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In December 2013, the Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh (IPAB) celebrated a major success as Bangladesh's Jamdani Sari weaving tradition, a labor-intensive and time-consuming form of hand loom weaving is recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Jamdani is the finest Muslin textile produced in Bangladesh's Dhaka District.
A sari is the traditional garment worn by women in the Indian subcontinent, made up of a long strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from five to nine yards in length, which can be draped in various styles. The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist with one end then draped over the shoulders with the other. The Jamdani Sari is among the oldest styles, at more than 5,000 years old! Some people think that the sari was influenced by Greek or Roman toga, which we see on ancient statues. However, there is no solid historical evidence to this effect.
The sari is essentially designed to suit local conditions in the subcontinent. There are at least six varieties of Bengal handlooms, each deriving its name from the village in which it originated, and each with its own distinctive style. Dhaka was especially renowed for saris of fine muslin, a tradtion that carries on today. Jamdani is basically a transformation of the world famous Dhakai Muslin. According to their variety, fineness and patterns the traditional Dhakai Muslins were divided into specific categories. Among them, Aab-E-Rouhan, Shabnam, Sarband and Jamdani muslin were the most famous. Over the years the first three of these have vanished from history.
The production, marketing and export of Jamdani has somehow maintained its continuity. Dhaka has a history of only four hundred years from 1610 A.D., but the history of the cotton clothes of the region reveals more ancient traditions. Although most of the history of Jamdani weaving os lost in the mists of antiquity, it's known that trade in the fabric was established at least 2,000 years ago.
Portrait of a Bangladeshi weaver of Jamdani Saris in the village of Rupganj Thana in the outskirts of Dhaka.
A whole saller of Jamdani Saris shows a piece from his collection in the village of Rupganj Thana in the outskirts of Dhaka.
Jamdani Saris are made from the finest Muslin textile produced in Bangladesh's Dhaka District. This time consuming and labor-intensive form of hand loom weaving has been declared intagible cultural world heritage by UNESCO.
Text by Jenny Gustafsson and Photos by Karim Mostafa
At first glance, South Rupshi looks like any other village in the Bangladeshi countryside. Tea stalls line the roads, kids play in the mid-day heat. Rickshaw-drivers pedal their decorated bikes. But something sets it out from other villages. Everywhere, bundles of yarn are left to dry in the sun. People on their porches spin threads onto spindles, scarves flow in the wind. South Rupshi is the ancestral home of a proud tradition in Bangladesh: the age-old jamdani weaving.
These days the village weavers are busy. The demand for saris is growing, the handmade fabrics are sold to customers all over Bangladesh and India, and exported abroad. Last year, UNESCO declared jamdani an intangible cultural heritage, stating its importance in Bangladesh as “a symbol of identity, dignity and self-recognition”. But things used to be different. Only a few decades ago, traditional weaving was a forgotten heritage.
Until sari entrepreneur Monira Emdad came and brought it back to memory. “In the early 80’s when traveling in rural Bangladesh, I came across hand-woven saris, more beautiful than I had seen anywhere else. I started bringing them to Dhaka, selling them from a small tin shed,” she says. Her efforts started a jamdani revival, which has meant the craft is now passed down to the next generation – providing an alternative to a rural workforce which otherwise is pushed into low-paying jobs with unsafe conditions. “This is much better for us. We can stay in the village and work nearby our families. And it’s not dangerous, we only use our brains here,” says weaver Mohammad Azim.
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Colourful yarn outside a house in South Rupshi, a typical Bangladeshi village with dusty winding roads and simple houses built close together.
Mizanur, a weaver from South Rupshi outside Dhaka, working on a jamdani scarf. Jamdani is an age-old tradition, which saw its heydays during the era of Mughal rule. It was declining for a long time but is seeing a revival today.
Mizanur, a weaver in one of the village workshops. Each sari is commonly woven by two weavers, only small scarves are made by one person.
Two weavers in South Rupshi outside of Dhaka weave fine sari fabrics on traditional wooden looms. The craft, dating back to ancient times, is seeing a revival in Bangladesh and India.
Mohammad Azim, a weaver in South Rupshi. The sari he's working on is a wedding sari, in the traditional red colour. Wedding saris are the most elaborate, and the weaving is headed by a senior weaver with a younger apprentice by her or his side.
Almost all people in South Rupshi work in one way or another with jamdani weaving. The man in the photo is taking care of an old sari, fixing small holes and stains on the fabric. He calls it "the sari dry cleaner".
In a courtyard in South Rupshi. The women and the man take care of saris that people have used and want restored to a condition like new. To make the fabric crisp again, they wet it with a mixture of rice and water.
A small boy looks on as a woman spins yarn onto a wooden spindle in a courtyard in South Rupshi, outside Dhaka in Bangladesh. The village residents are involved in every step of the weaving process, from spinning and colouring the yarn to weaving the saris from start to finish.
Alomgir and Sultana, brother and sister, work together on a white sari with golden decorations. All saris are woven by two weavers, one senior and one apprentice. Jamdani weaving is a collaborative work.
A weaver spinning yarn in the corner of a workshop in South Rupshi. Many weavers work in their homes, other in simple shared workspaces nearby where they live. It allows them to stay close to their families, which many workers from rural Bangladesh cannot. The option for many is work in the garment industry, which employs over 4 million people, mostly, women, but offers low wages and dangerous working conditions.
Detail of a jamdani scarf woven on a wooden loom. The weavers follow no manuals, all patterns are made from memory. There are hundreds of symbols, many taking their names from things in the Bangladeshi countryside.
A senior weaver and a young boy. Traditionally, the knowledge of jamdani weaving is passed on to children when they are young. It remains like that today, but most children only weave after they have been to school in the afternoons.
Weavers in South Rupshi working together in a shared space in the center of the village. The saris are sold in Dhaka's most expensive sari shops, and exported abroad. About 1/3 of the fabrics are sold to India, where saris are used for all kinds of occasions.
On the street leading through South Rupshi, a weaving village outside Dhaka. The revival of jamdani weaving means that people can stay and work close to home, instead of moving to the city for work.