creating a future...

Surayia, photographed by Anil Advani.

Down a narrow lane flanked by garment factories they came to her, over roads and over rivers, for inspiration, for guidance, for work. She is Surayia Rahman, a self-trained, passionate artist who guided hundreds of underprivileged women in Bangladesh to create masterworks — exquisitely hand-embroidered art that has been gifted to dignitaries and admired in collections throughout the world.

More about this inspiring story…

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Film Synopsis

A documentary film in the making …
Inspired by the determination and talent of a community of women…
And by the traditional quilting and embroidery culture of Bangladesh…

From her youth in cosmopolitan Calcutta during the colonial days of the British Raj when her father and caretaker would take her to the countryside, the boat races and the grand ballroom dances, Surayia yearned to be an artist and to draw the vividness of life she witnessed.  She was “intoxicated” by the smell of paper and ink.   Her talent was noticed by a school teacher who promoted her acceptance in art school, but she could not attend because of the communal riots caused by the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947.  Instead, her marriage was arranged at seventeen years of age, and along with many other Muslims she moved to Dhaka, in what was then called East Pakistan.   She became very depressed and put her art aside to raise three children, her “living art.”

Surayia’s life turned again when her husband became ill and she needed to become the breadwinner of the family.  In a time when equality of opportunity was rare, she courageously turned to her art, painting for Catholic priests and nuns in Bangladesh, an American woman who arranged for Surayia’s art to be sold in an Iowa art museum, French patrons who would send her work to Paris and others who discovered her quietly working in her house surrounded by water.  Though painting was her passion, a Canadian asked her to join a project to train underprivileged women to embroider at a center for women and children.  Women were seldom seen on the streets of Dhaka those days, but they lined up to come and work at this center.  While others did not believe in the ability of uneducated women to learn a fine skill, Surayia sat on the floor and stitched with her “girls.”  Without discrimination, she patiently empowered them to earn a living wage.  Thread by thread, month by month, Surayia’s nakshi kantha tapestries brought a traditional household craft of embroidered quilts to an art form, with intricate designs and stitches that told stunning stories based on rural life, the great Bengali poets Tagore and Jasimuddin and the colonial period.  They sold quickly.  And then one day Surayia was released from the project, her designs forcibly retained, her livelihood in peril.  Surayia fought for her designs in copyright court, but to no avail.   An artist, alone and in need, with family to feed and educate, she bravely started her own organization — Arshi (mirror).

Soon, Surayia’s “living paintbrushes” started coming back to her.  The other project folded and Arshi thrived.  One young woman would go back to her village with design, thread and needle, and seven more would come from near and far.  Soon there were hundreds.  As Surayia was feeding her family, so these women were feeding theirs.  After twenty-five years building a community of women artisans who grew in confidence and skill, Surayia had to retire from her work.  Her intricate, long fingers could no longer draw.   She gave her designs to a group of nuns, and her “girls” moved on to a new era.   They started years ago with little more than a small ball of rice tied into the corner of their sari and they now say goodbye to Surayia, some having been able to send their children to university, others owning land, and others with a family home.

Surayia has no paintings or tapestries in her home.  Her work is now scattered throughout the world.   Her story and the story of her tapestries — exquisite works created in an artisan enterprise made by and for women in Bangladesh — is yet untold.