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September 26, 2003

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The Artisans' Show

Exposing the Potential of Indigenous Craft

Mustafa Zaman

Bangladesh is playing host to the 26th World Craft Council: Asia Pacific Assembly from October 6 to 10. Organised by the National Craft Council of Bangladesh and the member organisations such as Probartona, Karika, Concern, Aranya, Kumudini, Aarong, Shilleikon and Tangail Sari Kutir, the event will have craftspeople from all over Bangladesh taking part. The object of the Assembly is to explore effective market access in the region. As part of the craft council the NCCB has been promoting craft both in the local as well as foreign markets. But it badly needs coordinated efforts from the craftspeople and the organisations working to remove obstacles for them. The government too, has an important role to play, especially in removing obstacles to export and supporting product development. For the last three decades many NGOs and organisations have been putting their efforts together to promote craft and to find a market for it. The Assembly will be a litmus test to see how far such a goal is possible.

With the advent of modernism which ushered in the process of mechanisation, tradition has fallen prey to progress. Technology has severed society from its past. What the indigenous artisans used to produce by hand have been replaced by standardised products produced en mass in newly set-up industries. In the process we have lost not only tradition but art of indigenous origin that was once inseparable from the crafts.

Crafts have their roots deep into the past of any given society. Professor Dr Enamul Haque, the founder Director General (Rtd) of Bangladesh National Museum and former president of NCCB (National Crafts Council of Bangladesh), believes that crafts are mainly produced by the indigenous people. “In Bangladesh as well as any other country, crafts have been in existence for as long as people have been there. The primary objective of crafts was to create objects to meet the necessities of life,” he adds.

As modern society completed the jump from traditional crafts to industrialised products, it made it realise the value of indigenous culture symbolised by its art and craft. Bangladesh came late in its realisation of the potential of its traditional arts and craft. In the last two decades of the 20th century, however, there have been efforts to preserve traditional crafts and revive the ones that are almost on the verge of extinction.

Dr Enamul Haque recalls how Bengal was once a fertile ground for 'muslin', which was one of the export items that this part of the world was famous for. “We have a mention of an anonymous Greek sailor, who wrote in the first century AD: 'from this deltaic region of Ganges there were a number of items that were exported to the west and the most relished one was our finest cotton product'.”

Crafts, as the items produced using the indigenous technologies and knowledge are known, also have economic value. The National Craft Council of Bangladesh (NCCB), a national entity of the World Craft Council, an organisation run by the UNESCO, has been instrumental in propagating the ideas pertaining to conservation of traditional crafts and creating a market for them at home and abroad.

Dr Haque cites the references from the Sultany and Mughal era when export of crafts earned the region substantial revenues. They have the potential to do the same in an era of consumer products, he says.

“Seventy per cent of women in Bangladesh wear handloom clothes,” informs Ruby Ghuznavi, the present president of NCCB.

NCCB was set-up in 1985 and it is the spearhead of the organisations and individuals engaged in the field of craft research and development in Bangladesh. It is an organisation that is bent on bringing the NGOs and other government and non government bodies as well as craftspeople, individual researchers and patrons under one umbrella from time to time so that the growth of craft as a business is facilitated. “Seventy five per cent of its members are craftspeople and the rest are organisations and researchers with multidisciplinary backgrounds,” says Ghuznavi, who confirms that the membership of NCCB is growing.

The 26th "World Craft Council: Asia Pacific Regional Assembly" is due to be held in Dhaka from 6th to 10th October 2003. The assembly will be accompanied by a major exhibition titled “Abaran: Textile Traditions of Bangladesh”.

The exhibition will showcase a range of accessories from the craft developing organisations. The venue was at first set at the National Museum gallery, but the authorities have done little in support of the show. Bengal Gallery, meanwhile, has come forward and its premises will host the show that will be held from 7 to 21 of this month.

The international craft conference is a yearly event. UNESCO has divided the world into five regions, and the Asia-Pacific region is one of them that includes Bangladesh. The people working on the sector of craft and indigenous development of newer products, a process known as product development, have been trying to hold the regional council in Bangladesh for a long time. But it entails a lot of logistical and most importantly, financial support.

The fact that the 26th assembly has found its venue in Bangladesh is the result of sheer bravery and dedication of a whole contingent of individuals involved in the craft sector. “The council is being organised on NCCB's own accord. Had the government extended support we could have had the opportunity to do it in a more extensive manner. If the fund was provided by them we could put the full effort in organising the seminars and exhibitions,” stressed Munira Imdad, who runs Tangail Sari Kutir and is one of the organisers.

