The Bangladeshi connection to muslin Jamdani
Saiful Islam has done amazing things with, and for, muslin jamdani from Bangladesh. He has written a book, made a documentary, put together an exhibition, and nurtured weavers in Bangladesh who make exquisite muslin jamdani.
Saif runs the acclaimed media company, Drik. Based in London and Bangladesh, he travels the world for the cause of his beloved muslin. With grace and wit, Saif spoke to me from Bangladesh about the history of the jamdani and the legend on the “missing thumbs” of the weavers.
Listen to the interview on Project Loom’s Soundcloud account below
‘The cloth is like the light vapours of dawn’, Yuan Chwang [Chinese traveller visiting India, 629—645 CE]
Below is an excerpt from the book, Muslin: our story.
Muslin – what magic does the name hold? What mystery lies behind the filaments of this fabric? Who wove it? Who wore it? To look upon it today is to look upon a discarded rag, off white, slightly awry, studded with floral patterns in many cases, plain or at best a golden edging. Did the ‘fool and his lady fair’ fall for the hallucinatory spin of the wooden wheel, the monotonous shuttle of the hand loom or get swept off their feet in a medieval designer’s hysteria? Was this the start of the ‘wannabe’ culture that continues with the Diors of today?
Clothing in some form, texture and pattern has been with us for centuries. Textiles have been spun, embroidered, shaped and draped across the shoulders of common people and royalty in every culture. We all know that more intricate designs have been printed or spun into the body of a cloth, grander tapestries have hung, richer silk has been spun. After all, muslin was simply cotton, fine and fragile which most Mughals discarded after a day’s wear, diaphanous and see through (the Emperor Aurangzeb chiding his daughter for wearing see through, while she actually wore seven layers), providing neither strong shelter from the weather nor an effective barrier to unwanted gazes. Tedious to make and almost impossible to hold, a full dress was beyond a measurable weight, the final product rare and only fit for supreme leisure and little else.
Perhaps herein lies its allure, the arachnidan pattern, the interwoven threads providing little else but an illusion of protection, a feeling against the skin, the perpetual caress of cloth, like ‘a second skin, the skin of the moon’ said the Farsi poet…its reality was an illusion in texture.
While wearing jamdani (translated as flowers in a container), the master weaver’s goal was to ensure that the flora would appear to float, to trick the eye into beholding a design held across the body by the beauty of its wearer and subsume the skill of its maker, to carry the beloved garden of the Mughals around oneself like a scent without a source, for the audience to discover a third dimension before 3D was officially discovered.
Was this the unheralded bearer of female emancipation, daring that courtly gossip be fuelled while the power and the glory remained on her side? To hold it, gaze upon it, is to be transported into a timeless past, where the sheen of antiquity on the soft cloth is heightened by a luminescent after-glow. Lighter than a lover’s sigh, softer than a butterfly’s wings, in its transparent simplicity lay its subtle pull upon the imagination of poets and the pockets of those who could afford it.
If the threads could speak, would they reveal to us more than we care to know. Would we feel guilty that the cloth which had protected us from the elements was not itself protected from the elements in the end? How many wars did it provoke? How many deaths did it determine? How many poems did it ink? How many loves did it inspire? What was the weight of the greed that it added to the misery of its makers?
We can only conjecture in the back of our minds and imagine the early morning whirring of the spindle, the late night slide of the shuttle, the dip of the needle, gaze through its transparency … and wonder at the wonder of it all.
Saiful Islam is CEO of Drik, a Bangladeshi multimedia company that challenges social inequality. Muslin. Our Story is available on Amazon (or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get your copy shipped out at USD $60.00 plus shipping). See also bengalmuslin.com.