Dhaka: The Woven Intricacy

Features Issue 42 Aug, 2010
Text by Eva Manandhar / Photo: ECS Media

Today, a textile that was once alien to this nation is a pattern that symbolizes our culture and tradition. We know it by the name ‘Dhaka’. The material is believed to have been brought in from Bangladesh by the early Rana rulers of Nepal. Although the stories about its origin vary, an account also says that during the invasion of Muslim nations in eastern India, the victims fled to Nepal and continued their profession of making Dhaka. They defi-nitely prospered in their trade but what is more important is the lasting legacy they have left behind.

With the passage of time, the use of Dhaka significantly increased so much so that Dhaka caps or topis became an integral part of our nationality. They also took an important social role as a material that was required in most religious ceremonies from birth to death. For example, Dhaka daura surwal is worn by the people of Chhettri community during weddings and among the Newars, it is required for performing funeral rites. And not far back, during the early 1900’s Dhaka clothes such as the chaubandi cholo (blouse), khasto (shawl) and daura surwal (national dress for men) dominated the Nepali fashion scene, if there was one.

Although Dhaka was popular and originally woven in most parts of eastern Nepal like Terhathum, Dang, Ilam and Dhankuta, weavers in Kathmandu have today mastered the skill. However, for raw material like thread and dye, Nepal is still dependent on India. With the changing lifestyle and experimentation with different fabric designs, Dhaka prints are also being produced with a mix of silk.

What is interesting is that no two Dhaka patterns are the same. “The traditional colors of Dhaka cloth are black, white, red and orange but no two topis or shawls are identical: each has its own individual pattern, reflecting the creativity and skill of the weaver” states Susi Dunsmore, the author of the book “Nepalese Textiles.” Therefore, anyone who owns one of these creations certainly has a prized possession.

Not only is Dhaka unique, but it has also survived hundreds of years and many generations, perhaps because of its utility. This material is not confined to one season. It is purely cotton, hence in summer it keeps you fresh, whereas in winter, the specially designed layered Dhaka keeps you warm.

As change is inevitable, Dhaka prints available today in the market has drastically changed from the traditional ones. Along with the color combination, there is also variance in patterns. Additions such as the colors blue, green, brown to the original colors give it a new dimension. And if you are looking for authentic Dhaka with a touch of modernity, the contemporary Dhaka shops in Kupondole will not let you down. A few of the places that display some of the finest Dhaka products include outlets such as Dhaka Weaves, Kalamandir and Mahaguthi. Shawls, stoles, tablecloth, place mats, bed covers, cushion covers, ties include some of the items produced by them.

More than being a fashion trend, Dhaka has taken on a social responsibility of empowering many women in  rural Nepal. A social organization, with its outlet in Kupondole, Mahaguthi, which was established in 1984 with the objective of uplifting marginalized women has over the years been contributing to Dhaka production. Sunil Chitrakar, Executive Director of Mahaguthi says, “Dhaka itself is a unique living skill which should not be limited to its traditional styles but changes relevant to the current trend especially in terms of design must be welcomed to make it more popular.”

The other pioneer in the field, Dhaka Weaves, an NGO has been producing handmade Dhaka products since its inception in 1991. Its devotion to the material has largely contributed to the  popularity of Dhaka even in the modern day culture. This company was started by some of Nepal’s progressive women entrepreneurs and is today  managed by Rita Thapa, Shyam Badan Shrestha and Mohini Lama. A non-governmental organization that had been working for the benefit of women is now in the process of handing over the ownership to the weavers and staff. This way, the profits made by the firm go to the people who are working for it. Dhaka Weaves is also playing a role in helping the victims of violence as a part of the profits goes to their relief. “Hence, with every produce woven in creativity, Dhaka Weaves is not only giving continuity to the traditional identity but also making a change in the  lives of a disadvantaged group of women in the society,” said Prativa Pandey, designer and former managing director of Dhaka Weaves.  

Although Dhaka has been in the cultural scene, it has not made an impact as  an upbeat material. “One of the reasons being its low quality mass production, as some Dhaka materials tend to  shrink and the colors may run when washed repeatedly. Therefore, even if you do have to spend a little extra money, it is advisable to choose  quality products, which are produced with fine raw materials and are hand woven,” informs Prativa Pandey.

The availability of other imported and ‘easy-to-use’ materials, has also affected Dhaka’s popularity. As Prativa very aptly puts it, “Dhaka is a dying art and needs to be preserved, respect and acknowledgment needs to be given to the weavers who have contributed in maintaining this art. People should understand its value and there should be an increase in the use of Dhaka products. When buying such products, one should realize that they are works of art and represent the hard labor of the weavers. By buying the product, they are helping deprived women generate income and are also supporting local craft.”

An inheritance and a legacy, Dhaka speaks of a tradition. The name itself evokes fascination among the older  generation while the youth find Dhaka designs appealing to make a trendy and stylish fashion statement.