The Assembly or the council has a three-fold programme. Their will be seminars where expert ideas will be shared; the exhibition and the demonstration will be arranged to present a complete picture of textile crafts of Bangladesh. On the 8th and the 9th of October, a two day long seminar will discuss two subjects -- one with the title of “Crafts Without Barriers: Development and Market Access”, and the other, “Crafts and Eco-Tourism”.

The first subject emerged out of a series of discussions the NCCB and its members were having on market access. Their premise was to compete with western countries' success in marketing in the Asian region.

Rubi Ghuznavi says that the initiative to organise such an assembly had been in their agenda for a long time. “We simply didn't have the logistics to do so, and this time we have pulled it off,” affirms the president who has been busy garnering government support in favour of this undertaking by NCCB.

“In every other country a conference of this nature receives hundred per cent government support. Both the logistics and the financial sides are looked after by the government,” informs Ghuznavi who in her bid to involve the Bangladesh government met with both the State Minister for Culture, Begum Selima Rahman and the Commerce Minister Amir Khosru. They have promised to extend support although in real terms it will be only partial.

“As for finances, we have got the support from the private sector. Individuals as well as industrialists have come forward,” reveals Ghuznavi.

Thirty-five delegates from fifteen countries are to attend this Assembly. A few more representatives from UK, USA, Canada and Japan will join the main contingent consisting of the regional countries.

Whenever one thinks of export, be it traditional craft or any other item, trade barriers loom large. “There are hardly any tariffs in countries of the Pacific region. They can export and import without having to face such barriers,” points out Ghuznavi while talking about the barriers facing Bangladeshi producers while exporting even to the neighbouring countries. She also brings to light the fact that even while exporting to India there is nothing much in print but some unwritten rules get in the way of export.

Regional export-import, therefore, must be a question that needs to be resolved first. The organisers of the Assembly feel that this is their priority. For them the target region for Bangladesh now is the Asian region. The unilateral trade that NCCB has in their agenda is centred on the Asian zone. “The Indonesian craft as well as the crafts from India and Thailand enjoy duty free access in our country, so why can't we take advantage of the same,” Ghuznavi contends.

When asked whether Bangladeshi crafts will fare well in the Indian market as their artisans are enjoying a huge support from their government, Dr Enamul Haque echoes the confidence of Ghuznavi. He says, “the most important thing is setting policies for marketing whatever our artisans are producing. Their products were desirable once and now we have newer products too, as in the case of Tangail saris. They are being given a facelift. Newer designs are being introduced to woo contemporary buyers.”

Munira Imdad remarks that if the red tape surrounding export is removed and the formalities of Export Promotion Bureau are cut down to a minimum, our saris and textile will enjoy an easy access to foreign markets. As an exporter she has been suffering along with others. As a proprietor of Tangail Sari Kutir, she testifies that handloom products such as cushion covers and curtains are in demand even in in the US. When asked whether there is a possibility of upgrading the quality of these products, she says, “It is the raw materials like threads and colours for which we are heavily dependent on India and other foreign markets. If the government takes initiative to develop raw materials, then the handloom materials would be finer and cost-friendly.”

In defence of craft Ghuznavi says “Hundreds of types of crafts are still alive in a myriad of forms in the rural areas, the use of motkas, patis, handmade fans and jewllery are common. It is the urbanites who remain out of touch with this tradition.”

On the occasion of the 26th council, the NCCB is buckling up to turn Bangladeshi craft into a burgeoning business and it is the handloom industry that they are zooming in on. The fervour is for fibre and its traditional and also innovative use. “We have such a rich and wide craft sector that it is impossible to present an exclusive view of the whole. So we are concentrating on a major segment which is textile,” says Ghuznavi.

In fact, among the 300 members of NCCB, it has given floor to the ones who are exclusively working in the area of textile produced by indigenous means. The organisations like Aranya Craft Ltd., Probartona, Aarong, Kumudini and Tangail Sari Kutir have 20 years of history of working in the textile sector. They will be the main operators in this coming council. "All of these organisations have done some product development work,” observes Ghuznavi.

The Assembly is an event that will help inculcate in urbanites as well as a cross-section of people, the sense of reclamation of indigenous products. Jamdani, which is the product of pit-loom, ethnic weaving that uses waist-loom, and kantha, the hand-stitched exquisite usable and decorative quilt-- these are three items that would be brought into sharp focus.

