12:00 AM, May 15, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 15, 2010

Back to beautiful basics

Farida Shaikh rediscovers heritage in the hills

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THE book is dedicated to those whose work forms the subject of the book. With due acknowledgement to the individuals connected with this study and UNDP, the book opens with BAIN by Chiranjib Chakma and translated by Niaz Zaman.
… Do not worry or despair / But learn to weave an alam/And your life will be full / If you know how to weave the pinon and the hadi / Everyone will praise you, say the girl is good / But if you do not know how to weave, daughter / Your mother-in-law will never let you hear the end of it / You will feel bad when people jeer at you / And you will always be unhappy / I hope that you will learn to weave / And pray that you will be happy all your life.
In these lines of the poem lies the social significance of Bain, the back strap weaving loom of the indigenous women weavers of Chittagong Hill Tracts. The rather significant title of the book carries the message that strong backed women bend, but do not break; they carry forward the tradition of weaving; the magic fingers that weave cotton colors, yarns into harmony and symmetry, beyond compare!
Weaving is a domestic affair, which in the past was done for oneself or one's family members, and for dowries in the royal households. Nowadays weaving is done to be marketed. The book is about the art of weaving among the Buddhist Chakma, Khyang, Khumi, Chak, Tanchangya, Marma, Mro, Hindu Tripura, Christian Pangkhao, Bawm and Lushai in Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Rangamati.
The Manipuris, who do not call themselves so, are Hindu Meitei, Vishnupriya and Muslim Pangan. The women weavers use back strap weaving. They live in the district of Sylhet, in Maulvibazar, Habiganj and Sunamganj. In Dhaka, Manipuripara Tejgoan still bears the name, where they were settled in the past.
Back strap weaving is tight, strenuous and time consuming as compared to weaving on throw shuttle and the fly shuttle loom. On page 49 is a photo by Niaz Zaman, a modern version of the loom with a wooden substitute for the leather back strap. Katin Chibar Dan, an occasion when Chakma weavers work all night, is included. Many colourful pictures show a Chakma woman wearing the pinon, a sarong round her waist, a hadi or breast cloth tied round her chest, shiloom, a stitched upper garment worn when the woman goes to the forest for jhoom cultivation. The khabang is a long piece of cloth worn round the head to counter the gaze of onlookers. Chakmas are the predominant community, nearly 2.52 lakh in number, according to the figures for1991. They live in Bandarban and Rangamati.
The book is an excellent product of Karunangshu Barua's Nymphae Publication. There are 256 full page and post card size photos to tell the Bain story. Amiya Kanti Chakma has shared some of the rare photos out of his 'store of photograph.' The picture on page 152 photo is on a Lushai weaver weaving a blanket at Battlepara Bandarban.Page 144 has Khumi weavers at Bandarban. On page 128 the photo shows the Chakma woman in naïf, sarong, and baju blouse at Baishari, Bandarban. On page 125 is a Bawan woman in Pangkhoa costume at Roangchhari, Bandarban. It is an all Bawm women's market in the photo on page 122, and the preparation for weaving is captured in the picture of a Mro woman winding yarn into a ball with the help of two gourds to hold the skein of yarn in Thanchi, Bandarban.
Barua is first an artist, and then a publisher. He dreams of a theme, and then sets about actualizing that theme through his editorial team, art director, design and graphic expert. All his works go through a long period of gestation. He started his publication work with The Festivals of Bangladesh in 2005. It is a picture gallery on 21 annual festivals of our country. His latest publication April 2010 is Bangladesh Six Decades 1947-2007.It is a historical record in rare pictures and scholarly texts on the past 60 years from the Bangladesh perspective.
This book is about indigenous women weavers. For nearly over four decades, Manjulika Chakma has been working, marketing and collecting items made on Bain, the back strap loom. Her endeavor in upholding our heritage has been rightly rewarded. She is a recipient of honours from the National Craft Council and UNDP, and has received The Daily Star-DHL business award. Her recommendation is that master weavers be given government recognition as National Craftpersons.
The Art of Kantha Embroidery is a piece of representative writing on these genera by Niaz Zaman. In continuation, this book on indigenous weaving is an ethnographic study. The findings are graphic, through a range of pictorial representations. The photographs by Niaz Zaman illuminate the art and culture of the Hill Tracts.
The researchers in Manjulika Chakma and Niaz Zaman have exposed the threatened environment of indigenous livelihood patterns in the hilly regions of the country. Through this book, the writers hope to raise awareness about the dire need for a revival of traditional tapestry. This is indeed critical, given the political process of marginalization of the tribal population in the Chittagong Hill Tracks. 'The indigenous people who had never had any formal documentation about their rights to the land, found that they were strangers in their own home' (page12). This reader friendly book is a warning against the near fading away side of a romantic Bangladesh, a compendium for the hitch hikers, tourists and travellers. So, get a copy!

Farida Shaikh is a critic.

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