Diplomatic Pouch / October 22, 2015
By Larry Luxner
On Oct. 15, about 100 people including Dan Mozena, the former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, and several ex-Bangladeshi envoys to the United States converged on the Textile Museum at George Washington University to watch the screening of a new documentary about a self-trained maker of embroidered quilts named Surayia Rahman.
”Threads” tells how this woman from humble origins turned an ancient, forgotten art form known as kantha into a thriving craft that today provides a living for between 35,000 and 50,000 women throughout Bangladesh.
“Our country enjoys a long and rich history of textiles unique only to Bangladesh and the Bengal region of South Asia,” said Mohammad Ziauddin, who replaced Akramul Qader last year as Dhaka’s ambassador to the United States.
Surayia, the youngest of seven children, was born in the early 1930s in British India. She was fascinated by books but had less than a year of formal schooling.
“Growing up, Surayia learned to love Bengali culture, history and poetry,” Ziauddin explained. “As a child, she was extremely sensitive, and her impressions were deep and were reflected in her sketches. Her ambition was to study in college, but it was not to be, as she was married off in her tender years. But it did not detract her from the technique of drawing and painting, where she found solace from the vagaries of life.”
Eventually, he said, “these creations also became a source of income and support for her family. They were known to the world even before the birth of Bangladesh.”
In 1983, one of her panels was presented as a gift to Queen Elizabeth II. Today, Surayia’s tapestries can be found at Toronto’s Texile Museum, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and the Museum of Asian Art in Fukuoka, Japan.
“This film is a story about how Surayia discovered her destiny as a teacher and benefactor of women,” said Ziauddin. “Most of the women she worked with were poor. Surayia gave them jobs and helped them educate their children.”
“Threads” was directed by Cathy Stevulak, a Canadian filmmaker who lived in Bangladesh from 2001 to 2003 while working for the United Nations Development Program as a senior advisor. She produced the documentary along with Catherine Masud, who lives in Dhaka, and Leonard Hill, a former U.S. diplomat who was posted to Bangladesh when he first met Surayia and became fascinated by her art.
In the movie, Surayia explains how she would often travel with her father, a civil servant for the British Raj administration in pre-independence India.
“I used to sketch on my father’s laundered white clothes. He would buy me a paint box each month for one rupee, 11 annas,” recalled Surayia, who taught herself English while still in grade school. But at 17, she was married off, and moved with her new husband from India to East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh.
“When I first came from Calcutta, I thought that I would run away. But then my daughter Annie was born, and she made me very happy,” said the artist, who made tapestries of everything she saw around her — weddings, rice harvests, village festivals and even courtroom scenes. Some of her creations took two years to stitch.
Surayia spent 18 years working as a staff artist at the nonprofit Women’s Voluntary Association in Dhaka, adapting common Bangladeshi folk designs to wall scrolls, greeting cards, writing pads and wooden dolls. In her spare time, she’d make oil paintings, eventually experimenting with painting on silk cloth. In 1980, Pope John Paul II awarded her a medal after receiving her gift: a painting titled “The Family is the Center of Life.”
Eventually, the Canadian High Commission in Dhaka granted $15,000 for a six-month pilot project that in March 1982 became the Skill Development Project for Underprivileged Women.
“We had Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian women all working together,” said Surayia, who along with Maureen Berlin helped employ more than 200 destitute women. “Maureen was the project director, and I was the project designer. I made whatever I saw in my childhood: Hindus selling pottery, Muslims selling cakes.”
Within four years, however, she and the project director had a falling-out over how her designs were being used. Surayia was dismissed, and the organization registered her designs with the Bangladesh Copyright Office. The case dragged on for years, but she eventually lost. That led her to start her own organization, Arshi, which attracted hundreds of women from villages and cities near and far.
Now in her late 70s, Surayia no longer makes kantha. After more than a quarter-century of creating art with needle and thread, she recently turned over her designs to the Silesian Center, which runs an orphanage in Dhaka for impoverished boys and girls.
Stevulak, the director of “Threads,” said the point of her documentary is to highlight the empowerment of women in general.
“The reason we made this film was not just to talk about one group of women in Bangladesh, but to honor the work that has been done over time by an artist who gave up her life’s ambition of painting to help others,” Stevulak told her GWU audience. “We can each make a difference by buying the work of artisans. We’re hoping this film can spread the message of art as an enterprise. It is the second leading employer in the developing world after agriculture, and yet it is rarely talked about.”
For more information about Surayia Rahman and the “Threads” movie project, write to Kantha Productions LLC at PO Box 143, Lakebay, WA 98349-0143.