The Muslin: Timeless Magnificence of the Bangladeshi Benarasi

By

Neha Shamim

In the modern world, where fashion changes its course every season and fashion enthusiasts race to keep up with fast fashion, one thing has held its royal scepter ever since the Mughal era: the perennially elegant and timeless Benarasi sari. 

Grandmothers would tell stories to their curious grandchildren, enchanting them with vivid descriptions of the mesmerizing allure of muslin, recounting tales of sarees so weightless they slip effortlessly through rings, and fabric so delicate it can be neatly tucked inside matchboxes. The rich history of Benarasi sarees is deeply rooted in the cultural heritage of Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Banaras, nestled in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, India. It was here, amidst the bustling markets and ancient alleyways, that Mughal emperors like the legendary Akbar the Great recognized the unparalleled beauty and craftsmanship of these sarees, elevating them to symbols of prestige and luxury. Today, these intricate designs continue to weave their magic, passed down from one generation to the next, preserving a timeless legacy of elegance and heritage. 

The popularity and desire for owning these luxury Benarasi sarees have become dreams for every woman. Its popularity extends far beyond the confines of India, reaching neighboring countries like Pakistan and what was once East Pakistan, now the culturally rich land of Bangladesh. Weavers saw this as an opportunity to expand their business by migrating to neighboring countries, carrying with them their craft and expertise to test their luck and build a market in Bangladesh. Since 1947, these artisans have made their home in the heart of Bangladesh, establishing a huge market in the vibrant Mirpur area. Mirpur, with its bustling streets and lively bazaars, has evolved into a thriving hub for Benarasi sarees, having over 100 outlets, earning the distinguished title of “Mirpur Benarasi saree.” The journey of the Mirpur Benarasi saree is one steeped in history and perseverance. These weavers have nurtured their craft, adapting to the changing tides of time while preserving the essence of their artistry.   

Despite its rich history and significance, the industry is facing formidable challenges, with workers and artisans grappling with various hurdles that threaten its very existence. Economic hardships, lack of governmental support, and competition from mass-produced alternatives have all contributed to the struggles faced by these skilled craftsmen. Some weavers have been working in the looms for 25 to 30 years, following their previous generation to protect, deposit, and respect love in their work. Many of these skilled craftsmen find themselves struggling to make ends meet. The arduous labor combined with meager earnings often leads to financial instability and a precarious existence for these artisans and their families. Despite their deep-rooted passion for their art, they recognize the harsh realities of the profession: irregular income, long hours, and minimal recognition. Witnessing the hardships faced firsthand, many artisans are hesitant to pass on their craft to the next generation.

To promote this art, The Muslin organized a 10-day Benarasi Festival, inaugurated on 28th February, 2024, titled “Timeless Magnificence of Bangladeshi Benarasi,” powered by BRAC Bank, at Le Meridien Dhaka. This remarkable event showcased the seamless fusion of the timeless elegance of Benarasi sarees with the exquisite craftsmanship of Bangladeshi muslin, while also serving as a pivotal moment in the preservation of this cherished cultural heritage. 

Tasnuva Islam, the visionary founder and CEO of The Muslin, spearheaded the inauguration ceremony, setting the stage for an immersive journey into the world of Bangladeshi Benarasi sharees. Six distinguished weavers from Mirpur Benarasi Polli, namely Mohammad Rafiq, Shamim Akhtar, Haji Mohammad Asir, Nur Islam, and Zahidur Rahman, graced the event with their presence. Each weaver shared captivating anecdotes, personal stories, their struggles and unique weaving techniques, offering attendees a glimpse into the rich tapestry of Benarasi craftsmanship.

Throughout the evening, visitors, guests, and members of the media were enchanted by live demonstrations of Benarasi weaving techniques, immersing themselves in the intricate artistry and skill of Bangladeshi weavers. Adding to the allure of the event, attendees had the opportunity to purchase exquisite Benarasi sarees, directly supporting the artisan community and fostering the preservation of traditional arts.

“The weavers of Mirpur Benarasi polli are decreasing day by day. People like imported and designer products more nowadays. If we don’t start awareness campaigns like ‘Timeless magnificence of Bangladeshi Benarasi,’ it will be hard for our weavers to come in front of everyone and show their capability. I want our ladies to take it as a responsibility to contribute in our economy by purchasing deshi products, so the money circulation goes on and that can help this sector even more” ~ Tasnuva Islam, Founder and CEO, The Muslin

The talented weavers participating in the Benarasi Festival shared candid insights into the challenges they face in maintaining their livelihood solely through the art of crafting Benarasi sarees. These dedicated artisans revealed the struggles they endure, from fluctuating market demands to the rising costs of materials and production. Despite these obstacles, their unwavering passion for their craft fuels their determination to preserve this tradition.

Over the ten days of the festival, visitors were able to indulge in a captivating showcase of the country’s traditional Benarasi sarees. 

Highlighting the festival’s commitment to education and discourse, a seminar on the history, craft, and future of Benarasi weaving was scheduled for the fourth day. Notable figures such as artist and designer Chandra Shekhar Shaha, Director General of Bengal Foundation Luva Nahid Chowdhury, and international award-winning weavers Mohammad Rafiq and Abdur Rashid graced the occasion, offering invaluable insights into the enduring legacy of Benarasi sarees.

The Benarasi Festival is made possible through the support of loyal partners such as Grameenphone, as well as esteemed media partners including The Business Standard, Canvas Magazine, MW Magazine, and Hernet TV. Together, they contribute to the realization of The Muslin’s vision: a platform dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and celebration of traditional Bangladeshi art forms. Through initiatives like the Bangladeshi Benarasi Festival, The Muslin endeavors to create awareness and appreciation for the rich cultural heritage embedded in the country’s artistic traditions, ensuring their legacy continues to thrive for generations to come.

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