Like all other traditional crafts, the quilting tradition in Bangladesh is deeply rooted in the culture. Almost every Bangladeshi owns a quilt of her or his own. It is a living companion and never loses its life. It is used on a daily basis and becomes frail as the time passes, gets torn, falls apart and then is recycled and repaired with portions of old soft sharees that are patched through quilting. The quilt a Bangladeshi owns carries memories of life and the history of the family. It starts when a child is born. When a woman is pregnant, her mother and mother-in- law start quilting using old, torn and frail sharees. On the occasion of the birth of new borne, the smaller size quilts are presented to keep the child dry and happy with the soft touch of love and care that the absorbent cloth offers. Old sharees, old clothes and months of quilting by close kin – all are about the memories and touch of love and affection that a person warms up with the quilt.

_MG_7166Quilting is a centuries-old craft tradition in Bangladesh. It is inherent in the lives of Bangladeshi women – in the rural areas, women in almost every household know the technique of basic quilting. Traditionally old sharees, lungies and dhoties are used to make a quilt. In the past, even the threads were collected from the old sharees. Usually it takes three to six months to finish a quilt. It can even take more than a year for a finished quilt depending on the nature of design and motifs. The Bengal tradition of quilting is unique for varieties of expressions, distinct skills and techniques, patterns and designs. The artistic expressions in the quilt are always about the happiness of artisans’ lives and livelihoods and also about the sorrows and pains that they experience. The original work of Bengal quilting is so intriguing and passionate that it can be quite astonishing for an outsider to imagine how a woman can work with such intensity using needles and threads for months. It becomes possible as for the woman it is about searching inner souls and finding one’s own existence within the universe through quilting. Every single stitch to her is sadhona or zikr or meditation to relate herself with the universe, the existence of God or Allah and the journey to purify her soul.

Quilting in Bangladesh is influenced by “sufism[2]. Historically in Bangladesh and many parts of India, the spread of Islam happened through the peer and aulias (sufis), who did not use the sword to reign, rather used spiritual ways of describing “oneness” of God that all the creations in this universe are important

and God is everywhere and every human being is equal irrespective of class, caste and other identities. They led a very simple life and preached focus on sovereignty and accessibility of God. They preached leading a simple life, finding God and reaching to God through sadhona or meditation. Before reaching Bengal, the sufis had interactions with the Yogis and other tantric practitioners[3] in North India and were influenced by “mysticism”. What sufis preached in Bengal was an integration of Islamic sufism, Buddhist Tantric cosmology of human body and Nath-Vaisnab-Sahajiya practices. The sufism then continued to influence Bengal tradition and culture – the influence is strongly felt in the folk music known as the murshidi, marfati and baul songs, and gazir gan. A great example of this is Fakir Lalon Shah, who in his songs have asked the basic questions around who God is, what the human being is and ‘who I am’ in this discourse. He and his baul followers are exploring sohoj manus (simple human) and ochin pakhi (unknown bird) which are hidden within the human body. The bauls attempts to find the God within, which has similarity with the sufis approach to connect with the Almighty. The influence of baul music, the other forms of music and sufism in Bengal culture is deeply entrenched and has influenced all traditional culture, folk art and even craft work such as quilting.

These days the spiritual roots of the Bengal quilting tradition are hard to find. The notion of quilting with the spirit of sufism is disappeared. The simple running kheta[4] stitch is being used to cater the urban demand of products like wall hanging and dress materials. In many cases, production centres have been set to use tracing paper for multiplication of old designs to meet the market demand. What was previously artisan’s creativity with minds and hands and heart and soul and a journey to search for ochin pakhi, has now become a single layer of cloth with a simple running stitch. The use of coloured threads and embroidery patterns influenced by urban market have replaced the robust work in jameen or ground of a quilt, which transforms layers of clothes into dheu or wave and creates the ripple effect that one can only feel by touching. This technique of Bengal quilting is known as lohari, derived from a Persian word lehr, which means dheu or wave,is almost lost. Ironically, the lohari quilting is displayed in the section dedicated for traditional quilt work in Dhaka Museum. The section is stunningly rich with various lohari techniques of soja (straight or simple), kautar khupi (pigeon coop or triangle), borfi (ice cube), charchala, atchala and barachala (diamond shapes), moyurer pekhom (peacock’s feathers) and many others. Historically, the Northwest region of Bangladesh is famous for lohari kheta. There is also a distinct difference in the khetas that women produce for themselves and that they supply to the market. What they produce for themselves is still robust and artistic and what they produce for market is more of a “mass” product without the reflection of individuality and spirituality.

The Living Blue, the brand of Nijera Cottage and Village Industries (NCVI), a workers and artisans owned social enterprise in collaboration with CARE Bangladesh, has been able to revive the lohari quilting technique with the introduction of kheta quilts. The distinct feature of these khetas is the texture, known as dheu, that has virtually disappeared from both sides of Bengal. The dheu, or the wave, creates a ripple effect, which comes into being by using increased layers of khadi fabric and the application of the jod and bejod kheta stitches, thereby creating the unique, undulated surface texture that brings to mind flowing water. Each Living Blue kheta celebrates the sufism which brings eyes, hands, heart and soul of the artisan together and the engagement over a period of three to six months. These khetas characterize regional specialties belonging to communities from Dinajpur, Gaibanda, Lalmonirhat and Rangpur districts of the Northwest of Bangladesh.

