Suraiya Rahman’s wall tapestries – exquisitely drawn and coloured – adorn homes and museums around the world making the awe struck viewers wonder who made them and where. One such was Cathy Stevulak who had no clue about her except that she was an old woman from Bangladesh. Yet their paths crossed when working at United Nations Development Program in Bangladesh, Stevulak traced her. Their meeting compelled Stevulak to make a documentary on her. Titled “Threads” it was recently screened in the Capital after having won awards at Female Eye Film Festival 2016, Friday Harbor Film Festival 2015 and Gig Harbor Film Festival 2014. It has also been screened at Washington’s Textile Museum and National Museum, Bangladesh.
Revolving around Rahman, a specialist in nakshi kantha tapestry from Bangladesh, Threads brings to fore her excellence in drawing and embroidering and more importantly how her determination, persistence and hard work changed lives of hundreds of women in Bangladesh. “On the first interview with Rahman, I realised that there was a broader social story. So the film documents her art, nakshi kantha, how she gave up her life-long dream to be a painter to focus on becoming a community artist and help innumerable women.”
The film tracing Rahman’s life from her childhood in Calcutta makes viewers realise how perceptive and observant she is. A self-taught artist, she was encouraged by her father to draw and paint. Having never attended school, Rahman learnt by listening and watching all that happened around her. “I grasped John Keats’ poetry when my brother who attended school used to recite it at home,” she says with a wide grin. Constantly accompanying her father, she saw many places including racetrack, grand hotels, villages and fairs and met people from all walks of life like hawkers, boatmen, rural folks, city gentry – all of find space in her works. One sees vintage lamp posts, the horse driven buggy, boats, pastoral scenes, school going children and ballroom dancing scenes etched deftly and coloured elegantly giving them a life like appearance. The tapestry showing polo match played by royalty with its galloping horses, stick wielding players and verdant greenery makes one feel being present there.
All set to join art college, Rahman’s dream was cut short due to Partition. Later she got married and moved to East Pakistan. With a sick husband and children to tend to, she moved to centrestage becoming the bread winner. “She made art works, designed stationary, painted silk scrolls and wooden dolls and then almost spent three decades focusing on kantha-inspired, textile wall hangings which came to be known as nakshi kantha tapestries,” reveals Stevulak.
Eager to share her art with others Rahman with Maureen Berlin set up Skill Development for Underprivileged Women (SDUW) in 1983 bringing to its fold numerous women from across region and religions to learn and work under Rahman’s direction. These women from economically disadvantaged section realised that the art could provide them a livelihood of dignity and respect. Rahman’s students speak of her very highly. Rashida in the film with a smile says, “We feared her and got worried when any work went wrong. She would get mad and throw it on the floor and say, ‘I told you to do it this way. Why did you do it that way’?” Adds Momtaz, “If she got angry, she also gave us respect.” Describing her empathic and compassionate, Stevulak says, “Having stayed in Calcutta, Rahman believes in the richness of the mixing cultures. Thus in one work depicting market place, we see Hindus selling pottery while Muslims peethas. Her only criteria was that a woman should want to learn and work hard. She insisted on perfection because she was aware that stitch designs executed well would command price and prestige failing which it would not be sustainable.”
Teaching each of them literally by holding their hands, Rahman was responsible for many success stories. Like that of Rashida who single-handedly supported her three children through higher education who are now employed as teacher, a call centre employee and accountant. Momtaz, once hard pressed for money, has educated her children and purchased land. After Rahman was being let go from SDUW, she continued to train women through her social enterprise Arshi.
Now retired, Rahman has handed over all the designs and girls trained by her to an embroidery centre run by Salesian Sisters. Keen that nakshi kantha tradition should continue, she wants the centre train women in the art to empower them. “I want these designs and women to continue my legacy and memory. I hope my efforts do not go waste,” says Rahman now spending her twilight days at Dhaka.
Apart from content and the charming way Rahman narrates her story interspersed with comments by others the film’s appeals lies in music by Tanveer Alam Shawjeeb. The songs he chose included Kazi Nazrul Islam “Chol Chol” (song of emancipation) and Rabindranath Tagore “Anondoloke Mongolaloke” (song of praise).