PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST: Aminul Islam and the Nakshi Kantha artisans

(13 Minutes Read)

Aminul Islam is not a new name in the field of hand embroidery in Bangladesh. With his embroidery organization, Bangla Shelayi, he has been awarded many National awards, including the S M Sultan Shommanona, Canvas of Bangladesh (2017), Mother Teresa Shommanona, 71 Media Vision (2017), Aarong Festival, Best Quality Award (2018), Shorong Art Gallery Award, Kahal Gallery, Japan (2019), Joynul Shommanona, Canvas of Bangladesh (2019) to name a few. 

His experience spans over thirty years as one of the largest producers of hand embroidery for the leading fair-trade fashion brands in Bangladesh. We discussed with him about how he began his journey in this field. His recent visit to Japan with an exquisite collection of artisan made Nakshi Kantha and more- came across in our discussion over an online interview recently.

AS- How did you start your journey as an embroiderer and what inspired you to work in this field as an entrepreneur?

As a child I grew up seeing my mother making Nakshi Kanthas after her daily household work. When I was a little boy of eleven or twelve, my mother used to ask me to thread the needles while she was sewing Kanthas. She would thread many needles at a time so that while working she didn’t have to stop and disrupt the rhythm of her work.

I was always more of an ‘in-doors’ kind of a child.  Rather than playing outside with other boys, I liked to be with my mother, see her work and help her with her chores. Since I was a young boy I enjoyed creating small-embroidered pieces like a handkerchief or a blanket for the doll-house. But this never occurred to me that it can be taken as a source of income or a profession, I always considered it to be a hobby. As I grew older my interest in embroidery grew deeper. In fact, nobody ever encouraged me to do embroidery, moreover they advised me to stick to more conventional desk jobs that one could opt for.

As it happened, I once gifted a ‘Panjabi’ (a type of men’s kurta) to one of my music teachers. Surprised to see my work, he encouraged me and told me that maybe I could sell these beautiful items to the best of the fashion brands in Dhaka.  With this  inspiration, around 1988, I approached some retailers and almost immediately started working with a leading fashion brand in Dhaka. However, the journey was not all smooth in the beginning.

Embroidery considered being a women’s activity, I was always discouraged and criticized. But, my father always supported and motivated me for trying to do unconventional work. With all the blessings from my parents and family I started my humble journey, since then I have never had to look back! 

Bangla Shelayi currently works with six hundred  full time, home-based Kantha artisans. Because of the lockdown in late March 2020, my work has stopped for the first time in thirty years, hopefully it will resume soon.

AS- Aside from your commercial work, last year you were invited to participate in an exhibition in Japan with your Nakshi Kantha creations. Please share your experience of participating and creating the items for the exhibit. 

Alongside my commercial work, I also like to create embroidery out of my own curiosity. I wanted to revive the embroideries of the old kanthas from my own hometown of Jhenaidah. I have collected and created a library of Nakshi Kanthas with old stitches.  With no set intention in mind, I started the creation of these kanthas.  From some social media photographs that I shared, some of these kanthas caught the attention of a lot of people. I was contacted by the “Kahal’ gallery near Tokyo, Japan.  They invited me to participate in their upcoming exhibition with my collection along with some fellow Bangladeshi painters and artists. (Kahal Art Group arranges cultural and artistic exchange programs between Bangladesh and Japan for more than a decade.)

These kanthas were not made with an intention to be sold. The exhibition was a success, in the sense that I got a lot of admiration and enquiries from the audience. The audience was astonished to see this kind of workmanship come out of Bangladesh.

AS- What is your process of working with the artisans while making these unique kanthas? Nowadays, to produce old-style nakshi Kantha, what instructions do you provide to the artisans?

