“I didn’t plan to do it for the women. They just started coming.”
And come they did, from miles away, by boat, train and bus. When the floods covered the roads, they would wade into the water and swim, carrying a cooking pot with their tapestry inside. This tapestry was their meal ticket, their source of income. They were swimming to Arshi.
Arshi employed hundreds of poor Bangladeshi women. Many lived in mud huts with no sanitation, but wow, could these women stitch. Arshi was their way out, an escape from poverty with a needle and thread. It would not exist without one self-trained artist, named Surayia Rahman.
She’s petite, with a big smile; her dark skin offsets her long white hair, pulled back loosely in a low coiled bun. She’s wrapped in a snowy white sari, with an intricate embroidery design. I wonder if she stitched it herself. She has a type of presence: wise, elegant, refined. Tiny wrinkles frame her big blue eyes. When she talks about art, they sparkle.
Inside her home, a large textile hangs on the wall, five feet wide, three and a half feet tall. “The Boat Race,” she says as she stops in front of it. A countless number of perfectly stitched wooden boats bob in a sea of wavy lines. The waves weave up and down, brown, tan and beige. Each boat holds several tiny passengers, some smiling, some serious. “Here’s a British traveler,” she says, pointing to a distinguished looking man near the bottom. She taught herself to speak English. Red, blue and green flags fly above the boats, some Hindu, others Muslim. A border of paisley, flowers, and winding leaves encompasses the scene, trying to contain the intricate design inside.
As she points to different things within the textile, I focus on her hands, tiny and delicate. She uses them constantly as she speaks. Their movements weave stories.
But these stories can no longer be told through thread, cotton and silk. Now in her late seventies, Surayia’s hands are tired, unable to create the visions inside of her. She looks down at them sadly as she tells me. She knows nothing else, nor does she want to.
The textile in front of me took 11 months to complete. Some textiles take up to two years. It is the art form of Nakshi Kantha or “embroidered quilt,” a folk art of Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. The original kantha were used as functional household items, like bed covers or tablecloths. Surayia’s artistic expression has transformed the traditional kantha into a unique art form. In the process, it’s transformed the lives of hundreds of women. The women of Arshi. The women of Bangladesh.
This is where the story begins: 8,000 miles away, in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, India, where a little girl became fascinated with art. It consumed her, infiltrated her soul. All she wanted in life was to paint, sketch and draw. Her passion led to so much more.
Surayia was the youngest of seven - five sisters and one brother. When one of her sisters was married off at 11, Surayia would visit her new home, a very old house, filled with very old things.
She remembers discovering English calligraphy written on thin paper. She couldn’t read English, but something about it compelled her. She would lift the paper under her nose and inhale the scent. It was intoxicating. Art drove her “crazy.”
She began sketching as a child on the laundry cloth. Her art reflected the places she visited, things she saw. Her father’s job as a British Raj civil servant took him to every corner of Bengal. Surayia traveled with him, drinking in the scenery.
Vivid images of the village fair linger in her mind. Dolls, bamboo lamps, elephants, cows; painted, sculpted, carved out of clay. Hindus and Muslims stood side-by-side, selling cradles and frying pita. The scene reflected a community, joined and united. This scene has vanished.
“Life gives the story,” she says. She spent her time outside, exploring.
The sight of Bengal haunts her. She looks over me as she speaks, as if the scene is appearing behind me in the kitchen.
“It was very hot and also very cold. I remember the mountain. The soil was red – “the red road,” they called it, the red flowers with dark leaves, the red sky.”
The women would comb their hair and place a flower between the strands. “It was so beautiful.”
Surayia attended a Bengali-medium Brahmo school, Victorian Institution, but her most important lessons came from home. Her father read extensively, the stories from his books transformed into compelling oral renditions. Her brother explained poetry. Her mother taught her how to embroider and sew.
At school, she quickly became known for her work in art class. The other girls excelled at math, so Surayia would do their artwork for them. A teacher recognized her talent and helped her apply to the Calcutta School of Art. Though accepted, she never got to attend. In 1947, the partition of the Indian sub-continent was in full effect and the communal riots began. At 17, Surayia was married off to Zillur Rahman, a government servant, and moved to Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. She would raise three children, pushing art aside, but never out of her mind.
