Posted by:  Cathy and Len

How many lawyers and rhinos are there in Surayia’s work “The Raj?”  The answer is:  One … and two, depending on when the piece was designed.

The original "Raj" with one lawyer.

The original “Raj” with one lawyer.

In recent weeks we have had several fascinating conversations with Andreas, a friend of Surayia’s who encouraged her to design a nakshi kantha tapestry based on her experience as a witness to the last days of British rule in Calcutta.  Surayia mentioned Andreas to us some months ago, saying that we should get in touch with him.  Asked where he was and how to contact him, she said: “Oh it shouldn’t be hard to find him, he’s a German man.  Ask in Germany.  He gave me a leather book once.  Ask at the bookshops, they will know his address.”   Fortunately for us, an internet search turned up contact information for a man who seemed to be a match, and an e-mail to him asking if he might be the person Surayia mentioned brought a quick and gracious reply.


The updated "Raj" with a second lawyer.

The updated “Raj” with a second lawyer.

Surayia tells us that, when she was encouraged by Andreas to design the tapestry that she called “The Raj,” it had a hunting scene with one rhinoceros, and a courtroom scene with one lawyer.  This design was produced under the auspices of the Skills Development for Underprivileged Women project.  Surayia later was let go from SDUW.  The project retained her original designs and applied to the Copyright Board for ownership.  When some of the women from the Skills Development project came to ask her to help them, Surayia formed her own organization Arshi, and needed to re-create the designs.  With the copyright proceedings looming, Surayia tells us that she was advised to make her designs with a difference.  So … the single rhino is the hunting scene became two rhinos.  And the single lawyer in the courtroom gained a colleague.  As she tells us in one of the interviews that Mishuk Munier filmed in Dhaka:  “I never saw a courtroom before but I did a perfect courtroom scene, with two lawyers.”

For thirty years and continuing today, Surayia’s designs in both versions are the center of livelihoods for many artisans of Bangladesh.    The Threads film is a story that goes well beyond ‘one’ or ‘two’…it is a story of how one person, with creativity and sharing skills, can impact the lives of communities for generations.   The artwork is not the only legacy; it is the children who are schooled, the women who are empowered to buy their own land, and those who are teaching others to stitch beauty for a future.

"Raj" with one rhino.

“Raj” with one rhino.

"Raj" with two rhinos.

“Raj” with two rhinos.











Photos by Tino Sieland.  Used with kind permission of the owner.


Posted by: Len

Surayia and some of the women of Arshi.  Photo copyright Anil Advani and Kantha Productions LLC.

Surayia and some of the women of Arshi. Photo copyright Anil Advani and Kantha Productions LLC.

International Women’s Day is the perfect time to reflect on the example set by Surayia and the women of Arshi.  Talent, creativity, and lots of dedication and hard work allowed them to build much better futures for themselves and their families.  Artisan enterprises like Arshi employ significant numbers of people — primarily women — around the world, and are an important source of income that permits self-sufficiency.

It is good to see that my former employer, the U.S. State Department, has joined with other like-minded institutions to establish the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise.  I hope this initiative helps to focus attention on artisans worldwide, today and during Women’s History Month, and also that it helps convince people to support living artists and to buy the handmade goods that they produce.

Posted by: Cathy and Len

Collage of quilts from the "Why Quilts Matter" homepage.

Collage of quilts from the “Why Quilts Matter” homepage.

We recently had the chance to watch a very interesting nine-part series called: Why Quilts Matter.  Hosted by Shelly Zegart, the series of half-hour programs covers the history, art and politics of quilts and quilting, primarily in the U.S., as well as collecting quilts and the market for them.  There is a segment devoted to the quilts of Gee’s Bend, which we were first exposed to several years ago through an excellent documentary film of the same name.  Why Quilts Matter is informative and well worth watching.  We checked the DVDs out from our local library; PBS stations in the U.S. have rights to air the series through 2014, so it may be broadcast where you live — check your local listings or ask your local PBS station.  You can also buy the DVDs online.

We knew from our research for Threads that there were more than 20 million quilters in the U.S.  Why Quilts Matter goes into detail on the numbers and economic impact of quilting.  It was also interesting for us to learn more about how quilt shows in Japan attract huge numbers of attendees.  Going back to our research for Threads, some of the first customers for the “nakshi kantha tapestries” that Surayia designed were Japanese, and throughout her career Japanese customers were consistent buyers of her work.  Reflecting the strong interest that people from Japan have shown in her,  about 10 years ago the Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh interviewed Surayia on video about her life and work.

Not long after we watched Why Quilts Matter, Cathy had the opportunity to have a conversation with Shelly Zegart.  Shelly is even more engaging and interesting in person than she is on film.

Why Quilts Matter got us thinking about the many quilting traditions around the world, including nakshi kantha in Bengal.  Quilts in North America are now being documented and valued as both historical objects and art.  Will that happen for other quilts before the traditions are lost?

Posted by:  Len

A short slideshow about Threads and its themes is online for viewing and sharing.  You can see it on Vimeo here or on SlideRocket here.  I’m also thinking about embedding it on the website.

Please take a look and pass the links on to people who would be interested in this story of overcoming challenges through inspiration, dedication and art.

Thanks, as always, to Anil Advani for the wonderful photos of Surayia, the women of Arshi and the art.


Posted by:  Len

We have posted on the Threads Pinterest board this very good infographic about the importance of investing in women and girls prepared by the US Agency for International Development.  Surayia’s story is one of investing time and talent in a group of women who were considered by many not worth helping.  By sharing one’s skills, an individual can make a huge difference in the lives of many.  In Surayia’s case, she not only was able to raise and educate her own family with her art, but gave the hundreds of women who worked for her the chance to raise and educate their children.

Surayia Rahman and some of the women of Arshi.  Photo copyright by Anil Advani and Kantha Productions LLC,

Surayia Rahman and some of the women of Arshi. Photo copyright by Anil Advani and Kantha Productions LLC,