The Rajendrapur Centre for Development of BRAC will host the main activities: seminars and the master craftspeople award ceremony. A showcase of exquisite jamdanis, jute apparels and other traditional clothes will be presented at the exhibition in the Bengal Gallery. The most important part of the show will be “the artisan at work” programme where three master craftspeople will demonstrate their skill of weaving. This show will be inaugurated by Begum Selima Rahman at 6 pm on 7th October.

Every year, to recognise the master craftspeople, there are five awards for different categories that the NCCB has been giving out. The most prestigious award is the “Shilu Abed Memorial award” in memory of Shilu Abed, the founder of Aarong, who died in 1997. The award money is a substantial Tk. 50,000. NCCB administers the process of selection and award giving.

This year, the five awards for the crafts persons will go to elder craftspeople. It is to recognise the people who have dedicated their life in making crafts but have never been recognised nationally. One of the nominees who will receive the award for his contribution to Jamdani, no longer weaves himself but has passed the tradition to his six sons. Rubi Ghuznavi believes that it is the continuity of craft that they wanted to recognise.

A Chakma artisan named Sharot Mala, the mother of well-known young painter Kanak Champa Chakma, has also been selected on the ground that she successfully handed down her craft to the next generation.

“The craft sector generates employment for such a large population that it is second to agriculture in its standing,” says Ghuznavi. Dr. Enamul Haque says, “Although use of crafts begun to dwindle after industrialisation it was always there in the rural areas of the country. And it was after independence that with the help of NGOs and other organisations, our craft made a comeback to grab the attention of the urbanites and the foreigners.” It is through the identification of new users that he believes that the craft market can be extended. Rubi Ghuznavi agrees with this strategy. “Following the trend would be disastrous for the future of craft. It is not what the buyers demand that we should produce, rather we should ask the researchers to find a market for what we produce best,” confirms Ghuznavi.

“We still lack a very serious effort, an organised effort in building up this export-trade based on crafts,” opines Haque. The government is paying some attention but Haque believes that it is not sufficient.

The government has been maintaining the Small College Industries Corporation for the last four decades, which promotes indigenous textiles. The design centre, BISIC has been there for many years. They promote indigenous designs and motifs. Under the leadership of Kamrul Hasan, the legendary artist, BISIC also promoted dolls and other crafts that had begun to disappear from our cultural landscape.

Treasuring a past tradition and finding a market for them are two different phenomena. The former has come into vogue in the last couple of decades, following the efforts by the government and non-government organisations. The later is the hardest part, as often these hand-made items are exorbitantly priced.

Finding a market would be to bring the prices down. At Aranya there are Jamdanis with which they try hard to limit the prices to keep it below Tk 7,000. “In the olden times, these saris were made for the wives of kings and Zamindars. Their prices were high as was the quality,” informs Ghuznavi, who also runs Aranya.

As for products selected for export, she believes that there must be effort in product development. “The skill and design should remain tradition bound, but the product can be new,” she says.

She confirms that Bangladesh has the experts, the researchers to envisage a future line of products that will not jeopardise the link with the traditional concept of craft. But promotion of usable items to cater to contemporary demands is one thing that she would like to see happen. “Crafts mean utility products,” she stresses, and she is also cautious about the effect on the local artisans when demands for newer designs pour in. “We received orders for saris, especially jamdanis, that the buyer wished to have in different designs, but recoiled from it as it may confuse the artisans,” says Ghuznavi who is for product development but against the depletion of the traditional designs and motifs.

The loss of tradition is feared by many. The business in craft is a trade that has a two-fold concern-- one is to revive and follow a tradition and the other is to build a market for them. Ghuznavi's contention is that if the scarf is an item that sells to contemporary buyers, than the kantha motifs can be used to embellish them. These are the changes she is willing to make in order to expand the market.

Regarding the market and the price of the products, Ghuznavi thinks the removal of the middle men will benefit the artisans.

In order to advance the craft sector, most of the people involved are in favour of developing finer quality raw materials. “The primary producers must be supported adequately. We must assure that they get adequate prices and incentives like technological support; access to locally produced colours, threads,” believes Enamul Haque.

hahid H Shamim, the director of Probartona and a vice-president of NCCB, sheds light on how some organisations have been working in the field of fabric development as well as making of indigenous colours. He says, “Jute has been the subject of research for a number of companies and organisations, they were Norad funded. Shonali Aash, Pubali Jute Mill, Shajon Bangladesh, Ishita, Concern and a few other organisations have been working together to develop jute textile.” Perhaps this is the kind of coordinated effort that Enamul Haque keeps referring to.

