“THREADS” – an attempt to celebrate women empowerment

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When one watches a documentary, it is usually about a subject matter the viewer is not well-informed about and feels gratified and wiser after watching it. “THREADS”, one such documentary directed by Cathy Stevulak is one which sheds light on the ancient indigenous art of Nakshi Kantha. But the best part is that it does not end there. It is also a documentary which celebrates the indomitable spirit of 85-year old Bengali artist, Surayia Rahman, who transforms the quilt-work tradition of kantha to create possibilities for a better life for her family and hundreds of destitute mothers in Bangladesh.

Over three decades, as their art becomes prized possessions of connoisseurs around the world, Surayia Rahman and the artisans overcome their hardships with needle and thread, stitch by stitch. THREADS take us on a journey into the heart of an artist and illuminate an unconventional path to dignity and independence.

Reminiscing about the time before filming the documentary, Cathy Stevulak, director of THREADS, recollected that the research took them all over Bangladesh. After two years of research, it struck everyone to make a documentary, after which they contacted Catherine Masud, to make it with Bangladeshi talents.

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Making it this far

“We are very inspired by Surayia Rahman, she is a woman who is very humble and has worked behind the scene all the years. It has been a dream for many years, we are very grateful to be here,” she said during the pre-screening press conference which was held at Cosmos Centre on February 8.

Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan is the executive producer of the Bengali version of the documentary, which is also supported by Cosmos Foundation.

Eminent cultural personality and Film Director Nasir Uddin Yousuff Bachchu attended the event as the Chief Guest while National Craft Council President Chandra Shekhar Shaha as the Special Guest. Chief News Editor of United News of Bangladesh (UNB) Mahfuzur Rahman presided over the screening event. Amanullah Khan, Chairman of UNB, Nahar Khan, Director, UNB and journalist Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, Advisor at Cosmos Foundation were also present.

Nasir Uddin Yousuff Bachchu remarked that it is an extremely commendable initiative, as filmmaking is one of the most serious and painful jobs.

Leonard Hill, one of the producers of THREADS, expressed his gratitude to United News of Bangladesh (UNB) and Cosmos Foundation, for lending their support to the documentary.

Private screenings commence

The first private screening of THREADS took place on February 9 at Edward M Kennedy Center in the city, where US Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat was present at the event as the chief guest. Describing the documentary as a remarkable work, the US envoy said the story of a successful woman dedicated to the discovery of the ancient indigenous art of Nakshi Kantha will inspire other people. “She deserves the special care from the people of Bangladesh,” said Bernicat.

Advocate Tanbir ul Islam Siddiqui, president of Change Makers, an NGO working for promoting civic education, human rights, good governance, and democracy, told UNB that the main character of the documentary, Surayia, is the pioneer of the artistic embroidery. “But it’s sad to say that she is not recognised for his pioneering works.”

He said the documentary presents the contribution of the Surayia to the artistic embroidery. Her discovery and relentless dedication to the work have created many employments to the unemployed. She also played a vital role in reviving Naksi Kantha which represents the country’s rich heritage and culture. “Surayia deserves recognition from the government. The government should award her nationally for the outstanding contributions to the revival of the neglected sector,” Tabirul said.

The second private screening took place on February 10 at Chhayanaut, which was presented by Spreeha Bangladesh Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose goals are aligned with that of THREADS.

Rashida, an artisan who has been with Surayia since 1982, acknowledged her mentor's contribution to their empowerment. "Although business is slow now, I am sure this documentary will motivate others to take up Nakshi Kantha stitching.

After the screening concluded, a lively question-answer session followed, where a question was raised regarding the potential of Nakshi Kantha as a mean of generating income. Sufia, one of the artisans, replied by saying that taking it up not only helped her in becoming financially self-sufficient but enough to raise three children until the end of their graduation.

The dedication of the artisans was praised by Sister Elizabeth, of the Salesian Sisters and current torchbearer of Surayia Rahman's legacy. "Now it is like an addiction," she remarked, "if they do not knit, they feel bored."

"Surayia Rahman's legacy is that of inspiring millions of women to believe in themselves,' said Tazin Shadid, CEO of Spreeha, "her legacy also acts as a tool of inspiration for budding entrepreneurs."

"The documentary was overwhelming," said Hasnine Mahmud, a post-graduation student of Economics at Dhaka University, "Cathy Stevulak has immersed her lens deeply into the local context, making it seem as if the story was told by a Bangladeshi, rather than an outsider. Our artists need to be promoted."

Rabiul Bashar Lisan, another student of Economics at DU, shared similar sentiments. "Surayia Rahman's contributions are beyond any measuring stick. To come so far with such a success rate is phenomenal."

"I am touched by the reaction from today's audience,' said Sofia Alim, daughter of Surayia Rahman, "today it was delivered to the right crowd, ensuring that a positive change will be brought to the future entrepreneurs. This documentary cannot be more inspirational in that regard."

The third private screening took place at the residence of Enayetullah Khan, Chairman of Cosmos Foundation on February 11.

Noted economist Rehman Sobhan, former diplomat Farooq Sobhan, French Ambassador in Dhaka Sophie Aubert, South Korean Ambassador in Dhaka Ahn Seong-doo, renowned jurist Dr Kamal Hossain, noted political scientist Rounaq Jahan and more were present during the screening.

“If more such initiatives are taken, people will be able to know our own heritage and tradition,” said Dr Kamal Hossain, “we can be proud of the heritage that has been nourished by the rural people particularly rural women for a long. We did not evaluate this heritage of ours properly. We should utilize the creativity of such talented artisans and promote it more.”

“It is definitely a good initiative to make a documentary on such an issue,” said Dr Rehman Sobhan, “it was a really good one.”

The last private screening was held at the auditorium of the Brac Centre in the city on February 14.

 Ruby Ghuznavi, the founder and executive chairman of Aranya Crafts Ltd; Executive Dr. Julia Ahmed, executive director of Nova Consultancy Bangla; Tanvir Hossain, assistant general manager of Brac Aarong, and renowned fashion designer Bibi Russell were present at the event.

Bibi Russell said: “This story should reach to the young generation of the country in order to introduce them with our tradition and heritage. Private screenings of the documentary for a few selected guests, will not serve the purpose.

“We must arrange public screenings in all private and public universities across the country for making it reachable to all. Then a complete success will be achieved.”

The public screening

The screening was held on February 12 at Poet Sufia Kamal Auditorium of the National Museum, where Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor was present as the chief guest. Mentioning “Nakshi Kantha” as one of the greatest discoveries of the ancient indigenous arts of Bangladesh, the cultural affairs minister said, “This Kantha isn’t a simple piece of work…women work with Kantha with emotion and dedication. This is the reflection of their life stories.”

“Her (Surayia Rahman’s) contributions to the revival of the Nakshi Kantha are really outstanding. But it’s very sad to mention that we’re losing this unique art for lack of proper patronage and effective steps in the right time. Now we have to conduct research at the grassroots level to revive 'Nakshi Kantha’,” he said.

Noor said the making of a 'Nakshi Kantha' is the compilation of women's happiness, sorrows, hopes, and expectations. “These emotions are not a product to sell and buy all the time. So, we should revive the ancient indigenous art on Kantha to revive our heritage and rich culture.” The minister also said they are going to take some measures to protect the folklore. “This documentary will help us redesign our measures to folklore art.”

Director General of National Museum Faizul Latif Chowdhury said women’s creativity with brilliance and merit in 'Nakshi Kantha' without formal training from any institution is really remarkable and unique. “Their works deserve to be preserved for future artists and all.”

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