My memories of jamdani saris span across two continents. First, in Asia during the 1960s, when I first became aware of jamdani saris in Bangladesh. Second, transporting the fashion of jamdani saris across to Europe in London at the end of the 1960s.
I remember when jamdani saris became a ‘fashionable’ attire in my household and among the community I lived in as a young child in Dhaka. I think, I would not have known that it was a ‘fashionable’ sari to wear, if it was not for the fact that my mother, and aunties referred to it a lot when they discussed the type of saris they would buy when they went shopping. I did not join in the discussions because I was far too young, but I listened curiously, and those discussions formed my early awareness of the concept of fashion.
When I accompanied them to our local shopping center – New Market in Dhaka – jamdani saris would be hanging outside every sari stall. I was asked to look out for an appealing stall. There were so many to choose from, but somehow one stall had the edge as far as my mother and aunts were concerned. Before I knew it, seats were offered to us at the chosen stall with the shop keeper presenting us with an array of jamdani saris taken down from their shelves one after another. I remember looking at them wide eyed as if I was in a sweet shop. The patterns and colours were not only wonderful but also overwhelming, and when I was asked which one I liked, I could not decide, pointing to one, changing my mind, then pointing to another.
Looking back now, I have vivid memories of the parties we went to in Dhaka, and women wearing jamdani saris of all colours and patterns. Secretly, as a child, I would be scoring my top ten jamdani saris at the parties. I do remember thinking that the jamdani muslin fabric could look a little ‘puffy’ on the wearer as it did not follow the contours of the wearer’s body shape, as say a soft silk sari would. This is particularly around the ‘kuchi’ (the folded part of the sari at the front) where, if each fold was not smoothened out, the sari would look ‘rough’ around that area. But in my child’s eyes, I thought that it also looked rather feminine especially when the ‘achol’ – the top end of the sari – was drawn around the shoulders like a shawl, providing a halo-like effect around the wearer.
When we moved to London, my mother brought only a couple of her jamdani saris given the space restrictions in our suitcases, especially with three young children in tow. But they soon multiplied when we periodically went back to Dhaka or my grandparents would send them to her from Bangladesh. I remember my mother opening a parcel of jamdani saris sent by my grandparents, and my father commenting that they truly were the best because they were unique and skillfully crafted by hand. He liked my mother wearing them not only because they were beautiful and colourful but because he was inherently proud of the fact that they were made in Bangladesh.
I also remember that my father asked one of his friends who owned a camera, to take photos of our family. These were the very first photos taken after we arrived in London. These photos were to be sent to our family in Bangladesh, to provide a flavour of our newly formed life here. We all had to dress up which I thought odd as we were not going out.
Nevertheless, my mother took out her best jamdani, it was a burnt orange and black intricately woven sari. She wore her hair up in a ‘khopa’ or a bun, as women did in those days when they were going on a special outing. She put on her make up and jewelry before posing in the front room with the family.
Being a light thin muslin fabric, jamdanis are very comfortable to wear in warmer climes but they are not so practical in cold countries. So, after a while, as we settled into the lifestyle here, jamdanis started to become less popular among the Bengali community in London. My mother and her friends did not buy or wear them as often as they did and soon stopped wearing them altogether. This may have also coincided with the decline of the jamdani sari industry in Bangladesh.
As I grew older and started to wear saris, I did not think about wearing jamdanis. By that time, Indian silk, chiffon and benarasi saris became more popular. Also, unlike my mother’s generation who wore saris every day, I did not. I only preferred to wear saris at weddings, Eid and special occasions, choosing one of these Indian saris that our local shops in Tooting were inundated with.
I am really pleased that The Muslin Trust has started a campaign to ‘Bring jamdani saris back to the UK and Bangladesh’. This has evoked some of my childhood memories and made me aware that this handloom sari industry which we once had, was so explicitly associated with Bangladesh. As a child, I did not appreciate this or even as an adult, until the Muslin Trust campaign. It has made me look at jamdani saris with renewed eyes.
These memories have also encouraged me to research into the history of the jamdani fabric. For example, I did not realise that this fabric was very popular in the Mughal period as well as the Victorian period when they were imported from East Bengal in the form of shawls and other garments in Britain. That, ‘jam’ means flower and ‘dani’ means vase in Persian and that the muslin and gold threads were weaved to express flowers both in a literal and in an impressionistic style.
I would be immensely proud if we could revive the industry in Bangladesh, globally exporting it not only in the form of saris but as a fabric to make other clothes.