Bangladesh High Commission London to showcase revival of Dhakai Muslin

The Bangla Courtyard is a curated space to narrate the story of Bangladesh and her people

The Bangladesh High Commission London’s first episode of ‘The Bangla Courtyard‘ is taking place tomorrow at the South Asia Institute of SOAS, London to showcase revival of the Dhakai Muslin.

The event, co-hosted by Bangladesh High Commission, London and SOAS, will bring together eminent policymakers, experts and researchers from Bangladesh and the UK, including Golam Dastagir Gazi, Minister for Textiles and Jute, Bangladesh, Saida Muna Tasneem, High Commissioner for Bangladesh to the UK, Professor Adam Habib, Director of SOAS, Avalon Fotheringham, Curator at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, Professor Edward Simpson, Director, South Asia Institute of SOAS, Dr Md Monzur Hossain, Chief Scientist, Muslin Revival project and Chairman of Botany, Rajshahi University, Dr Sonia Ashmore, British design historian, Md. Ayub Ali, Project Director, Muslin Revival Project of Ministry of Textile & Jute, and textile entrepreneurs Sarah Mahaffy and Saiful Islam and textile artist and designer Rezia Wahid.

Commenting on the event, High Commissioner Saida Muna Tasneem said, “Our Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken an extra-ordinary initiative of reviving the ancient technology and lost heritage of the Dhakai Muslin that was destroyed at the advent of industrial revolution nearly three hundred years ago. “

The High Commissioner further said, “At the Bangladesh High Commission’s Bangla Courtyard we want to tell the story of the Dhakai Muslin, its artisan, its craftsmanship and eco-system in which today’s Bangladesh successfully revived the finest handspun Muslin yarn to its former glory. Our target audiences are the British Museum, and the academia and the researchers in the UK who research on the history and textile and Muslin as well as our vibrant British-Bangladeshi diaspora. 

For hundreds of years, the geography where Bangladesh is, has been one of the powerhouses of textile production. From the Mughal era till the 17th and 18th centuries, Dhaka in Bengal produced the most delicate Muslins. The handwoven fabric made with the finest hand-spun yarns succumbed to colonial suppression and industrialization and eventually disappeared. 

With the fall of Muslin, raw materials, types of equipment, and expertise had vanished. The sufferings of the land, the people, and the trades of Bangladesh continued till Bangladesh got independence in 1971. With a continued struggle for economic freedom and self-reliance—moving through ups and downs—Bangladesh today is proud of a number of landmark achievements in many sectors. In recent years, there has been a focus on the revival of Muslin.

"Jamdani muslin has been recognized as the national fabric of Bangladesh, since it originated in the delta lands around Dhaka. It was internationally recognized in 2013 when it was included in UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. However, labels are one thing and economic realities are another. Muslin and Jamdani could regain their international reputation, benefitting Bangladesh in many ways. Research is proceeding on reviving the original phuti karpas yarn that gave muslin its unique texture and fineness. Weavers need to be supported to develop their existing exceptional skills to weave to the old standards – it can be done, as was demonstrated at the 2019 Jamdani Festival in Dhaka. These fabrics could surely enhance the worldwide cultural reputation of Bangladesh," said Sonia Ashmore.

She also addressed the factors behind the unfortunate decline in Muslin production. "In my view, a key, and shaming factor was the way in which the British East India Company appropriated the manufacture of muslin when they affectively took over Bengal in the mid eighteenth century. Although it successfully created new western markets for muslin, it also put huge pressures on weavers to satisfy the demand it had created, effectively dehumanizing and indebting them as if they were so many cogs in an industrial machine, not uniquely skilled craftsmen."

"British manufacturers were also encouraged to imitate both cloth and yarn from India and Undivided Bengal and export it back, undermining native production, although they never succeeded in producing comparable yarn. There were other factors contributing to the decline of Muslin production, including the decline of Mughal and local courts and thus their patronage of weavers."

Ashmore has been researching Muslin since she started working at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on the Museum's vast collections of South Asian textiles in the early 2000s.

Regarding the unique allure of Muslin, Saiful Islam told Dhaka Tribune, "Firstly, it was the diaphanous, lightness of the fabric which gives it a translucent magical sheen, as if the wearer is bathed in light rather than wearing a garment. The second reason was its exclusivity due to the high demand and low volume produced thus one could be defined as belonging to a special class in order to have access to the cloth. As far as the Mughals were considered one particular variety (Mulbus e Khas/Abrwan) was manufactured only for their needs and could not be sold to others."

"Bengal Muslin's pioneering role in leading the muslin revival had the intention of reclaiming this unique textile as a product of Bangladesh and not greater India as had been often misconstrued. This brings our nation a huge cultural identity, a pride of place in world textiles and a dominant position in fashion that we had unconsciously given up. There are beneficial knock-on effects on our vast handloom industry where our well known jamdani's slide towards coarser weaving has been halted as we finally go towards finer count, which is what muslin demands. Lastly, though the commercial market will be niche it can be profitable if the right combination of design, product supply and brand identity is built not only as saris but in fusion fashions that incorporate the modern with the past," he added.

Regarding the role of the Muslin Trust, moderator of the event Saif Osmani said, "The Muslin Trust was co-founded for charitable purposes in 2013 by the current Trustees who felt passionately that Bangladesh is sometimes left out of the narrative regarding fine cottons and in knowledge about high value textiles, despite its centuries old history of cotton production. Dr Sonia Ashmore is the leading expert in the UK on Muslin having written a comprehensive book on the subject, Rifat Wahhab is an avid supporter, Dr Lipi Begum a lecturer on textiles and myself Saif Osmani a British-Bangladeshi designer who has produced garments using Muslin and fine cottons. Ruby Ghuznavi is a leading expert in indigenous textiles and advisor to the Muslin Trust."

"It took about six years of research work to resurrect the technologies and to recreate the Dhakai Muslin. Every step in the process of reviving technologies was difficult, including finding a piece of original Dhakai Muslin for study and to use as a reference material, finding appropriate cotton variety (Phutee karpas) and standardizing the methods for weaving cloths with liner yarn using pit loom," said Dr Md Monzur Hossain, Eminent Botanist, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, who will be a panelist at the event. 

The event will be streamed live at https://www.facebook.com/bhc.london.52.