Jute-blended yarn is another genre that Probartona has been trying to develop. Shamim informs that the fabric they developed has a pet name: MistyWaters. The focus has been on home furnishing -- curtain, cushions and other accessories for home. The clothes have been developed by blending jute with cotton, silk and tashar. Probartona's focus is to project the goods for an upgraded market, so designing has been given a serious thought.

This time Shamim's target is to project these jute-blended fabrics to a wider market. The price would be lowered so that the fabrics that have as yet gained access to an exclusive foreign market would also be made available on local turf.

Probartona has been successful in creating a small market abroad, now they are targeting the local one. Aranya, too, has been exporting cotton-blended jute which is dyed with indigo, colours developed by MCC, an NGO. Aranya is selling them in both the forms -- as yardage and as apparels.

MCC has successfully cultivated indigo at Muktagacha, Mymensingh. On October 9 the organisers of the Assembly will take the delegates to the indigo centre at Muktagacha.

Shamim gives testimony to how effective the indigo from MCC is. “We used to develop our own indigo, now we are relying on MCC. After this development the import from India has decreased as MCC is providing us with excellent indigo,” he declares.

BJRI (Bangladesh Jute Research Institute), a research organisation of the government, once introduced a product named 'jutton', which was a hybrid fabric that blended jute with cotton. It was introduced in the late 70s, and it did not last long as the feel of the line of clothes that went under the same name was coarse. But Shamim attributes the failure of 'jutton' to the inability to sustain the market trend. He contends, “BJRI is a research organisation--it was not possible for them to look into the marketing side, which calls for a totally different expertise.”

Shamim is full of praise for BJRI, “They have done wonderful work, I have used yarns developed by them.” BJRI has done an astonishing amount of work in the area of research. It consists of other important sectors. The marketing sector is one of the most important.

Shamim recalls that even during the Pakistan era a certain jute-blended cloth was in use, and even saris had been made of jute. “We have tried to collect one of these to include in our showcase of saris from the past but we could not get one,” he informs.

Now that indigenous technology is being considered as an alternative to the modern version, jute is making a comeback. And Shamim along with others who have been working to develop jute-based fabrics is confident that in the market an interest has been generated for jute fabrics.

“Europe is the main market for these fabrics. Australia and Japan are also emerging as markets for our products,” says Shamim whose efforts have been to promote these newly developed fabrics.

As far as export is concerned, these fabrics are not enjoying any special treatment from the government. As export items, they are facing tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Shamim believes that these products must enjoy some specific incentives. “We are trying to elevate ourselves to the incentive stage,” declares Shamim. After 2005, the provision for this kind of incentive will cease. “Still, at this stage the exporters will immensely benefit from this kind of incentive that would cut down on the price,” confirms Shamim.

The Indian government has a well-designed policy to support their locally produced crafts and related industrial products. Jute is also their main concern. They have set a target and are plying along that line. In Bangladesh, too, a coordinated effort should be made to produce a market for indigenous fabrics and products both inside and outside the country.

There is no other option now for a country like Bangladesh than to rely on its indigenous technology and produce. Many Asian countries have resumed excavating their past to revive the lost indigenous knowledge. This revival is not to attain a sense of pride, but to bring forth a plethora of locally produced items that have the potential to add diversity to the world that is losing out to the surges of trends and the act of streamlining.

The indigenous dye, the fabric of golden fibre that once was a major export from Bangladesh, and the designers or craftspeople -- these are the ingredients that will alter our future. The more coordinated the efforts of the people or organisations that are active in all the stages-- from one who provide the raw materials and the people who will turn them into usable items (the craftspeople) and the ones who will be involved in marketing -- the rosier the future will become for craft of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a gold-mine of indigenous knowledge and the tradition of crafts go back a long way. If NCCB's assembly can instill this awareness among people, the cause for which they are working will receive a strong impetus. Yet, the most important act of bringing the producers, researchers, exporters and the government policymakers in line with the desired goals of NCCB rests on their shoulders. If they can successfully do this, craft as well as locally developed technology will enjoy a new lease on life.


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