Guest post by: Julia Brennan
SURAYIA AND BARBARA — CONNECTIONS PAST AND PRESENT
I was busy chatting at a conference in 2012, when I was tapped on the shoulder and introduced to a woman who had recently lived in Bangladesh, and was making a film about Surayia Rahman. Was it possible, that the woman spoke of our Surayia? The painter, the embroiderer of poems, that elegant and stoic woman who became a dear friend of my mother’s in the 1970’s. Indeed, my mother’s Surayia. Hamdullah. How life works with small mysteries. Surayia, now in her 80’s, was in fact sending me a message.
My mother Barbara, lived in Dhaka in the early 1970’s, just after independence and a tragic destructive cyclone. I’ve no idea where Barbara and Surayia met, but it was a powerful and committed relationship. My mother deeply admired Surayia’s strength and dignity to support her family. Her struggle to affirm herself as an artist, and proudly display or show her paintings. Surely they discussed Surayia’s transition to stitching storytelling cloths and providing cooperative support for other Bengali women. Surayia found in my mother a safe haven, an intellectual equal, and a sense of humor and the irreverent. I know they spent many afternoons at Barbara’s house, and they shared a love of poetry, and music, with Surayia introducing Barbara to Jasim Uddin’s epic poems. Barbara gave Surayia steady reliable support, courage to create her art, and was a best friend to relax and talk to about the artistic energy of Calcutta, the tradition of Bengali kantha cloths, the rollicking politics of the day, and surely their children. In fact, Surayia’s daughter, Sophia, herself painted an alpona for my sister Adik, which she still has.
They were soul mates, and my mother stayed in touch with Surayia over the following 30 years, as she moved to Nepal, Paris, Mali and Washington, DC. Surayia came to visit Barbara several times, both in Nepal and Washington, DC. While I didn’t know Surayia well, as I was away at school or working, I heard about Surayia my whole life. She was a giant figure in my mother’s pantheon of loved ones.
When Surayia visited Barbara in Washington, she brought with her several small elegant embroidered pictures as gifts for my sister and me. Seen in the photos, they are miniatures or vignettes from her full story-telling nakshi kanthas. My favorite is the young girl, sari pulled slightly over her head, arm raised as she pulls the embroidery thread of her kantha. It is a kantha within a kantha, and it hangs in my textile conservation studio in Washington, an affirmation of my career and daily handwork. The other two are typically Bengali; a mythical bird and the often seen wide-sailed boats on the river.
In 1995 Barbara and Surayia met in Toronto, enjoying the grand children, the freedom of walking anywhere anytime, and catching up. It would be the last visit, as my mother died in 2000. But daily I am reminded of their relationship, the beauty of Surayia’s kanthas, and the courage of two women who were destined to meet each other. It is a testament to Surayia’s magnitude as a living artistic treasure of Bangladesh that this film is being made about her.
Posted by: Cathy and Len
Celebrate International Women’s Day!
Inspiration. Determination. Liberation.
March 8th is international women’s day. To celebrate with us today, pass along the story of Surayia and women of Bangladesh by liking Threads on Facebook or sharing the Threads website with friends and colleagues.
There are so many incredible stories to share. Who inspires you?
Please tell us about Women of Inspiration around the world.
Guest post by: Donna Spisso
My husband and I traveled to Dhaka to attend a wedding. I knew I would not miss the opportunity to visit Surayia Rahman, with whom I had the pleasure to know while I lived and worked in Dhaka as a teacher at the American International School 1994-2001. In those days, Surayia’s work was sold through expatriate volunteers. One of the elementary teachers, Phyllis, made part of her house available for shoppers two afternoons a week. When Phyllis asked if I would like to volunteer, I agreed and thus began a beautiful friendship that I treasure to this day.I thoroughly enjoyed showcasing the work and learning about Surayia’s art. Helping with the exhibitions, held biannually, was also a lot of fun. Surayia and the women she had trained to embroider would demonstrate the techniques, and people loved meeting and chatting with the artist, who was always gracious, full of anecdotes and passion about her work. Eventually, I took over the responsibility of insuring that Surayia’s art would continue to have a market. Since she retired, she turned her designs over to the Salesian Sisters. I visited the Salesian convent where I bought a tapestry for a wedding present, happy to see that the quality was very much the same as I remembered. Then I made my way to Surayia’s home and spent a lovely hour with her, reminiscing about old times.
Posted by: Len
With all best wishes for a happy and peaceful 2014, here is a link to our latest newsletter. There is a lot going on with Threads as we come to the end of a very productive 2013.
Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this project. We rely completely on your support to tell the inspiring story of Surayia and the women she worked with. We are very grateful for the assistance!
Posted by: Len
I have just finished setting up a YouTube channel for Threads. You can find the film trailer here. Please watch and give us a “Like.” I will start displaying the statistics soon.
The material that we post on YouTube will always be the same as that posted on Vimeo. Adding YouTube gives our viewers an additional way to find us! Enjoy.
Posted by: Cathy and Len
The Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto has an exhibition, “Telling Stories,” that includes one of Surayia’s works, Georgian Times. Curated by Roxanne Shaughnessy, the exhibition will run until mid-April, 2014, so please go see it if you are in the area. You can view an image of Georgian Times from the Textile Museum’s collection at this link.
Here’s the description from the Museum’s website:
“The art of storytelling extends beyond the written word, encompassing a myriad of forms. Whether through the illustration of a myth or legend, or the recitation of an epic poem or song, cultures have devised inventive and elaborate methods of recording and depicting their rich histories through the centuries. In this exhibition of artifacts from the permanent collection of the Textile Museum of Canada, textiles perform as instruments of communication, offering narratives that unfold in the making and materiality of each textile. …. Telling Stories presents extraordinary materials of everyday lives that reflect the inordinate richness of cultural histories as well as the human impulse to capture real and imagined experiences.”
Thank you, Roxanne, for a beautiful and timely exhibition.