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Threads of passion

Jul 29, 2011

Cathy Stevulak is on a mission to tell the untold tale of a passionate artist who has helped hundreds of Bangladeshi women overcome poverty by creating timeless works of art. Threads is a documentary that celebrates the power of creativity and heritage that nourishes the human potential, and the impact that one person’s sharing can have on the lives of many.

It was my interest in traditional textiles that led me to Surayia Rahman. When I said I would be moving to Dhaka for a couple of years, a volunteer in the gift shop of the Textile Museum of Canada told me of her – an older Bangladeshi woman who did exquisite 'kantha' embroidery.

kantha-surayia-rahman.jpg

Ten years ago, at an Asian Studies Group meeting at our home in Dhaka, a guest named Melodia offered to show me Surayia’s work. She took me down a narrow lane in Dhaka, through a row of garment factories and into a family home. Here I met Surayia, tall and graceful in a white sari. She took some paper scrolls from a corner of her small bedroom, and unfurled a masterpiece drawing in black ink. 

Several younger women came in from an adjacent room and, with quiet pride, showed us a large wall hanging that they had been stitching for months with Surayia’s guidance. These women were once destitute. Surayia had taught them to embroider her pen and ink designs in the finest detail, with stitching inspired by the centuries-old quilting tradition of Bengal called kantha.

"I have nothing to show," Surayia said later. The exceptional talent of these women and Surayia’s humility struck me. On an impulse, I requested the Textile Museum staff if they would accept a commission of one of Surayia’s works for their collection.

The exquisite works of Surayia and hundreds of poor women taught by her have in fact been gifted to royalty and other dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, and are in homes and museums around the world. 

Inspired and moved by her art and life, my husband, Leonard, and I have now brought together an experienced team of filmmakers in Bangladesh, the United States and Canada to make Threads happen. We could not let these richly human lives be forgotten.  

Getting to know Surayia

I came to know Surayia better after we moved back to Canada and Surayia was visiting with her family who had migrated there. She was often frail but kept a sparkle in her eye, particularly when she talked about art. 

surayia-rahman

We had pleasant conversations together and I knew there was something very special about her essence and outlook on life. I sensed she felt that if we had more art and artists in the world, we would have a better appreciation of each other and of nature.

How did the film happen? The spark of this idea started in Halifax, where we displayed textiles from Bangladesh, including one of Surayia’s nakshi kantha tapestries with help of the textile department of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

One day over coffee, Lesley Armstrong, a professor at NSCAD, looked me straight in the eye and suggested I make a documentary about Surayia’s art and life before all is forgotten. Each of Surayia’s unique designs has a story to it…who would know these after she was gone? How did some of the most impoverished women produce some of the most stunning textile art?  What would happen to the women who came to learn from Surayia? I could not get these questions off my mind.

When living in Bangladesh, I was constantly bombarded with the difficulties and indignity of daily life for so many people – and I also saw the hope and the progress that opportunity was bringing in this young country. Surayia’s innovation, her style of nakshi kantha tapestry was unique, and had helped hundreds of women to earn and lead dignified lives. Such remarkable people in the developing world – particularly women – come and pass without a trace. And I was committed to tell this story.

"I do not want fame" 

The first filming session with Surayia was on an overcast December day in Toronto. I glanced outside to see messy telephone wires running across bare trees. Looking at the same scene, Surayia pointed to the tree trunks and intertwined branches and said, "Isn’t that beautiful?" She sees beauty in all things, and all people.

When first asked about filming her, Surayia said, "I do not want fame." But she did want to share what inspired her work and the richness of Bengali culture. During her long life, she had recreated scenes of her youth from the British Raj days in Calcutta, her visits to the villages in Bangladesh, and her observations of life in Dhaka – particularly the lives of women. She had interpreted the Bengali literature of Rabindranath Tagore and Jasimuddin in her designs. 

