We took a jaunt to Lala Khal, which is a gorgeous lake, and had a relaxing boat ride. Dhaka seemed very far away, it is miraculous to not be able to hear any traffic noise or car horns. In the middle of the lake was the border to India, so we almost got two holidays in one but not quite. Then we visited the tea gardens which had a colonial plantation vibe, I was playing at being a rich lady visitor in the 19th century but soon freaked myself out. Our tour guide was an 11 year old so all in all, an odd experience. Then we dropped in at a roadside tea shop, famous apparently for its 7 and 8 layer teas. Nahin was encouraging us to order one, so we did, but then told us that they use chemicals to keep the tea layers separate and advised us not to drink it. I took a sip but refrained from going the whole way. Later on we went to the cultural festival again, this time with a body guard, but that didn’t really change anything apart from I now had a guy shunting people who got too close to me, or even walked by me at all. Entertainment at least. I bought some gamcha from a weaver (gamcha is a cheap textile usually in a check pattern and used as a towel/clothing/anything you can use it for) and he sang me a song which was really great and I gave him a few verses of A Sprig of Thyme in return. The song, he explained, was about two poor weavers, husband and wife, who were so frustrated with their lot that they took to attacking eachother with their tools. Have to learn that one. I visited a garment factory today, which was quite an eye-opener. Similar and different to Lancashire’s output. Not quite sure that Platt’s made H&M clothes, but if they did, they’d weighve ‘em reight.
So today we got to Sylhet after a 25 minute flight. I noticed that Sylhet is quieter than Dhaka only because there were cows and goats on the road. Our hotel is called 'Rose View' and is right opposite the festival we're here for. We got settled and went to the opening of 'London 1971' - a photography exhibition of the fight for Bangladesh's liberation that was fought by overseas Bangladeshis. After this we went to the Bengal Cultural Festival, put on by the Bengal Foundation, for some food. The food was great and we walked around. We were 3 white Western women so everywhere we went we were mobbed by at least 30 Bangladeshi boys and men at any one time and can't move anywhere. This gets really old really fast. Add to that them trying to take pictures of you next to them, without you noticing, so they can brag to their friends that you're their girlfriend, or worse. After 30 minutes we were fed up because we couldn't move or see anything and we fixed to leave. As we were leaving I got sick of all the stares and pulled a good few faces in the sly selfies that were taken so as to render them useless. They didn't like that. We've planned to visit the festival tomorrow morning when its less busy. Sylhet runs on testosterone, gasoline and prayer. Which is a toxic combination if you're a woman.
I expect this will be a bumper post because a lot has happened since last week! I was worried about actualising my idea but that has since subsided and I’ve made a strong plan for the piece I’m going to write so I’m a lot happier about that. Since I’ve been in the flat for a while, Shebika and I have been chatting a lot and shes a real joy to have around. She told me about her life and she pestered me to show her pictures of my family and my life but after that I felt good about it and she said my mum was pretty and glamourous so there you go Christine! They can’t take that away from you.
I met with Sadaf on Saturday and she really opened my eyes to ethical factories and the differences in the industry and the general history that brought about the influx of garment factories in Dhaka. I needed that perspective so I’m glad I found it this early into the trip. Later that evening I went to a lecture by David Hulme from the University of Manchester Global Development Institute on climate change in Dhaka and again, this was an interesting perspective that brought Dhaka and Bangladesh out of the Western single narrative of “Bangladesh is a developing country” and that was refreshing. After we had a meal and I opened it with a song and Majeda sitting opposite me sang Auld Lang Syne in Bengali, as translated by Tagore. So that was really cool for me. Majeda also gave me a lot of contacts so I’ll be calling a lot of bemused Bengalis later.
Now we’re up to my favourite day so far. Yesterday I met Shamim and we went to Sonargaon, the medieval capital of Bangladesh, to visit the Jamdani weavers. On the way we got a roadside tea which is very sweet and I, of course, got stared at by a gathering crowd of about 30 people. After this we headed into the village on foot. Firstly we met some women who were preparing the warp on the reed, they said one reed took and hour to set up. That is madness. Lightening fast madness. Then she ushered us over to a bamboo contraption that she was setting up to thread the healds. There was a little boy who was hugging a big pink teddy bear that was looking at me like I had 3 heads. Quite enjoyed that. Then we met a master weaver who took us to see the ladies spinning the thread onto the bobbins and letting it dry out. This is when it hit me that the silence was deafening. The ladies used a ceramic fragment to keep the spindles twirling whilst they would the thread onto the bobbin. All you could hear was the creak of the bamboo. Eerie but visually engaging. If you ever feel stressed, you need to come here. So relaxing. After this we headed on down to the weaving sheds where the magic happened. Shamim had commissioned this weaver to create this show-off Jamdani piece for an exhibition and it was glorious.
The looms cost around 900 tk and a piece of Jamdani sells for 15,000 tk plus. The most expensive Jamdani in the Aarong was 350,000 tk. Should put that on me Amazon Wishlist really. I’ve included a lot of pictures here to show you what it was like, its hard to explain. I also put a load of pictures on my Instagram (www.Instagram.com/JenniferBallads) if you want to check those out.
