takes about a year to make a fine quality muslin. If their clothes were not up to the mark, they would have to give the money back to the company.  This sucked the life out of the poor weavers. Their debt became greater, and the poverty rate increased.

In the meantime, two world wars broke out. The Indian subcontinent went through 31 famines during the British rule. Some weavers left their profession and became farmers. Some started to make lesser quality cotton fabrics to get by. Jamdani is the closest descendent of muslin that is still alive, which barely tops 150 count.

The supporting community craftsmen were affected too. The famous Phuti karpas flower has been lost in nature. Eventually the whole art form, skill set, and the resources have been lost completely into oblivion.  

Dreams of a revival

The next part of this story is about some dreamers dreaming much bigger than their own visible ability. Dreamers who were called out as delusional; doors were shut on their faces because nobody believed that they would succeed. But this team has grinded through -- even through a whole pandemic.

Let me take you back to October in 2014. Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, during her visit to the Ministry of Textile and Jute, urged them to explore the possibility to revive muslin. The ministry formed a team of specialists who started digging into the mythical expanse of this forgotten craft.

This team has outdone themselves in dedication and honest hard work. They have ventured from India to Egypt. From the national museum of Bangladesh, the search took them to the Victoria Albert Museum of the UK. A research team led by Microbiologist Dr M Monjur Hossain have combed through the whole delta of Meghna in search of the right flower that they would need to produce the thread.

The story of finding this flower is no less fascinating than the story of Cinderella's glass slippers. In search of a shutakatuni (thread maker) they went from village to village.

Muslin threads cannot be produced by modern automatic spinners -- it has to be made manually by hands. It takes grueling hard work and utmost concentration. The team thought, if they cannot find one, they will make one. They have started a project to train new thread spinners. After a few months, out of 200 participant trainees, only 6 came out.  With those six thread spinners, the team started this new journey to achieve higher quality. 

Al Jazeera covered the story of these yarn makers. Mohsina Akhter, a mother of two, was one of the best yarn makers of this batch. She opined, “It needs supreme concentration. To do it you have to be in the perfect state of mind. If you are angry or worried, you can’t hand spin such a fine yarn.”

“It is like performing requires your full concentration. Any lapse will tear up the yarn and set your work backwards,” said Abu Taher, a weaver.

Challenges on the way

Remember those 16 steps I mentioned earlier? Every step had to be reinvented, every small instrument had to be rebuilt, reengineered, and modified. All little steps had to be revisited to reach perfection.  Once the team had achieved the milestone of 300 count, they started to look for a weaver. Again, they went from door to door, begging the weavers to try this new yarn. 

In an interview with the Daily Prothom Alo, Manjurul Islam, the senior instructor of Textile Board, said, “We had hope because the local craftsmen still weave Jamdani with 150 count yarn. Jamdani is like a less fine quality of muslin. That’s why we were pretty hopeful.  But in reality, we went from door to door with our 300 count yarn, nobody would even talk to us about it. ‘Go home, this is not possible, this would all end in vain,’ they said. But we didn’t give up, eventually we found the weavers we were looking for in Narayanganj. We found Rubel and Ibrahim.”

By the end of March 2022, those six thread spinners of the first batch have trained 200 women to make muslin thread. They have achieved the milestone of 552 counts. (source: Daily Prothom Alo). According to a report from Daily Manabzamin, 49 thread spinners are running daily to produce threads in Chandina, Comilla. 

So far, the weavers have weaved 6 saris and some sample clothes. One of those saris has been gifted to the prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, who has initiated this project and also gave a major breakthrough by advising the team about the Victoria Albert Museum when they were desperately looking for a sample of muslin fabric.

The project director Ayub Ali is very hopeful about this project. He remarked that this was a successful effort. He hopes that muslin can be produced commercially very soon. 

Even without government support, some private entrepreneurs like Drik have also put out great effort to revive muslin on their own. Albeit in a small amount, they have managed to make some saris and clothes. 

