SURYA blocks for printing. Photo: Anil Advani

We were at Ameneh Ispahani’s home a few evenings ago along with Cathy and Len, talking about her long friendship and association with artist Surayia.  She told us that Surayia had created the design for their stationery paper. I am unsure if SURYA was the name of an organization, or the name of a “label”.  I will have to speak with her again on this subject and get the details. She brought out these metal printing-blocks – which are absolutely amazing!  A small block with the words “SURYA” [the Sun] and a set of 4 plates with a designs based on the famous Jamdani weave of Bengal. The traditional Jamdani motifs and “butis” [flowers/leaves etc] incorporated into a multi-layered letter paper design. The metal blocks were probably used to print different colors with each block – making a final multi-colored print. The blocks have markings on the sides, some with a number and some have the name of the color written onto the wood side of the block – which are “LAAL” on one block [meaning RED] and “KAALA” on another block [meaning BLACK]. I will need to do a few test prints from these blocks to see if all 4 are to be layered into one print or [what appears to me] into two separate designs from 2 blocks each.  I will post an update to this blog as soon as I have been able to obtain prints from these blocks with the assistance of an artist / print-maker friend who has very kindly offered use of their ink, press and other equipment at a print-making workshop.

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Since arriving in Dhaka two weeks ago, we have visited Surayia as often as possible and have brought several friends to meet her.   Here are just a couple of stories:

Surayia, Rafi, Cathy. Photo: Leonard Hill

Within hours of arriving in Dhaka we met Rafi Haque, Executive Secretary of the Society for Promotion of Bangladesh Art, who helped us get around a much-changed and thus unfamiliar Dhaka for the first few days.  Rafi is an excellent, award-winning, artist, and a wonderful person.  We took him to meet Surayia, and it was a pleasure to see the two of them fall into a deep discussion of art and the role of artists in society.

Surayia, Razia and her daughter. Photo: Leonard Hill

A few days later, we were with Surayia when the doorbell rang and two women came in to visit her.  They were Razia, one of the two original embroiderers who worked with Surayia, and her daughter Nazia.  Surayia and Razia had a wonderful time discussing their early years together.  We had a photograph of the first tapestry that they produced together, which neither had seen in decades.  They both identified elements of the design, partly based on old kanthas from the Stella Kramrish collection in Philadelphia and partly Surayia’s original work.  They also discussed how Razia had supervised the creation of a single-thread silk embroidered cover for a book that was presented to Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Bangladesh in 1984.  Nazia looked surprised and told us:  “I never knew until now that my mother supervised the making of a nakshi kantha tapestry given to the Queen!”  We urged her to talk with her mother in more depth about her early years and to write us with her memories.

One of the interesting things we have learned about on this very eventful trip to Dhaka has been Surayia’s role with the Women’s Voluntary Association, a service group formed in Dhaka in 1954.  Through talks with Surayia and two of the early members of the WVA, we now have a better

Women's Voluntary Association, Dhaka. Surayia Rahman design.

understanding of Surayia’s work as a staff artist for the Association.  During her time with WVA, starting not long after her marriage and move to Dhaka from Calcutta, she produced a wide assortment of art, including painted dolls and silk scrolls.  She also designed the WVA logo and created stationery for the Association.  Through the courtesy of Mrs. Rahman we have copies of the logo; Mrs. Ispahani was kind enough to allow us to photograph and print with the original copper stamps Surayia designed for the stationery.  What an incredible range of art Surayia produced! A blog post on the printing plates will be forthcoming…

I accompanied Cathy and Len back to the Salesian Sisters’ House in Monipuripara yesterday, without anticipating the treat that was in store for us. After we’d been there a short while, Sister Elisabeth asked if we would like to see the original Surayia scrolls… I think all three of us gasped and went “YES! please!” before Sr. Elisabeth could even complete her sentence. The girls were asked to bring in the wax-paper scrolls, and there they were : each small detail painstakingly hand drawn by the great artist herself. Some of the scrolls are large as the work table, around 5′ x 8′. Surayia’s fine work with attention to the minutest of details [expressions on faces, tiny objects, the veins on the leaves] had us in awe. The free flowing but precise pencil work had us going “look at this bit” and “look how the hands of this person gesture“.

Sister Joseph Mary: Photo by Anil Advani.

Then, on to see Sister Joseph Mary at the Holy Cross School and College nearby. The sun was almost down, the large waxy moon hung behind the massive Rain Tree in the garden. The gate-keeper struck a brass gong loudly once, startling us. This is how they announce visitors for a particular Nun. “One gong” was for Sister Joseph Mary to know that she had visitors. Sister greeted us and we hurried, before it got too dark,  to go look at the carved doors of the Holy Cross Hall which had been designed by Surayia Rahman. First, into the great hall to view the iron work grilles off-set by the deep inky blue evening sky. The massive and solid teak doors are carved with “Shapla” [Lotus, the national symbol of Bangladesh] and “Doel / Doyel” [Magpie Robin, the national bird]. We then proceeded to look at the small original Surayia wood-carving from where the door designs were taken. The room was full of artwork, works of Bangladeshi artists and students of the school and college. An oil painting by Surayia as well….

All along the way; Sister Joseph Mary gave us a running comentary on each piece, who painted it, when it was painted, on what occasion, snippets about the art, her life in Bangladesh….
I probably missed a lot while trying my best to photograph everything as quickly as possible, and to keep with the fast pace! 

Blogged by Anil for KanthaThreads.

The lane in front of the Salesian House. Photo: Anil Advani

Len, Anil and I took advantage of the very light traffic on the afternoon of the Eid al-Adha to drive downtown for a visit to Sister Elizabeth and the embroiderers working at the Salesian Sisters house in Monipuri Para.

With Anil at the wheel, we found the house, down a narrow street, and were warmly greeted by Sisters Elizabeth and Joseph, Bangladeshi members of the religious order started originally in France.  The first group of Salesian nuns who came to Bengal in the 1870s died of disease.  Another group came in the 1920s and founded convents, which now number ten in Bangladesh.

Sister Elizabeth and the Salesians carry on producing Surayia’s designs, which she gave to them at the time she became unable to work.  Surayia’s embroiderers continue to work with Sister Elizabeth, living at home and coming to the convent regularly to pick up materials, turn in finished work and receive payment for tapestries sold.  Other young women, primarily members of the Garo and Tripura ethnic groups, live at the Salesian house and are able to earn a living doing extrememly fine embrodery.

A sample of the fine embroidery at the Salesian House. Photo: Anil Advani.

Meeting Sister Elizabeth in person, after watching her interview in our film footage many times, was a real pleasure!

Sister Elizabeth. Photo: Anil Advani.