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Crafts in the face of automation

Artisans weaving Nakshi Kantha and recent developments in automati
© Kabir Humayra

It is the intricate details on the fabrics, which are made with love that sets aside the world of crafts till date. Every warp and woof of the hand loom fabrics to every stitch of the hand embroideries tell a story connecting generations of remarkable artisans across Bengal. The passion for craft runs in their blood and the artisans are in love with its beauty, but in the face of digitalization and automation the number of artisans is shrinking and so is the crafts industry. 

By Mahenaz Chowdhury

This transformation has set me off on my journey inorder to dig deeper and find the connection between our rivers and craftsmanship. To explore how it is affected by industrialization and urbanization across Dhaka & Narayanganj- the textile hub of the country laced by the river Shitalakshya, one of the    oldest rivers that shaped the craft of Jamdani and muslin in Bengal for centuries dating back to the Mughal and British colonization era.  

There I was fortunate enough to meet one of the most prestigious and oldest jamdani weavers of Bangladesh, Md. Elem Miah. As he sat down with his loom, and started to weave, he smiled and said, “I love this craft. It gives me so much joy when I create jamdanis. It is a valuable piece of work created over hundreds of hours of precision and sheer dedication. The designs you see, I have it memorized by heart. Even though I'm over 80 years old, there is not a single mistake that would go unnoticed by my eyes. It makes me happy everytime I sit down here to weave knowing that it binds my legacy through the generations of owners.”  

  • Shilakshya River, polluted by industrialization & urbanization in Narayanganj               				        © Mahenaz Chowdhury
  • Jamdani saree woven by Elem MIah in the 1980s. © Emad B.M. Hassan © Emad B.M. Hassan
  • Elen Miah with his shagred (apprentice) weaving handloom jamdani at his factory, Narayanganj © Mahenaz Chowdhury
  • Jamdani Bazaar where sellers,  buyers, middlemen and jamdani makers meet on Fridays at 4am, Demra, Narayanganj.  © Mahenaz Chowdhury

The glimmer in Elem’s eyes is the answer to why we must protect our artisans and the craft they create. No machine can measure up to the hand woven artwork we see. The British had industrialized the process of making muslin-- one of the finest cotton fabrics of the world only made in Bangladesh. They introduced heavy taxes on raw materials and cheaper returns 

on finished garments made, thus dismantling the whole trade of muslin in Bangladesh. And similarly, over the last few decades, the introduction of fast fashion has taken over the world causing the handicrafts industry to further slow down. Is it a deliberate effort of the capitalists winning at the costs of quality of human lives? Or like everything else, is there an expiration date to the existence of traditional crafts as a result of a natural progression of mediocre art being commercialized and praised? 
I believe that the latter is a result of human minds bombarded with unlimited content online to prioritize price, utility and instant access to goods and services over appreciating the value of good art. Well, when machines can attempt to replicate the hours and months put behind making a beautiful piece of hand-made garment or textile such as the JamdaniNakshi Kantha or Satranji (a hand-loom based rug originated in Rangpur, Bangladesh) and can be priced at the cheapest rates possible through mass production which are readily available at the click of a button, then are bigger issues at hand. A rapidly growing population and an economy emerging from developing to a soon-to-be-developed nation, the focus is always on investing in large scale industrialization to yield higher GDP through mass production. Thus there are numerous subsidies provided to such sectors making it lucrative. Whereas, handmade products cannot be mass produced as each artisan's imprint on the product is specific to it’s time and design, it is irreplicable and that’s what makes it unique. Therefore, there is little attention paid to the entrepreneurs and their demands and needs which would help them flourish. 

Speaking to Md. Razon Miah, son of Elem Miah, a second generation weaver and jamdani business owner explains the future of crafts through his lens. He says, “Nowadays, with access to information and the need for better quality of life, we have a shortage of artisans. The kids grow up with a liking towards working for factories because of better pay and easier jobs than weaving. The cost of craftsmanship is education, because kids need to be trained from a very early age, it is a work of passion and dedication which requires full concentration. Moreover, this profession isn’t highly valued or respected as the other jobs anymore.” Razon sighs. 

This poses a very important fact that the workforce in the handicrafts industry is highly underpaid, because the products are sold with a slim profit margin. The cost of production of the products is high since the raw materials such as cotton, dyes and  yarns are imported from India or China and are costly. Then there are the middlemen and other businesses who source from these makers and profit at a high margin. Unless the makers can cut the value chain and get access to the buyers directly, the future is tricky for them to sustain and retain the artisans. More importantly, the crafts industry is losing its charm to the younger generation because of the time and effort it requires. People want fast and easy ways of making a living. With the digital age revolutionizing how we think and what we value, that shift was quite inevitable due to the lack of efforts brought about by the government, private actors and educators to protect and spread our history and heritage in craft to the masses. Rather we have lenient taxes on imported finished goods from India, China & Korea overthrowing the local industries because importing is more competitive than manufacturing goods to be sold in the local market. 

With time, consumers want variety, better designs and quicker access to products at an affordable price. Browsing through Facebook and Instagram throughout the lockdown it was evident how much we are consuming imported goods. Somehow there is a connotation that    Bangladeshi handicrafts are only for a certain niche who can afford to pay the high prices for it, thus the mass automatically disconnects themselves from paying a higher price for locally made goods. There is a fundamental issue of not taking ownership of our heritage, because we know very little of it. All we see and hear and consume is global content which is glorified through repetition of its spread in our social media feed. While globally there is a shift in consumer trends towards prioritizing locally produced artisanal products and choosing sustainable and ethically made goods, it is still a marginal number compared to the number of fast fashion consumers. 

The question still stands- what will happen to the future of our crafts in the midst of fast fashion and automation? I believe it is up to take control of the future. The power of consumerism can be utilized to benefit our artisans. Once we slowly reduce our dependence on foreign imported goods, and acknowledge the phenomenal artisanal products we have, each region of Bangladesh specializing in the special type of craft, we can gear towards a sustainable future. A future that will invest in nationwide skilled training programmes in crafts to ensure better wages to the crafts(wo)men. For the supply side, what we need is well thought out policies designed to reflect the needs of subsidies and infrastructural development of better working standards and practices for home-based or factory based artisans. And for the demand side, to encourage consumers to acknowledge the value of our craft, there needs to be engaging educational content that is comprehensive of our history and legacy and how we each play an important role in protecting and supporting our artisans. And lastly, I believe to compete with globalization, our entire branding and marketing strategies need a complete overhaul inorder to be relevant for the new generation of consumers.