In 1958, Surayia’s father died. While she was home, she met a group of people from a charity called “The Friends of Bangladesh.” Their motto: helping people to help themselves. They collected art and handcrafts to sell. They told Surayia about a shop – The Women’s Voluntary Association, WVA. It would open soon.
Surayia told them she could embroider and knit. She didn’t tell them she could paint. She was embarrassed they’d ask where she went to school.
They sent her away with a piece of cloth and told her to embroider it – bring it back to the shop when it was done. She worked day and night until it was completed, stitching a couple carrying rice on their heads. Her appliqué work and needlecraft was of its own caliber. She arrived back Saturday morning. They were shouting, “so beautiful!”
With the money she made, she bought a cake.
An American WVA member, Virginia Caprio, became Surayia’s volunteer.
“Can you paint?” she asked.
“A little,” answered Surayia.
Her paintings made them dance.
Surayia began working as a staff artist. She worked at the WVA for 18 years. During the day she created pieces she could sell. She painted wall scrolls, greeting cards, bridge tallies, writing pads and wooden dolls. Folk designs became her signature style.
In her spare time, she painted – oil paintings.
Her son, Saif, remembers her working late into the nights, sitting on her bed, absorbed in her canvas. She would not eat or sleep. She could live without it. She couldn’t live without the smell of paint.
There wasn’t much of a market for oil paintings. Surayia’s biggest customers were travelers from around the world. She never set prices. As a self-trained artist, she felt she had no right to demand, so she accepted whatever was offered. Her favourite painting was sold to a man for 12,000 taka: $174 US.
“Where are you going?” she asked, as the man carried her painting away.
“Boston,” he replied.
She sold many paintings, not knowing where they would end up. “You will find them in the world, but not in my house,” she says.
In 1979, Surayia began experimenting - painting on silk cloth. She was commissioned to do a painting – “The Family is the Centre of Life” – that was given as a gift to the Pope. On July 11, 1980, Surayia was awarded a medal by Pope John Paul II, with a letter recognizing the quality of her work.
She experimented further - simulating the running stitch of kantha with paint and brush strokes.
What would her elaborate designs look like on the simple, traditional kantha?
The Bangladesh Rurual Action Committee (BRAC), a large non-governmental organization (NGO), asked Surayia to create a design for a tapestry. It would be embroidered with the “nakshi kantha” stitch. Two more of her designs were embroidered by another NGO, The Jute Works. The concept of embroidering artwork onto a kantha was a relatively new practice. In a few weeks, Surayia developed a process that transferred her designs into tapestries.
Her tapestries sold at high prices. The Canadian High Commission granted $15,000 for a six-month pilot project. It took off. In March 1982, a Canadian NGO was formed – Skill Development for Under-privileged Women (SDUW). Surayia and Maureen Berlin helped employ over 200 destitute women.
Surayia was the heart and soul of the organization. She provided the designs, chose colour combinations, supervised embroidery and oversaw quality. Traditional kantha uses cotton thread on cotton cloth, usually old saris. Surayia’s tapestries used rayon thread on silk from Rajshahi, the “Silk City.” The thread was made from bamboo, processed and spun in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Problems began to arise in 1986: a conflict between profit and artistic integrity. Surayia wanted to develop an artistic school, not an assembly line. Her objections were met with a letter of dismissal; her designs forcibly retained and registered in the project’s name. She appealed to the Copyright Board for justice, but got none.
Without Surayia, the project collapsed. She was offered a different Canadian NGO, but decided to go off on her own.
But many women from the failed project gravitated back to Surayia.
“I wanted to develop the art form,” she says. “I didn’t plan to do it for the women. They just started coming.”
And so, Arshi was born. Arshi - Bengali for mirror - is indeed a reflection of Surayia’s life. Each textile tells a story, reflects a memory, is based on an inspiration. Surayia can’t describe her art. “You feel art,” she says.
