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Locked down but unlocked: How online retail may preserve Bangladesh’s Jamdani heritage craft

[By Rawshon Akhter and Mohammad Sahid Ullah]

Haji Razzaque, an artisanal broker of around 50 years, shares his struggles of selling the products from Bangladesh’s Jamdani weavers, purveyors of a largely female-driven craft. He speaks of how, as a young boy, he would spend three to four hours every Friday morning at the Jamdani haat (bazaar). Right after the traditional Muslim Fazar prayer, he would head to the marketplace where over 500 Jamdani weavers, brokers, and customers from different areas would gather, some 20 km from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Since the Corona lockdown, the attendance at the market has dwindled to barely half that number. Consequently, Haji too, has lost his earnings.

Tahura, a weaver of Jamdani sharees, has been forced to shut down her home-based handloom unit due to a significant decline in demand over the past six months. The sharee is among the most labour-intensive forms of handloom-weaving, practiced in this region for centuries, and constitutes part of Bangladesh’s rich textile heritage. UNESCO recognized Jamdani as an intangible cultural heritage in 2013.

Festivals like Pohela Boishak (Bengali New Year celebrated on April 14th), Eid (important Muslim religious festival), and Durga puja (a Hindu religious festival) are the key seasons for sales of these fabrics and garments in Bangladesh. Most middle-class women city dwellers dream of having a Jamdani sharee – as a festival gift. However, this year weavers and sellers missed these three festive events for the first time due to the Covid lockdown.

The latest Handloom Census 2018 (preliminary report) of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) estimates that weavers produce about 2,000 Jamdani sharees per week. Several villages on the eastern side of the river Shitalakkhya, including Noapara, Rupshi, Moikuli, Khadun, Pobonkul, Murgakul, and Borab in Rupganj under Narayanganj district are known as the hub of Jamdani weaving and supply to markets both at home and abroad.

Image credit: Armanaziz / Wikimedia

Though the Jamdani artisans are scattered in different places in the country and a small portion in West Bengal in India, most of them live in the Rupganj and Narayanganj regions, and nearly 15,000 people from 3,000 families are engaged in the trade. The price of sharees ranges between Tk 5,000 and Tk 40,000 (ca. 59-472 USD). Specially made sharees can cost as much as Tk 150,000 (ca. 1799 USD).

Bangladesh Handloom Board (2018) data shows that the industry has witnessed a drastic fall in recent years, and the number of handlooms has declined by about 45% in 15 years. The total number of workers also fell to 301,757 (133,444 male and 168,313 female workers) from 888,115 workers in 2003. In 1990, the number was over one million.

Faria Sharmin and Sharif Tousif Hossain (2020), scholars from Stamford University Bangladesh and Sonia Ashmore (2018), an expert in handloom weaving industry and author of ‘Muslin,’ have documented that there are around 500 master weavers actively involved in Jamdani production activities. These master weavers have 6,500 working looms in total and the same number of weavers working as labourers.

Both studies indicate that this craft is facing extinction. Many of the artisans are abandoning this profession due to numerous obstacles, including being paid barely minimum wages (usually less than Tk 500 – ca. 5.90 USD – for a Tk 2,000 sharee) despite the back-breaking labour of their unique craftsmanship. These weavers had no direct or limited contact with the customers because they often work as bonded labourers under the traditional Jamdani weaving system. Fashion designers also depended on mahajans or wholesalers to buy their products. The COVID-19 crisis has made matters worse.

Income loss to weavers, production, and drop in sales of garments and textiles due to the crisis have resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment among weavers. To keep sales alive, many of these small entrepreneurs and weavers have started to sell these products online. According to the Women and E-commerce Forum (WE), more than 500 women have started small and home-based entrepreneurial businesses selling sharees, and other Jamdani yarn made garments like fatua and Panjabi (for men), and kamij (for women)via online platforms.

WE insiders confirmed to us that during September and the first half of October, Jamdani items sold Tk 5 million (close to 60.000 USD) worth across the country through such platforms. WE started in 2018, and within two years, members and followers on Facebook have already reached around a million customers. WE founding member Kakloy Russell Talokder, now a moderator and owner of Kakoly’s Attire, an online fashion platform solely dedicated to selling Jamdani, admits that there has been a five to ten-fold increase in sales through WE. When we interviewed her she stated: “The main reason is that during COVID-19 middle-class people started to depend on local Bangladeshi products through online sales”.

Image credit: Kamrul.vb / Wikimedia

Although artisans and their agents (buyers) missed the sales events for the first time in Bangladesh history due to the pandemic, Ms. Talukder says:   

“Online sales of Jamdani have soared recently, creating a new window of opportunities for the traders. […] Jamdani weavers have got a new life in recent years as entrepreneurs who sell Jamdani online. It helped them survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The boost received from online sales has helped revive Jamdani sales and the production as well. Mr. Kamal Hossain, the owner of a Dhakaiaa Jamdani, Lalkhanbazar, Chottogram branch, explained to us that online sales have increased recently. His centre sells around 20-30 sharees every week – in contrast to only 5-10 until last September. Earlier, he sourced the Jamdani collection through brokers from Rupganj but now he purchases these goods directly from handloom owners.

Kakoly Russell Talokder points out that online sales can be an excellent tool for promoting Jamdani, adding that Facebook plays a significant role here as about 33 million Facebook users exist in Bangladesh. She notes that there is very little information on the craft online, and as more and more individuals and organizations talk about Jamdani in these online forums, the more it will spread. According to her, the Jamdani sharee is not adequately promoted in the global market. There are over 30 million Bangla speaking people living overseas. “We could not reach our cultural treasure to them,” she laments.

However, the Textile Today (2017) reports that the demand for quality Jamdani Sarees has increased exponentially over the years, at home and abroad, particularly across the Bangladeshi diaspora in the West. Bangladesh received the Geographical Indication (GI) status for the Jamdani sharee in 2016, defined by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) as:     

“indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.”

Many entrepreneurs (WE members) hint that these recognitions will lead to further direct investment in production alongside ecommerce, creating a new turn in Jamdani waving. Adding to this, Ms. Talokder believes that “many people are used to the comfort and benefit of ordering online. This trend will continue and even expand in parts of Bangladesh. Thus, women, weavers do not need to be worried about their low pay.”

Haji Razzaque is also hopeful that increasing demand through sales can boost weavers’ income. However, Tahura, who was trained in Jamdani weaving by her father at a young age, does not want to engage her 12-year daughter in this hard, low-paid work. She doubts that increased online sales may be sufficient to motivate weavers to stick with the craft.

However, if the numbers cited by WE are any indication, coupled with the push for more online engagement among Handloom owners and retailers, there is a glimmer of hope that these new digital forums can help sustain this craft and possibly encourage young people from weaving families to preserve their heritage. It remains to be seen whether the interest and momentum to go online, provided by the COVID-19 crisis, will be sustained in the long term.