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Women of all ages wear it with pride, and people from across the world come to Bangladesh to see it being woven and purchase a Dhakai sari of their own.
Jamdani is a national treasure in Bangladesh.
A wedding ceremony is not complete without a Jamdani, and the streets on any public holiday are adorned with women wearing Jamdani in all colours and designs.
But all of this might not have happened if, one day in 1970, a young man had not made some enquiries and decided to dig into an art form going extinct, and start on a treasure hunt as rich as the fabric itself…
The earliest mention of the origin of Jamdani, and its development as an industry can be found in Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Book of Economics, published around 300 AD). Jamdani is also mentioned in the book of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and in the accounts of Arab, Chinese, and Italian travellers. Alexander the Great, in 327 BC, mentioned “beautiful printed cottons,” and in the 14th century, Ibn Batuta praised the quality of cotton textiles of Sonargaon.
The golden age for Muslin and Jamdani was during Mughal rule, when Jamdani, produced by weavers in Dhaka, was exported to all corners of the world. Legend has it that the monarchs of Europe were not considered monarchs without Dhaka Muslin in their wardrobe.
Yet, for all its glory, Jamdani exports started to shrink in the early 19th century, and stopped entirely in the mid-19th century. Cheaper yarn from Europe was available, and Mughal power was in decline. Jamdani designs and motifs, venerated throughout the world, were now found in museums around the world, but almost extinct in their birthplace.
In 1978, shortly after Aarong was established, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and his team carried out a survey and found approximately 700 families in areas around Demra who had been involved in the production of Jamdani. They were mostly discontinuing production and many were switching professions, ready to leave the artform forever.
Sir Abed went on a treasure hunt to revive the fading Jamdani.
He set off on the trail of Jamdani, across India, America, and Europe, photographing hundreds of Jamdani motifs and woven pieces on display in museums from Ahmedabad to Chicago. Upon returning, a team of artists recreated the designs on paper, and master craftspeople created 300 new Jamdani saris. A catalogue was made of the motifs and designs, and a grand exhibition of the saris was organised at Shilpakala Academy. The exhibition generated a huge buzz, reviving interest in Jamdani. The exhibition attracted significant attention, and a new buzz was created in the younger generation regarding this magical craft. It made them consider Jamdani for their significant festival attires, and many young women started to choose Jamdani saris as their wedding attire. Aarong was a major partner of the Muslin Festival 2016, and many other similar initiatives since then. The new customer attitude paved the way for Jamdani workers to think about the Jamdani production on a long term basis with renewed confidence and hope.
A precious part of the culture of a people was resuscitated, and it began to flourish again.
A second, two-year long initiative began in 2008, to put together a collection of 130 new Jamdani saris. A huge exhibition was organised, again attracting significant attention, particularly among the younger generation, and young women embraced and embellished the Jamdani, making it a part of their coveted wardrobes. A wardrobe without a Jamdani became an unremarkable one.
Next was the search for ‘phuti karpas,’ the original fine muslin cotton plant from which Jamdani was originally woven. Aarong was a major part of the Muslin Festival 2016, which put the forgotten story of phuti karpas under the spotlight for all to marvel at.
All Aarong stores carry a covetable Jamdani collection. In addition to saris, Jamdani material is incorporated into items from home decor textiles to scarves, to shalwar-kameez.
This October, Aarong is participating in the Jamdani Festival 2019, jointly organised by the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh and Bengal Foundation. Over the next week, however busy you might be, take a break and get in touch with a part of Bangladesh’s heritage that brought Bengal global fame. Admire the finest Jamdani textiles produced in generations, made with the motifs brought home in that grand treasure hunt all those years ago.
Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is the head of programme and enterprise communications, BRAC Communications.
This article was previously published in Lifestyle, The Daily Star.