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'Our weavers are declining. I cannot let that happen'

  • Published at 08:13 pm December 7th, 2017

The air was already buzzing with an electric energy when renowned model/actress Sadia Islam Mou, resplendent in red and black, dripping with ornaments, took the stage, holding a jewellery box – instantly recognisable as Moni Mollika of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story 'Monihara'. She was one of ten iconic Tagore characters brought to life in the performance fashion installation 'Robi Anuragi', conceptualised by Tootli Rahman, the showrunner for the International Weavers Festival 2017 (IWF). Back with a bang after a successful debut last year, the IWF compressed this year’s event into one sparkling capsule festival, held on November 17 at ICC,B, Bashundhara. Featuring an exciting combination of local designers (both established and breakthrough) and foreign names, the event showcased the indigenous weaving arts practised around the world. The fashion showcase was punctuated by musical performances, awards given to both designers and master weavers in recognition of their contribution, and of course, Robi Anuragi, which also featured actress Nipun Akter in the avatar of Komola from Tagore’s novel 'Nouka Dubi'. The event, which opened on the dulcet notes of Palki Ahmed’s vocal performance, only kept raising the wattage until it ended on a high with Habib and Ferdous Wahid’s stellar music. A week before the IWF, festival director Tootli Rahman’s living room was a picture of quiet efficiency. Lounging on her sofa in her chikan-embroidered kurta shalwar set, open laptop on the coffee table, she fired off rapid instructions on her phone. Stacks of charts and tables, with details of the festival itinerary, design templates for the invitation cards, and miscellanea, lay neatly by the laptop, and a snacks trolley waited, laden with homemade savouries. It was easy to understand how this visionary came to pioneer such local lifestyle facets as wedding decor for themed weddings, plant rental services and wrought iron furniture, as well as starting the trend for hosting high profile fashion events at heritage sites. A month since the event successfully completed, she talks about her motivations for the annual International Weavers Festival. “I’d done the first ever fashion events at Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manzil, and it was perhaps because of the success of these ventures that I was approached to do the first International Folk Fest in 2015. That one was also successful, but it left me feeling that this wasn’t really my arena. I’ve been working with local artisans for decades now – my label ByDeshi focuses on local handloom and fusion wear, and I was the first to experiment with colour-washed pottery. I thought that handloom was where my heart was at, and thus the idea for the IWF”. As to what she hoped to achieve with IWF, her answer was to continue to generate conversation about local weaving traditions. “Our weaving arts, whether we’re talking about Dhakai jamdani or Rajshahi silk, or even the tribal weaves of the CHT, these were once renowned the world over, and the artisans enjoyed an important place in society. At present, with cheaper, imported and mass-produced garments flooding the market, our weavers are in such terrible state that many of them are migrating to other jobs just to feed their families. As a result, the weaving arts are in decline. We can’t just sit and let them die. We have to show the world that these gorgeous fabrics deserve their attention. And that’s why I made the decision of including foreign designers, to get that regional cooperation going” One might consider it rational to let evolution take its course, but Tootli doesn’t see it that way. Aside from the fact that handloom is more environment-friendly than factory-produced garments, with just a little support, this industry is a great tool for women empowerment. “Traditionally, the skills were passed on from the male master weavers to their sons. But recently, they have begun to train their daughters and wives, thus bringing them into the workforce and giving them an agency. This is definitely something I want to support and encourage.” Aside from her plans to continue the IWF every year, Tootli is most excited about her upcoming project “Heritage Hut”, a crafts village she’s setting up in Kaliganj. “It was the most serendipitous thing! I was telling my friend Kishwar Shakhawat about my dreams of setting up a crafts village to promote and showcase sustainable handloom and local artisans all year round, and she told me about a beautiful plot of land she owns in Kaliganj, and said I could just take it and use it. I was overwhelmed!” The project, which is in its pilot stages, will be up and running by early next year, open by invitation in the initial stages, to maintain viability, with plans for greater inclusion in the future. “This country has given me a lot,” she explains with a smile. “I have really enjoyed seeing all my plans and projects come to fruition. I want to give something back now, and I think, promoting our local culture and heritage is how I will do it.”