Panchalata Khisha's hands had magic in them, or so thought her daughter Monjulika, as she watched her mother working away on a traditional handloom.
As the wooden shafts nudged against each other, colourful threads – arranged in taut, even lines – were turning into a piece of fabric; a fabric that would later be used to make 'pinon-khadi,' the traditional Chakma ensemble for women.
A member of All Pakistan Women's Association, Panchalata's sofa covers, tea cosy, etc. were often put up at exhibitions and thoroughly appreciated.
She taught her daughters weaving although it was not mandatory. So from a young age, they could create intricate designs with ease.
Her husband, Monjulika's father, Kali Ratan Khisha was a government officer and the family lived in government quarters. Once a District Officer's wife gave her a shawl and asked her to weave something like it.
"It was my mother's first commercial work, and that perhaps inspired me to found my own company," said Monjulika Chakma, the proprietor of Bain Textile, a pioneering textile company in Chattogram Hill Tracts.
Monjulika wanted to empower the female weavers in the Hill Tracts and show the world the beauty and texture of traditional Chakma fabrics. With this vision, she established Bain Textile in 1965. Bain in Chakma means 'hand-woven clothes.'
In 2018, she received the Honorary Fellowship of Bangla Academy for her outstanding contribution to crafts. She was awarded the 'Rokeya Padak' in 2020.
The beginning of Bain Textile
Monjulika Chakma began her entrepreneurship journey with only Tk500. "I bought a tant with Tk50 and just started working." In 1976, she quit her long career as a teacher and became fully involved with Bain Textile.
An old catalogue, perhaps from the 1980s, states the company is a 'traditional tribal handloom factory' and a 'house of traditional tribal products'.
By this time, Bain Textile was also making bags, bed covers, napkins, table mats, scarves, etc. – all with traditional materials. The products were known for their high quality and texture unique to the Hill Tracts.
For many years, when Shilu Abed was in Aarong, Bain Textile used to supply products there.
Till the 1990s, Bain Textile was at its peak with products being exported to different countries and at least 20 other companies following in its footsteps.
Monjulika did not believe in keeping secrets, whatever technique she learned about weaving and dying, she shared them wholeheartedly with others.
Through her venture, she wanted to create a market for traditional clothes and open earning opportunities for female weavers in the Hill Tracts. "When I started, the weavers would make only shawls, and women mostly wore sharis; pinon-khadi was not that popular."
In pre-Liberation Bangladesh, threads for weaving were not as widely available as they are now, especially in villages in the Hill Tracts. Moreover, women did not weave for commercial purposes; they simply made clothes for their own use.
In the beginning, Monjulika would roam around the remote areas, delivering the weavers dyed threads with which they created products for Bain Textile. Over time, she built her factory where 150-200 workers, most ethnic minority women, worked.
A true entrepreneur, she also experimented with colours and textures, all by herself. "Have you seen the local gamchas here in Rangamati? This is my combination," she proudly declared.
The gamchas from Baburhat in Narshingdi only had red and green tones, it was Monjulika who brought stripes and chequered patterns on a white background.
As power looms and synthetic products took over the market, Bain Textile began to fade away. Although she was the proprietor, her husband Chiranjib Chakma always helped her out. "He was the real Monjulika behind Bain, he never let me lose patience."
He passed away in 2012.
From 2015 to 2018, she was in Malawi as her daughter was posted there. During that time, her son looked after the company. He gave away parts of the factory and outlet area to Rangamati Science and Technology University.
The weavers of Rangapani
The Covid-19 pandemic nearly destroyed whatever business Bain Textile had with weavers remaining unemployed for months.
When we interviewed Monjulika in October, the factory was yet to open. Upon our request, she arranged for us to meet some of her workers in the college gate area, and later in a village in Rangapani on the outskirts of Rangamati.
At the college gate, we met Lolita Chakma who has been a weaver for almost eight years. She showed us to a medium-sized hut with a few 'gorto-tant' in it. The weaver sits on the edge of a 'gorto' or hole dug on the floor and operates the handloom built over it.
In sweltering heat, with only a tiny electric fan buzzing nearby, Binoti Chakma was weaving away on one of the tants. Other weavers had not yet returned to work.
"Pre-lockdown we used to weave 50 to 60 pieces. Now, we get no more than five or six orders a month," she said while wiping away sweat with her scarf.
On top of a small hill in Rangapani, we were greeted by Konika Chakma, Banjo Bala and Debi Chakma. These weavers work on 'komor-tant.'
The weaver sits on the floor and leans against a small wooden piece attached to the back of their waist ('komor' in Bangla). The rest of the handloom is tied with ropes that sit on their lap. Nearly all the houses here had at least one woman working on it.
This area has a speciality – traditional outfits that cost around Tk10,000 to Tk12,000 in Rangamati City can be bought from here at Tk7,000 to Tk8,000.
Weaving for hours is gruelling, the back hurts, so do the legs. But these impoverished women have no other options to earn their livelihoods. If not weaving, they would have to turn to day labour.
"If we did not have household chores, we could finish weaving quickly," said Banjo Bala in a tired voice.
An attempt at revival
Bain Textile outlets are still there in Rangamati City, but business is slow. The product range has also been narrowed down to shawls, bags and a few handicrafts.
Even though the pandemic forced her to take a break, even at 78 years of age, Monjulika Chakma has not lost hope. "I do not have any regrets, I do not feel bored," she said, adding "I will gather my weavers and soon, we will start working together."
She shared her dreams with us, "One day I will not be here, and my son will run Bain Textile the way he wishes. But before that, I would like to create a collection of rare fabrics."
Bain Textile was not just a company, over the years it brought hardworking individuals under the same roof and bonded them with affection and respect. "The relationship I built with these women over the years is precious. That is the heart of any business really," said Monjulika Chakma.