Photos: Darshan Chakma
During the British colonial rule in the 18th century, when Bengali muslin was traded throughout the world, Britain's own clothing manufacturers conspired against the Bengali weavers. They used to cut off their fingers of weavers and break their looms so that British-made cotton cloth from their mills would find a good market in India. William Bolts, a legendary merchant also noted in his book, 'Considerations on India Affairs', in 1772, that there were instances where 'thumbs were cut off' in order to stop the production of muslin.
History says that at the time, the weavers from Dhaka and Tangail escaped through the waterways and concealed themselves in different areas on the bank of Jamuna, for example—Belkuchi, Shahjadpur, Enayetpur of Sirajganj and Bera and Santhia of Pabna district. At one time, these absconded weavers started creating small weaving factories based on hand looms in different areas of Sirajganj. Gradually, these factories expanded, which resulted in today's massive handloom market-- 'Shahjadpur Taant Kaporer Hat', the biggest wholesale market of hand-loomed products in the country.
Presently, in Sirajganj, the areas noted for weaving industry are Shahjadpur, Ullapara, Chowhali (Enayetpur), Kazipur, Belkuchi and the Sadar upazila. The weavers are weaving clothes for example—sari (Banarasi, Jamdani, cotton Jamdani, cotton, silk, half silk, hand printed etc), three pieces, bed sheets, Lungi (traditional garment worn around the waist), Gamcha (a thin traditional cotton towel) and much more. The unique saris are sold in pairs in the local hat (bazaar) within a range of 1000 takas to 4000 takas per pair, depending on the quality. During the occasions, the Sirajganj weavers don't get any respite to talk to people, as occasions are the most hectic seasons of their business.
The sari designers are known as 'masters' and they create gorgeous designs both for the body and sidelines. After that, with the help of threads, dyes, machines and other necessary equipment, the weavers implement the intricate designs of their masters. The female members of the weaver families help their men with spinning threads with the wheels, or sometimes in weaving.
Sirajganj weavers are producing the lion's share of the total demand of the country. “Buyers from both home and abroad come here to buy our clothes”, says 60-year-old Rahim Bepari, owner of a small weaving factory of a village in Shahjadpur. “But we feel bad when we see that many wholesalers from different areas are using their seals in our clothes and diverting the customer's attention away from us”, he states.
Presently, the use of hand looms are being gradually replaced by the power looms, as hand loom process is regarded as a laborious and time consuming one. The amount of sales has fallen to a great extent as the power looms' clothes are more durable than the hand looms. Moreover, now-a-days, Indian saris and dresses have been flooding most of our markets both in urban and rural areas, and that is regarded as the main competitor of our local weavers. Another added burden is the substantial price hike of the weaving supplies.
“We work here from 6 am till 10 pm, take three hours to weave a sari and get 100 taka per sari as our wage”, says 28-year-old Samrat, a weaver from Shahjadpur. “But here, the main beneficiaries are the wholesalers as they get almost double the rate from the retailers”, he states.
The small amount of money that the weavers earn through weaving is the only source of their livelihood. Also a large share of this small earning is used for the schooling of their children. However, the weavers of Shahjadpur hope that if they get proper training for new and more attractive designs, soft loans with easy interest rate, more expanding export opportunity, uninterrupted electricity system and necessary government supports accordingly, this profession will be flourished more rapidly than ever, and the weavers will gain interest in this traditional job.