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[DHAKA] When Shahidul Alam set out to revive the lost art of weaving Dhaka muslin — the diaphanous, cotton cloth long coveted by royalty from China to Europe — he never stopped to think of the arduousness of the task he had set for himself.

Muslin, once weighed against gold in the markets of Western Europe, was a casualty of British colonialism and the industrial revolution  — twin processes which reduced the Indian sub-continent into a supplier of raw material and a captive market for manufactures.

Not only had the art of spinning and weaving died out but also Gossypium arboreum, the species of short-fibre cotton plant from which muslin was made. Alam then turned to the research capabilities of DRIK, the institution he had built up after returning to Dhaka from years spent teaching chemistry in London.

Alam travelled to museums in Europe, Asia and North America searching for samples of the finest muslin that left the shores of Dhaka centuries ago. “Most of the history of muslin was written by foreigners and I wanted to tell our own version of how muslin became extinct, through investigative research.”

Muslin, locally called ‘khas malmal’, needed not only the right fibre but also the sharp eyes and nimble fingers of young girls between 18—30. “More or less, every village near Dhaka city was famous for weaving at that time, but Sonargaon, Dhamrai, Titabaddi, Junglebari, and Bajitpur were especially famous for the near transparent muslin,” says DRIK research leader Saiful Islam. Political upheavals and demographic shifts of people, castes and communities shattered the unbroken lineage of craftspeople involved in producing muslin. “Haji Kafiluddin, who died five years ago, was the last recognised master. Today, there are many excellent craftspeople, but few schooled by the masters,” Islam says.

With the plant and the weaving technique extinct, what is being produced today is a coarser version called 'jamdani'. Even so  jamdani is recognised by UNESCO as a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'.

The best time to spin the cotton yarn was in the early hours of the day or late afternoon, when the humidity and temperatures were just right, says Islam. Muslin had to be tough yet soft and fine and this called for measured application of pressure at the right points during the spinning process.  

The plant that produced the finest qualities of muslin cotton, locally called 'phuti karpas', grew by the banks of the Meghna river and become extinct 160 years ago. So DRIK research focused on getting to the seeds of the nearest varieties, wherever available.

The efforts are paying off. “We have knowledge gleaned from researching the plant and that includes studies carried out during the British colonial era to understand the ideal growing conditions. We resorted to DNA fingerprinting and matching trials with seeds imported from global research centres and expect very positive results,” says Islam.

“We have a unique craft, with a large cultural and economic value. Reviving the cotton species and redeveloping  the spinning and weaving processes calls for knowledge, cultural investment, research and government support,” Islam says.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South Asia desk.

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