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November 8, 2001 Student revives ancient textile arts in Bangladesh



CHT woman

CHT women

Young women of the Chittagong Hill Tracts model dresses made with textiles hand-woven in the traditional style.

by Barbara Black

Arshi Dewan is an MA student in art education who is already putting her studies to practical use. She is the convener of Rygula, a project to revive an ancient weaving industry in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

“It is not a commercial business, but it has the potential to evolve into a small industry in the future,” she said in a recent e-mail interview. “I am hopeful that it can become a great income-generating program for the weavers.”

For Dewan, the project was social intervention, part of her academic work as an artist and textile art historian. “I wanted to do a social experiment on how the local people perceived their own dress in relation to culture and identity.”

Cultural identity in a modern world

The people of the region have a rich textile tradition, but this is in danger of giving way to cheap modern clothing. Rygula’s explanatory brochure says, “With this collection, we hope to renew people’s interest in asserting their cultural identity through dress, and to inspire them to wear indigenous woven clothes in the public sphere.”

The project buys hand-woven textiles to encourage the existing weavers in the community, and also enables young people to learn these skills.

About 20 selected weavers participated in the project, women renowned for the quality of their work. The experienced weavers are paid according to the size and complexity of the order, and the younger weavers are encouraged to experiment with new designs.

Dewan concentrated on the women of Rangapani village, who, like her, are Chakma, one of the 11 peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

“They live close to each other, but there is no central place to meet, so it is not like a factory. They work around their own schedules and household responsibilities,” Dewan explained.

“Unfortunately, not many local women in the town wear the traditional dress anymore. Since Bangladesh is a conservative society, the other ethnic groups do not feel free to be themselves. The status of indigenous dress has declined over the years, and the women wear the Bengali dress (selwar kameez and saris).”

For Dewan, this is an opportunity to give something back to her own people. “I feel a strong sense of belonging, and I have a responsibility to restore the dying art of weaving and bring out the creative aspects of my culture.

“My purpose was to get ideas floating and explore the possibilities of these wonderful fabrics, so that they could create their own designs using these woven textiles. I wanted to incite the younger generation of women to value their own dress and preserve the knowledge of weaving.”

She has already had encouraging results. “The reaction from the public was amazing. They were inspired to see these original fabrics in a new light and appreciate all the creative possibilities.

“I would like to go back and continue this project so that it can have a long-term effect on the lives of the women who wear them and produce them.”

Expanding community project

Dewan has been back to the Chittagong Hill Tracts for two summers, developing the idea for her project. She tried to get funding from CIDA, the federal government development agency, but “at that time the feasibility of my project was not well developed, and my time frame was too limited to undertake such a big project.

“I was short-listed for that grant, so I shall try again, since I have more experience now. My fashion designer friend, Tenzing Chakma, and I were responsible for every single detail, and we put it all together from scratch in two months’ time. We initiated the project with our own funds, and collected donations from various local organizations.”

She also received $500 from the Rector’s Cabinet.

“My small project became a big community project, because many people lent their support and helped to realize it.”

Dewan is in her second year as a SIP (special individualized program) student, combining art history, studio art and art education, and writing her thesis on indigenous textiles in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

She will be one of the artists featured in the show Dust on the Road: Canadian Artists in Dialogue, presented by SAHMAT (the Safdar Hshmi Memorial Trust), a network of Indian artists, writers, filmmakers, performers and intellectuals who have been working in support of secularism and human rights since 1989. The show will be on view Nov. 10 to Dec. 15 in several venues: Dazibo, La Centrale/Gallerie Powerhouse, Oboro and Optica.