Continuing with an ancient tradition

Alliance for Artisan Enterprise tells us hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world, largely women, participate in the artisan sector, and their livelihood depends on income earned from their artisan activities.  This is particularly true in Bangladesh where I have seen teams of women hand-blocking designs onto fabric with hand-carved blocks dipped in natural dyes, the embroidering and decoration of delicate sarees by hand, painstakingly beautifying clothes one stitch at a time. But it does not end there. I was first introduced to a centuries old Bengali art tradition called Nakshi Kantha through friends Cathy Stevulak and Len Hill.  Cathy and Len spent two years living and working here in Dhaka and during their time here, met up with a wonderful lady by the name of Surayia. Surayia is self-trained in Nakshi Kantha, an artist who has guided hundreds of underprivileged women in Bangladesh to create masterpieces in the Nakshi Kantha tradition through what is now the Arshi Program.  Her life story was so compelling, Cathy and Len along with a team of film makers, decided to make a documentary called Threads to tell her story.  They are in the final stages of making the documentary and will have a showing in Vancouver, BC on September 25.  Check out Maiwa’s website for details, the tickets go on sale today (June 23).  It will be shown in Bangladesh sometime in November / December of this year.  More on the documentary in a later post. So what is Nakshi Kantha you might ask?  As mentioned it’s a Bengali art tradition where colourful patterns and designs based on the day to day life in a traditional village, are embroidered using threads of various colours onto old cloth.  The word “Nakshi” refers to artistic patterns and the word “Kantha” refers to the embroidery. The early kanthas had a white background accented with red, blue and black embroidery; later yellow, green, pink and other colours were also included. The running stitch called “kantha stitch” is the main stitch used on these wonderful pieces of art. Traditionally, kantha was produced for the use of the family in specific areas of Bangladesh, including the Mymensingh District where I spent the week visiting BRAC Microfinance Program in the surrounding villages a few weeks back.  Surayia re-imagined traditional Nakshi Kantha in a new way, not necessarily for domestic use (coverings for the floor or bed) but rather as a refined art form to hang on the wall.   Her new form became known as kantha tapestry. Thanks to Surayia and her teaching of this re-imagined traditional art-form over the past few decades, kantha tapestries continue to be produced today through the Arshi Program.  The artisans of Arshi primarily work from their homes in the villages and in the city of Dhaka, producing exquisite kantha tapestries based on Surayia’s designs.  They send their completed work to the Salesian Nuns in Dhaka who then sell them to the public. As Surayia aged and could no longer draw or manage the teaching of hundreds of women, she passed her kantha tapestry designs for safe keeping to a group of Salesian Nuns here in Dhaka.  These nuns run a fine embroidery program out of their convent in Monipuripara, Tejgaon – a district in Dhaka City, teaching young ladies fine embroidery who primarily copy designs of flowers, birds, icons, etc. These are also sold to the public by the Salesian Nuns. So basically, the Salesian Nuns are key to the sale of the exquisite tapestries based on Surayia’s kantha tapestry designs from the Arshi Program, Surayia’s own wonderful work as well as the fine embroidery pieces by the young ladies the nuns train themselves. I had to visit the Salesian Nuns to check out Surayia’s work, I could not leave Dhaka without doing so.  And what a treat it was!!   I am no expert on such fine work but I know quality work when I see it.  I met with Sister Elizabeth and Sister Claudette, who brought me upstairs to the room where the young ladies work.

Sister Elizabeth, laying out some of Surayia's exquisite tapestries

Sister Elizabeth, born in Bangladesh laying out some of Surayia’s exquisite kantha tapestries

Sister Claudette, originally from France and who teaches the young ladies in fine embroidery

Sister Claudette, originally from France and who teaches the young ladies in fine embroidery

The detail on one of Surayia's designs - it can take months and months to complete given the level of detail to the design.

The detail on one of Surayia’s kantha tapestry designs – it can take months and months to complete given the level of detail to the design.

I could not resist, I ended up buying one of Surayia's tapestries depicting life in a village ... where daily life as far as I could see, has not changed much over the years.

I could not resist, I ended up buying one of Surayia’s kantha tapestries depicting life in a village … where daily life as far as I could see, has not changed much over the years.  Sister Elizabeth is carefully packing my purchase.  I forgot to take a photo of my tapestry and now it is en route back to Bowen Island.  Sorry about that.

I now join the ranks of many collectors from all over the world and dignitaries including HRM Queen Elizabeth, in owning Surayia’s work.  I am surely privileged.  To see more of Surayia’s work, click here.  Keep hitting Next to see them all, you will not be disappointed. And here are a few shots of the young ladies who are being trained in fine embroidery by the Salesian Nuns in Dhaka.

Two complete beginners, starting out on plain cloth and getting some practice in.

Two complete beginners, starting out on plain cloth and getting some practice in.

The young lady on the left is from Jamipur, one of the villages I visited in the Mymensingh District.  What a coincidence!

Two young ladies working on a fine embroidery piece together.  The giggling was infectious!

Two young ladies working on a fine embroidery piece together. The giggling was infectious!

This is a young mum concentrating hard on the intricate design.

This is a young mum concentrating hard on the intricate design.

It was a wonderful visit with the Salesian Nuns, they are just adorable (I don’t say that very often, but they were!).  If you are ever ever in Dhaka, then make sure you visit them and to view this incredible work with your own eyes. Call Sister Elizabeth on her cell to tell her you are coming & to get directions 0171-302-0125.  The address is 105/1A Monipuripara, Tejgaon Dhaka 1215. A note of thanks to Cathy Stevulak for providing me with the facts around this story, and for introducing me to Surayia and her work in the first place.  Thank you.

About Kate Coffey

After 25+ years in the investment management industry, I packed in my job and spent 2014 living and working in Nepal and Bangladesh, and visited some other places in between. It took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and it's people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Sanga foothills. Since 2014, I have continued my warm relationship with SIRC and worked closely with my friends there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes to date. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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5 Responses to Continuing with an ancient tradition

  1. Grace coffey says:

    Amazing work by these young ladies with huge inspiration from a wonderful artist. The Salesian nuns are special caretakers of such precious work – looking forward to seeing your masterpiece – thanks for sharing this experience with us!!

  2. Beverley says:

    Kate, I am so glad that you were able to see some of Surayia’s tapestries & to purchase one for your home art collection. Cathy & Len will be thrilled to know that you made the effort to meet Sister Elizabeth & Sister Claudette before you are to leave Dhaka. How fascinating it is to hear what goes on behind the scenes to help preserve such amazing artisan works. Cathy & Len have done extraordinary work to create the documentary “Threads”, which will be an invaluable record to tell Surayia’s story & what she has done to help so many impoverished women become more self-sufficient. I am looking forward to attending Cathy’s presentation of “Threads” at Maiwa on Granville Island Sept. 25th. – Safe travels, Beverleyxo

    • Kate Coffey says:

      It was a really great visit. Again I was inspired by the women of Bangladesh, they put us western women to shame with their optimism despite their circumstances. I’ll be sorry to miss the showing!

  3. Pingback: It’s time to leave South East Asia | Bowen to Bangladesh

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