Dhaka muslin was first showcased in the UK at The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851. At that time, a yard of muslin would cost ranging from £50-400, (roughly £7,200-57,400 in 2022). But the irony was, while the subjects of the British Empire were obsequiously gawking at this great feat of human brilliance, those brilliant craftsmen were dying along with their craft.

The textile barons of England had started making cheaper and lower quality fabrics with common cotton by then to meet the demands of the European market. That swept off the last straw from the artisans of Bengal. Decades of financially ill absorption has finally dried up the well.

Carrying on a legacy

The weavers who have passed down the knowledge generation after generation were lost to debt, famine, war, and poverty; those who survived somehow, had chosen to make jamdani, benarashi, or katan and handloom to survive. But the horrible effect of that purge has not totally subsided yet. 

The whole industry is currently hanging by a thread. Weavers are feeling insecure to let their children come to their family business. It takes immense hard work, dedication, and special sets of skills. Most importantly, it takes time and money.

Shamim Akhter Siddique (56) is a designer and weaver. His family is one of the surviving designers and weavers of Bengal who has not given up their ancestral profession. Due to the high maintenance cost, lack of government support, high competition with neighboring countries, and low profit, his family members are now quitting this business. 

There used to be over 10,000 handloom weavers in Mirpur. Now the number is down to 500. 

Anamul Haque (47) is an iconic designer and weaver of Bangladesh. Avant garde Anamul also has a great lineage of artisans in his family; weaving and designing have been their bread and butter for the last 80/90 years. He has high hopes for the textiles of Bangladesh and feels very positive about it, but the pandemic and bank loans have pushed him away from his dreams too. Anamul is hopeful enough to make a beautiful remark about the industry and the role of people. “If you buy a jamdani, it means you are supporting a whole family of artisans for a few weeks, or even a few months.”

On my recent trip to Dhaka, while I was visiting my friend’s showroom in the Le Meridien, The Muslin, I have come to know their stories for the first time. Tasnuva Islam, a young entrepreneur of Dhaka, has been trying to move the middlemen between the artists and the products, so that the real artists can financially benefit and get the recognitions that they deserve. Instead of a simple business product, a saree would be presented as a work of art along with the artists' names and description.

But beyond all the good hope that Tasnuva holds, she also remarked that, “muslin is coming to the open market very soon; these are the weavers who are going to be our vanguard on this journey towards excellence. How prepared are we for this journey? Should we be able to uphold the glory of the muslin and win the world with it? And will these people and the artform even survive through all this?” These questions hang in the air along with the worries of the weavers about their future.

A lesson in perseverance

Later, while I was reading about the past and present about muslin and jamdani, I had a revelation. Muslin is not just an excellent fabric; it is about courage, passion, and tenacity as well. The people of Bengal have this amazing surviving tenacity against the harshest natural calamities. It's amazing how muslin has come back, but it is not surprising.

For muslin has always been our heritage; she is our daughter who has the same qualities which she must have adopted from the people of this delta. The government of Bangladesh has done a huge job. It is truly praiseworthy that, even through the pandemic, they did not stop -- they have soldiered on.

Muslin is now Bangladesh’s GI product. Now it’s our turn to take the helm and take it to the next level. 

So, if you want to present yourself with the finest fabric of the world, choose muslin. If you want to clad yourself with hope and courage, if you want to drape yourself with the care and perseverance of an artist, choose muslin. If you are a science person, wear this muslin for the meticulous research and invention it took to revive this almost magical product. 

Say your vows to your loved one with a gift of muslin, because nothing says “no matter what” like the fabric that is brought back from oblivion for love. Choose muslin to wear on your national and international occasions. Besides looking like a million bucks, this also silently whispers a lot about your classy taste. Buy Bangladeshi handloom products, as Anamul says, it will support a family of artists for months. 

Through the dark passage of oblivion, beyond the colonial oppressions, overcoming natural calamities and technical challenges muslin have come back to us. Our daughter has come back home after a long time. It is time we celebrate and cherish her glory. For her glory is ours as well.

Anwarul Islam Khan Anas is a freelance contributor.