How a man is trying to revive Bengal Muslin
Indian muslin bears a long and illustrious history with the erstwhile undivided Bengal at the focal point of it. Muslin – originally an inordinately desirable symbol of wealth and luxury – was handwoven in ancient India from extraordinarily delicate handspun yarn produced from a cotton plant that grew extensively along the banks of the Brahmaputra. Owing to the exclusive availability of the raw material around the Brahmaputra belt, Bengal and especially Dhaka became the geographical centre of this flourishing industry and the associated colony of skilled artisans specialising in the intricate spinning and weaving of muslin.
Such was its allure and quality, that with burgeoning trade with ancient Rome, Bengal muslin achieved the acknowledged status of an art. Interestingly, it is believed that during this period the name “muslin” was designated to the fabric in correspondence with the ancient East Indian port-town of “Maisolos” or Masulipatnam where the Greek and Roman merchants thronged in search of the valued fabric. The highly coveted fabric bore the fanciful epithet of the ‘textalis-ventalis’ or ‘woven air’ in the Western world and it was this textile export that brought Bengal to the forefront of the contemporary world map. However, with the arrival of the East India Company, the muslin industry suffered gravely under the onslaught of imperial suppression. Fearing unbeatable competition from Bengal muslins with regards to their own machine-manufactured textiles, the British employed a ruthless governmental policy where they took recourse to rounding up local weavers and cutting off their thumbs to systematically eradicate a thriving source of trade and income.
ON A SAREE TRAIL: TALE OF A BALUCHARI
In recent times, there have been numerous attempts in both Bangladesh and West Bengal to revive the muslin industry and give appropriate credit to the artisans involved with governmental aid. However, one man hailing from a little village in Bangladesh has now re-posited the Bengali heritage of textile-weaving in Milan – one of the slickest metropolises in Europe –to universal acclaim. Shafiqul Kabir Chandan, the man in question, is an artist by profession, but in his own words he explains that the pictures he paints with cotton and thread are no less artistic than the ones put together on the surface of a flat canvas. His pieces of textile refashioning can almost be dubbed sculptures when we see them hanging from walls, ceilings and even standing as three-dimensional creations. Designed with multiple media usage such as the traditional hemp, cotton (muslin), silk and wool, and the more dramatic nylon, bamboo, rubber, metal, plastic and newspaper, his work challenges the conventional sites of creating art, thereby veering toward formless and thought-provoking allegories which withstand numerous interpretations. What is more significant in connection to the artist specifically is the overriding nostalgia for his childhood spent amidst the greenery of Bangladesh which infuses his creations with a living dynamism. Each piece, therefore, loquaciously speaks of Bengal’s heritage and the creator’s intractable connection to his birthplace, as does Shafiqul’s own deeply introspective and wrenchingly honest writing.
Shafiqul’s weaving is a profoundly intimate exercise of documenting a metaphorical shift of an artist’s mental scape from the country of his origin to that of his adoption. By going beyond stereotypical forms of expression, he has stumbled upon a microcosm of life itself in his craft. In the taut warp and weft of the weave, he sees the myriad entanglements that constitute his own life which, in turn, inspire him to engender fresh and unique designs. The entwinements of the thread almost represent the endless navigation of our interpersonal relationships and the knots on the woven sculptures seem to become analogous to the ever-present tensions of human existence. In this manner, transcending its spatial specificity, the spirit of each piece captures a philosophy beyond the limits of contemporary art.
Indeed, it is heartening to witness Shafiqul’s rejuvenation of the lost artistry of handwoven muslin and other fabrics in a manner which is intensely personal and yet undeniably universal. His body of work whilst restoring the former glory of Bengal’s textile industry also introduces the unique stories of Bengal in compelling textures of colours, patterns and strings on an international platform.