Shortly after, Surayia was on an airplane heading home to Dhaka. Through regular phone calls to Bangladesh, I soon discovered how much she had suffered and overcome to continue with her art and to empower others. "Everything is possible," she tells me. 

kantha-work

See the film trailer

For high definition follow this link

For slower internet connections try this link

As a four year old in Calcutta, Surayia senses her true calling when her father first guides her hand to draw. She feels "intoxicated" by the smell of paper and ink. She draws on her father’s laundry. She is teased and embarrassed about her obsession until the day of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination when she paints a portrait of him that captures his personality. 

Surayia wants to attend art school but is prevented by religious riots. To compound her misery, her marriage is arranged and she leaves her beloved Calcutta to move to Dhaka. In her new environment as a young bride, Surayia gives up drawing for duty to her husband and to raise a young family.

After six years of feeling bound, she starts to make dolls, watercolors and scrolls for Women’s Voluntary Association – and her art lifts her spirits again. But her artistic freedom does not last as her husband has a stroke and she suddenly becomes the family’s breadwinner.  

Surayia turns to her art and paints her heart out…to survive and care for her family. Struggling a living from painting to painting, her life changes when a Canadian woman, Maureen Berlin, asks her to teach two destitute women in Dhaka to stitch. 

In her early fifties, Surayia leaves her life of a lone artist to share her talent and skills with two women, and then hundreds more.

Maureen, who co-founded the Skills Development project, recalls how Surayia insisted on giving the poorest of the poor a chance – the brick-breakers, the street beggars, women without embroidery skills. She worked with Muslim, Hindu and Christian women alike, all equal in her eyes.

The most valiant effort of Surayia to fuel her creative spirit came when she is forced to leave the Skills Development project and her designs are retained. She goes to the court to fight for copyright of her designs and, with the help of her eldest daughter, starts her own organization called "Arshi" (mirror) to continue creating embroidered tapestries. From being a teacher, she becomes a social entrepreneur.

Art for social good

Surayia is now 80. She cannot draw anymore. Five years ago, she gave her designs to the Silesian Sisters in Dhaka who work with some of the women that Surayia trained. A widow’s project also has her permission to use her designs. Many others are copying her designs to sell. She softly wonders, "Why copy, why not create?"

One of Surayia’s last works is now in the Textile Museum of Canada. Entitled "Georgian Times," it depicts her memory of her early youth in colonial Calcutta, the days when she experienced the freedom of art and life.

Collectively, hundreds of talented women of Bangladesh have created masterpieces – against the odds – and experienced their own liberation from poverty.  Women, who first came to Surayia with a ball of rice in their saris as food for the day, have been able to send their children to school, buy a piece of land, or a family home.  Some of these women are now teaching others. Thread by thread, they are empowering themselves and the next generation.

Surayia now dreams of an institute in Bangladesh where artists can carry on what she has begun – and innovate for social good. "Art is love," Surayia told me when we first looked through the camera to start the filming.

Surayia humbly admits she was never satisfied with her art; she always wanted it to be better.  She is embarrassed to say that she is an artist because she never attended art school.   Furthermore, she does not see how she helped so many women, and gives credit to them for working hard and helping themselves and their families. 

________

Threads celebrates creativity, self-empowerment and the sharing of talents to combat poverty, create common dignity and provide hope. We welcome the participation of OneWorld readers in helping us to complete this inspirational documentary. We have done half of the filming and have located almost 100 of Surayia’s paintings and nakshi kantha tapestry designs around the world.  As we embark on the critical phase of putting the film together and doing one more film shoot in Bangladesh this year, we are working to raise funding from various sources.

We invite you to help by:

Letting us know how this film could be used to support your work
Making a contribution through PayPal on our website
Sharing our website and film trailer on facebook and twitter
Asking at least one person to do the same

If your organisation would like to sponsor the film and/or screen it (we are aiming for Spring 2012 release), please contact me at cathy@kanthathreads.com

To know more:

Threads website
Threads film trailer in high definition and for slower internet connections
More about nakshi kantha
Story about Surayia in Hand/Eye magazine

_______

Cathy Stevulak, an advisor with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Dhaka from 2001-3, is leading the effort to produce a documentary film on Surayia’s life and art. With her husband, Leonard Hill, a US diplomat, Cathy has assembled a team of committed award-winning filmmakers to work on the film.

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