AI- To my understanding and realization that the embroiderers of the bygone days were much more skilled and had more techniques under their repertoire. So to reproduce those highly skilled artisanal work we have to get the help of drawings, referencing from old pieces, demonstrating some of the stitches and then only they can be made. I spent a lot of time explaining stitches, techniques and showed many visual references to come up with the new versions of the old-style kanthas. Interestingly, the borders that are used on the kanthas are done according to their choice of the artisans.  The artisans are left with their creative freedom to decide to embroider the design they think suitable for the borders. With careful planning and designing these kanthas were produced.   

AS- The artisans of today, can they create pieces like the past? Is the technical ability and skill-set still existing amongst the artisans in the villages-what is your opinion?

AI- The producer working in collaboration with the artisans must be well versed and knowledgeable in the art of the craft. They must be able to convey the required final look and the quality of the product.  I think the high quality Nakshi Kantha making skills still do exist in various regions of Bangladesh. The regional techniques and types of kantha making  skills are also still prevalent. The important factor here is to guide the artisans properly and make them aware of the quality in demand.

On the other hand, they must be willing to pay a fair amount and on time. Many at times the artisans are poorly paid and are not paid on time so they become less interested to do lengthy, detailed work. The faster work is not too time consuming and they get paid more frequently. In the remotest of villages there are still artisans who can create beautiful kanthas, the most important factor here is to establish long term working relationships and commitment. 

AS- For the practitioners of the future or designers who want to work with Kantha embroidery artisans what is your advice to them? How should they prepare themselves for the task?

AI- It’s a good question, when a student prepares to work with traditional embroidery, I think the most important thing is for them to have the proper technical knowledge about the craft. The student or young designer must understand that it is not only a mere matter of motifs and patterns, the use of the appropriate stitches, the thickness of the stitch and the very construct of the stitch is to be significantly analyzed and appropriated while using them. So, to be able to design Nakshi kantha products one must have good technical knowledge on stitch types, motifs, layout of the patterns and use of proper material. At the end it is a lifelong learning process, still after thirty years of working, I still come across new things.

AS- What is the biggest challenge while working with rural artisans-please share your experience with us.

AI- There are many challenges, whenever you go to a new place and start working with a community you encounter many adversities. But I believe all of them can be overcome with good commitment and long-term relationships. The one big hurdle for us is to pay a fair price to these artisans. I believe, if you want me to pinpoint the one biggest issue, my answer would be the ‘assurance of fair payment’ to the artisans. We always struggle with getting paid the right amount; there is always a tug of war and it trickles down to the grass-root level artisans.

AS- What do you think is the future for this craft locally and internationally? What can we do to promote the Nakshi Kantha in the international market?

AI- To make the Nakshi Kantha more attractive to the international buyer, it has to be adapted to a new look. With its limited use of kantha as a blanket or a through it only can go so far. It can be applied on fashion items, fashion accessories and many household objects.

AS- How can someone collaborate with you? Please share your experience of collaboration with designers or brands.

AI- In the past I have collaborated with international brands. I have learnt a lot working with Japanese designers and it is a great pleasure that the designers also appreciate and welcome our ideas and thoughts during the product development process. It is a tremendous pleasure when I see my designs worn by people on the streets or even from my travels.

AS- Besides creating beautiful textiles, what other creative activities do you do?

AI- I have a great interest in plants and gardening. Since childhood alongside embroidery, I loved plants and trees. In my village home in Jhenaidah, initially a structure was built as an embroidery center where the women could come and work. But in reality we observed that the embroiderers did not prefer this model of working. They were more comfortable doing the work from home, at their leisure. So to make use of that beautiful space I started to surround it with my collection of plants. I have more than 5000 plants in my collection, which includes many rare and medicinal plants. The house has become a notable spot for locals and travellers to come and visit my collection.

Another intention behind my plant collection is to introduce the future generations with uncommon and rare plants. We are already seeing the benefits of this unique garden. The resurgence of their natural habitat has caused many rare bird species to come back to the area. People from local and surrounding districts come to visit this house, as a unique location of interest. I find profound joy and satisfaction through this engagement.

(This interview was translated from Bangla and edited for better comprehension)