The textiles were made up of two parts: one part cotton and one part silk. The thread used to stitch is naturally dyed, making it difficult to find the same shade of a colour. Surayia would sometimes import the thread, but would usually select it herself, a task she found frustrating. She was never satisfied with the colours. The dark Indian thread would run, while other types were too thin, making it harder to use.
Her other supplies were local too – from frames and material to painting brushes. But her real “paint brushes” came from miles away. They were the women: “her girls.” The number of women continued to grow as a friend would tell a friend about Surayia. Soon, Arshi had 320 registered women.
Surayia only had two rules: “they must be paid and they must learn.”
The women who worked for Surayia were extremely poor. They lived in mud huts, living on rice. Some days, they could afford potatoes. They relied on Surayia for guidance and mentorship, but mostly to survive.
The women would come to Surayia’s home early in the morning and leave late in the afternoon or evening. Sometimes they would stay overnight. They would travel miles, some coming all the way from the villages in rural Bangladesh. Some came from Khulna, over 80 miles away. She was strict, but they had great respect for her.
Surayia would trace her designs onto the cloth, which would then be stitched by the women. At the bottom left corner of her textiles, you will find Surayia’s signature preceded by the symbol of Arshi: a red mirror with a lily inside. It looks like a dice that rolled and landed on the number five. At the bottom right hand corner, you will see the names of the women who stitched it.
Once the tapestry was completed, two boys would stretch it on a frame so Surayia could tell if any stitching was crooked or wrong. She was a stickler for quality. “Sometimes, I became very, very angry with them, because of the quality,” Surayia says. Misplaced stitches were cut and corrected. Sometimes she wanted entire pieces to be done over again. Big tapestries would be stretched at least three times. Smaller ones: at least two. Her pieces were flawless.
She became on icon in the world of nakshi kantha. On September 2, 1989, she was invited to an exhibition of nakshi kantha in Vicenza in the Monte di Pieta.
Her pieces are dispersed worldwide: Australia, Japan, the US, Italy, France. One of them - Georgian Times - hangs in the Textile Museum of Canada, in Toronto.
Two of her designs became UNICEF greeting cards. She also got orders for tapestries from the US Embassy in Dhaka.
“The Inauguration of the Embassy,” hangs in the lobby. Cathy Stevulak, the wife of a former employee, saw it every time she entered the building.
She remembers seeing Surayia’s work at craft fairs in Dhaka – young women from Arshi sitting in the heat in a small stand, a beautiful tapestry draped over a cardboard box on a table. Smaller works and greeting cards were scattered around them.
Cathy and her husband were invited to Surayia’s home to meet Surayia and “her girls.” Surayia led them into a small bedroom, carefully unrolling paper scrolls – design after design of her creations. Her house was always filled with women, coming to show their progress and pick up supplies.
“She was a perfectionist,” Cathy says, “Showing us pieces of work that looked perfect to me, yet would not be sold because they were not quite right.”
But good work was always rewarded with bonuses.
Instead of 4,000 taka, she gave 12,000. “I found very good things,” she said. “It is not my charitable job, but when I went to another girl’s house and there is no sanitation…”
Many women spent their money on rice cultivation. Over time, some saved enough to buy land and build houses.
When Surayia’s age began to affect her hands, she could no longer draw. In 2008, she gave Arshi and her designs to the Selisian Sisters in Dhaka, run by Sister Elizabeth.
“Do you see a future for nakshi kantha?” I ask.
A long silence fills the room.
“No,” she says. “I see no future.”
There is no future without an artist – “a mastered hand,” she says. “No one can say I’m the only one.” But no artist has yet to take over. “I hope it will improve. That it will continue…” she pauses.
A documentary and website on the life and art of Surayia Rahman are in the making. For updates on the film, to support or sponsor the project or to help locate Surayia’s art work around the world, please contact email@example.com or refer to www.kanthathreads.com.
Some of Surayia’s tapestries in museum collections:
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia
Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto
Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan
Bianca diBiase is a journalism student at Ryerson University, specializing in broadcast and feature writing. She is based in Toronto, Ontario.