A finely woven high-quality jamdani will have butis (patterns) with an identical and smooth front and back; so much so that you will not be able to tell the two apart.
The regular jamdani we see in today's markets are hardly what jamdani used to be when it was woven by the best weavers centuries ago.
The handwoven wonder was originally made with fine muslin and the designs were inspired by nature but the old patterns are gone and as weavers lost their skill, the patterns gradually distorted into the geometric patterns we see today.
To help weavers regain their skills and find a footing in the market, the co-founders of the brand Nobo Dhaka, Silmat Chisti and Mitia Saleh, began to curate and revive jamdani designs which were almost lost.
While Nobo Dhaka caters to a younger generation with unique printed yards, Nobo Shako is the other branch of the brand that deals with jamdani curation and revival.
A business model to help weavers, and make profits
"Nobo and Nobo Shako are two different things, branded differently. Nobo Dhaka has become a place of activism for us where we try to show the younger generation the Bangladeshi elements," Silmat said.
"Our plan was always that we will have two product lines. One will be self-sufficient, fast-moving, profitable, if not fast fashion but close to that [Nobo Dhaka] and using profits made from selling those products, we will be able to support our passion for developing jamdani [Nobo Shako] and perhaps provide some long term help to the silk sector," she went on.
Nobo Shako does not bring in profits because the idea is to intervene in the jamdani market to help the weavers and ensure they and their team are making money.
"We cannot guarantee that the weavers we are working with are paying their other workers fairly but we are paying them fairly. If a shari costs one lakh, we pay the weavers Tk95,000 and keep aside a small amount for us for processing," she said.
Nobo Shako also curates a lot of sharis to help the weavers and it is not a highly profitable business, as Silmat explained to us.
Recently, Silmat brought five vintage sharis from Delhi to revive in Bangladesh. "It is not enough to tell weavers these sharis were made during the Mughal period. You have to show them the sharis to help them understand the skills their ancestors possessed."
On Nobo's pricing, she said, "We are not cheap, but it is because we have put in our own thoughts in our clothes, nobody is catering to the Bangladeshis the way we are. We are not super expensive but we are a high-end brand."
"We are available, approachable yet we provide premium service and product and it comes with a price, just like Starbucks!" she added.
Although Mitia Saleh is no longer a part of Nobo, Silmat is grateful that they started all the projects together.
How Nobo came to be
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Yale University who worked on Wall Street for years as an investment banker, after returning to Dhaka, Silmat began dabbling in the country's handcrafted market with her friend Mitia, which surprised many in her circle.
However, it was not something that happened overnight, the two spent many days and many nights talking about how they could do something with handicrafts, especially in the country's silk and jamdani sectors.
Although Silmat was in investment banking, she was always drawn to the creative side. In her words, she was never a part of this craft industry in any shape or form except as a consumer.
"But I grew up seeing tailors visiting our house, we always went to Chandni Chawk to buy yards of clothes. I saw my grandmother do 'lehriya' (a particular style of tie-dye) at home," she said.
"While it is not so obvious how one transition from investment banking to building a craft brand, there are many things that I have learnt from helping corporates around the globe tell their equity story to investors that I now draw upon for building out Nobo," she added.
The jamdani collection that Nobo has worked on or possesses at the moment is an exquisite one. Parrots, pieces of jewellery, flowers in vases – the patterns are as unique as they are wonderful to look at.
Recently, a qassabtuly (Mughal motifs based on the Qassabtuly Mosque in Old Dhaka) jamdani by Nobo got selected from Bangladesh to receive the World Craft Council Award of Excellence 2021-2022.
The name Nobo (meaning new in Bangla) was chosen because of its simplicity and easy pronunciation, as Silmat shared with us.
Flowers and spices
While sitting with Silmat at the Nobo Dhaka office in Banani, as she laid pieces of fabrics and sharis one after the other in front of us, we were mesmerised by the vivid colours and ornate designs.
The brand also makes yards of linen, silk and other materials with unique prints such as red chillies and orange pumpkins, Royal Bengal Tigers peeking through bushes and sampans dancing along waves in Cox's Bazar.
On bringing spices and vegetable prints to their fabrics, Silmat said, "Nothing talks more about a cultural heritage than what is in your kitchen, and for us, it is important to establish a Bangladeshi identity and show that we are more than just being Bangali Muslims."
"The rich dichotomous heritage of ours is best represented by food, and our attempt was to capture that," she said.
