Fibrous Souls | 2018-2020

Fibrous Souls

In collaboration with Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts

2018-2020

Commissioned by Samdani Art Foundation for Dhaka Art Summit 2020

Collaborators: Johura Begum, Monowara Begum, Fatema Begum, Majeda begum, Fatema begum 1, Shabnur begum, Samin Begum, Chayna begum, Fatema begum 2, Somiron begum, Shirina begum, Rekha, Nasima begum.

 

Materials: Jute, Clay, Brass

 

‘Those who used to do very well with earthen pots and pans now have vessels of brass and copper’ – Hunter, Statistical Account, Bogra, 1875

A large number of Muslim farmers from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) migrated to Assam during the colonial era (1860 onwards) because of poverty and debt due to cultivating jute instead of grains. Jute was a priority crop for the colonial rulers who also had schemes to make these people move there to increase the production of jute in Assam. To make this scheme successful, the British built a railway line that connected Assam to the Bengal region as called the ‘Eastern Bengal Railways’. Through these railways, raw materials were transported to Kolkata, from where the jute would travel to Dundee and there it would be wrapped around various goods gathered from various colonies to be shipped all over the world. The construction of railway embankments had also disrupted the cultivation by obstructing free flow of rainwater in Bengal which contributed to destruction of crops due to flooding leading to more poverty for the peasants. Through these railway systems, various consumer commodities gradually entered the rural marketplaces, which changed the lifestyle of the peasants, created the aspiration of purchasing power which eventually led them to opt for cultivating cash crops instead of grains and contributed to their increasing debts and finally loss of lands. All these factors triggered the migration of Bengal peasants to Assam in an extensive scale throughout the nineteenth century.

In 1947, during the partition and the following years, a lot of these people came back to Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, escaping communal violence in Assam. My village Balia has a large community of Assam returnees, who came to Bangladesh during the partition and have eventually settled here in the north of Bangladesh after being displaced several times. They are known in the village as ‘settlers’ or ‘bhatia’ – meaning one who came from down river.

For this project I have worked with several women from our village, all of whom have their history tracing back to Assam. After being forced to leave from Assam, their families have tried to settle in the districts that lie south from this region – Mymensingh, Bogra, Sirajganj, Rangpur – all of which once belonged to the ‘jute tract’. The oldest of them, Johura Begum, aged 75, has been displaced 4 times in her life, everytime settling into a new place just to be a victim of river erosion once again until she finally settled here in this village 30 years ago.

For this project, I have collaborated with these individuals to make multiple large-scale ‘Shika’ incorporating the techniques that they have brought with them. The Shika, always made by jute, was one of the most common rural household items of Bengal. These were braided by the women of the household strictly for domestic usage, almost never hitting the markets. These were hung from the ceiling to keep food safe from animals or for long-term storage.

This installation is an attempt to interweave these historical and cultural strands that seem apparently and innocently disconnected; and connect these to the present day peasant conditions in Assam and Bengal.