So after the excitement of the Burns night I was housebound for three days. This is the nature of being a visiting artist in Bangladesh. I had time then, to study a little and come up with solid ideas for the work I'll produce at the end of the trip. I figured out the themes of my book and what areas I will cover, so that really boosted my confidence. Its easy to get lost in your head here because its so new and different. Whilst reading an article about Samita Sen I discovered a Dhaka-born author called Samaresh Basu. One particular story he wrote mentioned some weavers from Lancashire coming to West Bengal so I've been driving everyone mad trying to get to the bottom of it. His works aren't commonly translated so I may have to buy it in Bangla then convince someone to read it to me in English. Best get meeting some benevolent people with too much time on their hands. I have some fun things planned for this week. I'm meeting a lady who is involved in sustainable and ethical garment production; I'm meeting a lovely girl from Scotland and hopefully going round some of the markets looking for wooden toys and brightly coloured things; I'm attending a lecture on global development lead by a University of Manchester professor, so I'm looking forward to laying my accent on thick and then going "oh me? I'm from Middleton;" and at the end of the week I'm heading to the Jamdani weaving villages to visit the hand-loom weavers in South Dhaka. Jamdani has long been described as woven dew, the cloth it produced was so sophisticated and beautiful. I've attached a picture.
So it was the Burns night last night. I decided to sing ‘Come Whoam to thi’ Childer an’ me’ by Edwin Waugh because Sid is convinced he is the Lancashire Burns. We did an event at Rochdale Town Hall around the idea so it couldn’t have been more fitting. The food was well received – haggis and all the trimmings – but the compere was not. A sexist speech made for uncomfortable listening and I made sure he knew I was against his outdated chauvinistic approach to public speaking. I enjoy this kind of thing because it saves me time on finding out who the weak men or women in the room are. I may have ruffled a few feathers but I will never compromise my principles. Today we took a jaunt to the old town in the South, the roads were exceptionally treacherous and after an hour and a half following two ladies who had no clue where they were going, we got to Beauty Boarding. I walked along the streets and it’s here that it hit me. I’m in Bangladesh and its mad different to the streets of Old Trafford. Beauty Boarding has cultural significance as it was home to many people who went on to become some of the great writers of the past century. We ate traditional food here and you eat it with your hands. I experienced a mini existential crisis having to touch the food as it was really immersive and left me feeling a little odd. Culture shock gets you in mysterious ways! We were here for the Chobi Mela IX photography festival, Beauty Boarding was a venue that was exhibiting some work. We checked it out and walked down to Northbrook Hall. Arif told us that it was built for an English nobleman who only spent one hour in it. Again, we checked out the photos and got back to the car to take us to the Bangladesh National Gallery, our final stop. Here I saw some really important work, even the poster Jeremy Seabrook used as the cover for his brilliant work ‘Song of the Shirt.’ We got a coffee and headed home. By now I’m pretty worn out. Mentally and physically. But I’m glad I called out that sexist. And I'll do it again.
Last night I was planning to stay in, but Kendall introduced me and Nawshin over email and she invited me to a dinner at her father’s house. He’s an art collector so the house was big and looked like something from James Bond. Working my way through the house I noticed outside was set up banquet style so I was looking forward to eating. The meal was brilliant – fried chapatti was a highlight. At the bar I bumped into the Italian ambassador and sang an Italian drinking song with him. Another highlight. I was speaking to a man who mentioned that his colleague worked in Manchester and I gave him my card, which he read out, “Jennifer Reid sings broadsheet ballads in public performance – just how public?” So I took my chance and burst into ‘I means to get jolly well drunk I do’ to much laughter and applause. It really was a great evening! Today Kendall and I are going to the Bangladesh National Museum in Shahbag and then onto the Burn’s Night at the High Commission. I’ve been asked to sing at the top of the evening and later on some Scottish musicians will be leading the entertainment and dances. I’ll hand out the ballads that Graham printed too!
Some of the scenes as we were driving away from the airport reminded me of Ford Madox Brown’s paintings in Manchester Art Gallery. Specifically ‘Work’ from 1863, where a bustling scene is unfolding on a street. Driving through North Dhaka into Gulshan we saw men and women digging up the sides of the road in a process known as ‘recarpeting’, probably commissioned by the mayor of North Dhaka as part of his regeneration programme. This was a welcome distraction from the traffic on the roads, which ebbed and flowed in the way a river would. A really scary river that you could die on. Our driver was brilliant, it truly is a skill to drive in Bangladesh. Last night we went to a party at the Italian ambassador’s house for the photography festival happening in Dhaka. There was food and drink in abundance so I was very well accommodated. I was woken this morning by the call to prayer, the singer this morning was superb. Nahin told us that at the start of Ramadan the call is super rushed, not surprising really! We had a quick walk around the park adjacent to the flat, I've added in a picture. I’m writing this from the Jubilee Bar in the British High Commission. It’s an odd place. There is a Burn’s night on here tomorrow, and I will be singing.
I wrote to the British Council a year ago and mentioned that I had an idea to go to Bangladesh and compare their work songs with those that I know about Manchester and Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution. I thought that there could really be a link there that I could explore. I got onto the plane to Dubai from Manchester and settled in for the 7 hour flight. After arriving at Dubai International airport I joined the queue to check in for my flight to Bangladesh and my first taste of Bangladeshi queuing technique. The air hostess looked incredibly stressed as she shouted and whipped the huge crowd of people into shape, trying to get them through the tunnel and onto the aircraft. I hung back and watched this unfold, at this point I was far too tired to begin stressing. I got to my seat after a long wait and listened to Love – The Red Telephone as we took off. That was so relaxing, I recommend it to anybody. Stepping off the plane was quite surreal, knowing that I have been sent to Dhaka to follow up on my hunch and produce a body of work around it. North Dhaka is just as I expected, the roads are terrifying, the people are so friendly and I am very excited to start my research. Here are a few photographs from the car after my 16 hour flight. I'm reading Tagore on Nationalism at the moment and trying not to lean one way or the other, but it certainly shows the influence the West has had on this place. The fact that he is quoted on the front of the book as saying, “All the great nations of Europe have their victims in other parts of the world,” sets the tone.