In 2019, Nobo Dhaka had a soft launch at the Dhaka Art Summit. Their first collection was titled 'An ode to forgotten Dhaka.' The collection was based on five patterns of 13 almost forgotten local flowers (barir kacher phul, in Silmat's words) including alakananda, gandharaj, shaluk, kochuripana and nayantara.
Pointing at us, Silmat said, "The Dhaka that you see now is nothing like the Dhaka we grew up in. That Dhaka had spacious courtyards in front of every building, krishnachura, rongon, shonalu and jarul flowers bloomed in front of them."
On promoting local flowers, she added, "We are trying to break the colonial burden of using roses and lillies everywhere! I am blown away by how beautiful our local flowers are."
Other than making jamdanis and prints, Nobo sometimes recreates antique sharis, perhaps ones that were owned by someone's mother or grandmother, with the condition that they will make four to five other pieces for sale.
Connecting with jamdani weavers
After receiving an overwhelming response from Dhaka Art Summit, Nobo held a big exhibition at Bengal Foundation.
Silmat said that in 2019, there was a big jamdani exhibition where Mitia and she were heavily involved. The response from there motivated weavers to make high-end jamdani sharis priced at lakhs of taka.
But then began the Covid-19 lockdown and the weavers became stuck with lots of unsold inventory.
By then Nobo had established a good social media presence and they reached out to people via Facebook and Instagram to see if they wanted to buy these jamdanis and Nobo Shako began its journey.
"We told people if they bought one shari from us, we would immediately pay the weavers with our own money and they (customers) can later pay us off in instalments," said Silmat.
Customers from Bangladesh and India, including Bangladeshis and Indians living abroad responded very well and a lot of the weavers' inventory was sold out.
When Silmat was working in SME financing, as she started spending time with one of the initiatives which involved working with weavers, she stumbled upon the jamdani sector. "I tried to delve deeper into the problems faced by weavers, how we could improve the value chain of their business etc."
She started inviting weavers from all over the country – Tangail, Shirajganj, Sonargaon and various other production hubs. "I started talking to weavers to understand their needs and decided to buy 50 jamdani sharis to help them out."
These 50 sharis were eventually sold to close friends and family members, as Silmat later shared with us.
With the help of one veteran professional who worked in Grameen Bank's textile sector, Simat found a pool of the best weavers in the country that she could start working with.
We met a weaver at the Nobo office. A young man in his 20s, Shajib, his father and elder brother are all in the weaving business. Now they have a team of 56 weavers working for them. "We work for some of the biggest fashion brands but you know who saved us from poverty during the lockdown? It was Silmat Apa and Nobo Dhaka. We are forever grateful to her."
Although Nobo is the not only organisation that started working with jamdani weavers to support them in the end-to-end value chain, (there are others, including the National Craft Council that also do the same), its efforts are still commendable.
Silmat believes it is extremely important for Bangladesh to own jamdani and establish its presence globally. And for this to happen, all stakeholders need to be coordinated and on board.
Sourcing and inspirations
Nobo outsources from all over the country – kantha stitch from Jhenaidah, kota weaving from Shirajganj, silk from Rajshahi, khadi from Cumilla, silk marbling from Noakhali, lace work from Natore etc. Printings are done in Narshingdi.
The Nobo team consists of around 20 people directly involved in the brand including graphics, tailoring and back-end business management.
There are around 10 sources out of Dhaka and production takes place entirely out of the capital.
During the 2020 lockdown, Silmat and her family used to go for small walks in parks where she saw rongon flowers lying on the ground. That inspired her to create a stunning red and black shari with patterns of the rongon flowers under their collection titled 'A walk in the park.'
Nobo has also styled actress Azmeri Haque Badhon in a jamdani from the same collection which has krishnachura petals all over. The shari was an instant hit.
"Our biggest challenge is remaining creative. Creativity has a cycle of its own, at some point, you have to cash out to big fashion brands. We do not want to be bought out by big brands, but instead want to become an institute of craft excellence which supports the craft sector as a knowledge and training centre," Silmat concluded.
If you want to own one of the stunning pieces made by Nobo, you can visit their office in Banani, Road 16, Block B, right beside Banani Bidya Niketan.
The price of the jamdanis starts from Tk25,000 and the prints sell between Tk500 and Tk3,000 per yard, depending on the yarn (cotton, linen or silk).