To revive the lohari tradition in quilting for NCVI has followed a unique approach, where much of the focus has been put on the product development. First an exploration was conducted in four villages of Dinajpur, Gaibanda, Lalmonirhat and Rangpur districts to identify what traditions, designs, motifs and techniques are still used in the region. During the exploration, efforts had been given to identify what artisans produce for themselves and what they produce to sell. It came out quite explicitly that even within the Northwest there are regional differences in terms of quilting techniques, use of designs, motifs and colours. The tradition of lohari technique was visible in old khetas that were still preserved by the women. Then artisans were asked to produce quilts using their own techniques, skills, designs and motifs. Secondly a workshop was organized in Rangpur where selected quilt artisans from all the four districts came together to see each others’ work. This gave an opportunity for the artisans to learn regional specialties and differences. More importantly, this created an opportunity for the artisans to think outside the box created by the market. NCVI also took the opportunity to collect major designs, motifs and techniques that are available in the region.

Secondly, a learning visit to Dhaka Museum was organized with selected artisans from all the districts, for most of them it was the first trip to Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. The curator of quilt section of Dhaka Museum introduced the artisan team to the collection. All the artisans were curious and excited to see variety of techniques, designs, motifs and patterns. The team realized that much of the great skills and techniques are already extinct. A number of artisans remembered their grandmothers still using these techniques. It was a fascinating experience for them to see their existing techniques, motifs and patterns exist in the collection. They quickly realized their work is a part of Bengal craft tradition and they are a part of it. The artisans were amazed to see the rich collection of various lohari quilting work. The trip really assisted NCVI to change the mindset of the artisans. They became more confident about their work and also showed more enthusiasm.

Thirdly, a number of master artisans were selected from all locations. They were asked to reproduce some of the techniques, designs and motifs that they liked in the museum focusing on the lohari technique of ground work. They were not given any pre-designed work, but were asked to do what they already learnt from their older generation and what they wanted to produce from themselves. After four months, scintillating quilts with lohari techniques came to NCVI with distinct features and artisans and their individuality and craftsmanship in quilting came back.

At present, the Living Blue has a number of collections of lohari kheta:

White on White kheta

_MG_6189For this collection, layers of white khadi are used. Artisans use white threads and do the quilting in such a way that different textures emerge from the ground. In a quick look, one can see it as a white quilt however however when touching it, the ripple effect is apparent. Then when one looks it carefully s/he discovers the beautiful ground work with subtle motifs. The collection is considered as particularly special as it contains the highest expression of lohari kheta.

The Kheta-kume

The ‘kheta-kume’ range represents the fusion of the Bengali and Japanese cultures through experimentation, exploration, and innovation with two different techniques: the dheu kheta and nui shibori. The nui shibori, or stitched shibori also visually creates waves or ripples on the fabric. By applying threads once again through the dheu kheta technique, the quilt becomes three-dimensional and tactile in nature.

_MG_6428The best examples of this syncretism are the experiments that bring together the arashi shibori and dheu kheta techniques. The stripes rendered through the use of the arashi shibori represent intersecting linear patterns ‘of color in the sky through the interplay of wind and rain following a storm’. A similar interplay takes place when the ‘dheu’ quilting superimposes on the arashi pin stripes with use of similar or different colored quilting threads.

The Living Blue also has beautiful collection of stoles and shawls, where the fusion of shibori and quilting takes place using layers of silk fabrics produced in Rajshahi region of Bangladesh. These materials have been used for texture and their ability to take on the indigo dye.

The collection of lohari kheta by Living Blue have already attracted quilt lovers of all over the world. NCVI recently shared the collection in Santa Fe Folk Art Market in New Mexico and Green Show Room in Berlin, where it received tremendous appreciation. Partners of NCVI are displaying the Living Blue kheta work in Canada, Japan, India, France, Germany, Australia, England, Switzerland, USA and India. The responses from the quilt lovers are very encouraging and are inspiring more artisans to join. Presently more than 300 artisans are involved in quilting work of NCVI and the artisans’ number is expected to be doubled in next couple of years.

The strength of Living Blue collections is the honesty and authenticity of true Bengal craftwork. The collections consciously draw on the rich cultural and spiritual traditions of the land and people who create them. Living Blue provides the opportunity to preserve and extend these skills for the benefit of the community using them as a means to a sustainable livelihood, but also the chance to keep these rich traditions alive, to allow them to evolve and stay relevant – a contribution to maintaining the rich
variety of expression and contributing to our shared human language of arts and crafts.

References


Footnotes

1 Anowarul Haq is the Director of Extreme Rural Poverty Program of CARE Bangladesh and is associated with the Nijera Cottage and Village Industries (NCVI) since it’s inception.

2 The word Sufi is derived from the Arabic word ‘safa’ meaning purity. Sufism worked for purification of the human soul (nafs) by cleansing the spiritual heart (qalb) to give it a mirror-like transparency for the reflection of Almighty’s love (Ishq). As one of the mystic corollaries of Islam, Sufism helped illuminate the spirit (ruh) by emptying it of egoist drives and filling it with Allah’s attributes (Zekr), and also to complete the  journey of life with absolute purification. The ideal of Sufism, attaining the love of God through love of His creation, no matter how small it is. The purpose of Sufism is to purify the soul through full-time remembrance of Allah.

The influence of Sufism in the inherent stitching skills of Bangladeshi women was first discussed with Professor Nisar Hossain of Institute of Fine Arts of Dhaka University in an informal discussion. He referred the emergence of Readymade Garments in Bangladesh and how migrated rural women are quickly learning the skills and contributing to the growth of the sector. The discussion was very thought provoking.

3 Tanvir Mokammel, “The Influence of Sufism in Lalon Fakir”

4 The word kheta is intentionally used for the quilt although kantha is more popularly known in the literature on quilting to refer Bengal quilting work. Interestingly in the rural areas kheta is used for quilt, which may derive from the word khet or field. The word kantha may derive from kotha or tale that the quilt portrays a story. Village people usually use the word kheta and the kantha is more widely used by the urban population.

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