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Keeping our heritage alive

  • Published at 05:46 pm October 29th, 2018
Reconnecting with the craft SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Bangladesh grew up with Aarong. Aarong grew up with Bangladesh

Some of my earliest memories are of accompanying my mother Ayesha Hasan Abed, and her friend and colleague Marty Chen to rural parts of Bangladesh. Marty would drive us in her brown Toyota, the two of them sitting in front and me, a precocious wide-eyed four-year-old, standing between them. 

We would go into the homes of master craftsmen, sit on the mud floor, and I remember playing with the children around while they would be rapt in conversation. I realized much later what they were trying to do. They were researching and collecting old designs, and encouraging them to start working with Aarong.

Many who grew up in Dhaka during the last four decades have their own Aarong story. MD of IPDC Momin Bhai went to Aarong with his first paycheck in 1994 to buy a Jamdani for his mother. Our very own comedian Naveed Mahbub wrote on Facebook about how, in his younger days, the highlight of his Eid was to wear an Aarong Punjabi, and sit in Snow White, the famous ice-cream shop on Road 5, Dhanmondi, in order to attract female attention. 

And Aarong’s newest management trainee Mushfiq grew up playing with a toy cane sofa set that we exhibited in the bamboo stall at the Aarong 40 Years Festival at the Army Stadium last week. First date at an Aarong café, families setting up the potential bride and groom for the first time at Aarong on Manik Mia avenue, the late night chandraat shopping at an Aarong store -- each of us has our own Aarong story, our own relationship with it.

Bangladesh grew up with Aarong. Aarong grew up with Bangladesh.

The fact that Aarong became such a household name was not an accident. BRAC believed that handmade products, made with such care and craftsmanship, should be aspirational. We wanted people to buy Aarong products not because of its social purpose, but because they loved and wanted them. Contemporary trends, coupled with our strong craft heritage, created a fusion that caught the imagination of urbanites in Bangladesh.

Aarong’s true beauty does not lie in the confines of its outlets around the country, which we are all so familiar with. For all its business success and conquest of trends, Aarong’s strength comes from a far more humble, yet purposeful beginning, a history with which most of us remain unfamiliar.

Aarong began as a means to an end for a quiet organization fighting to uphold the dignity of the marginalized. In 1976, when BRAC first began working with women in Manikganj, involving them in sericulture and handicraft making, there were only a few scattered retailers who sold these products in Dhaka. Weeks, even months, would pass between supply and payment. Aarong was born out of a need to ensure that these women of Manikganj were paid for their goods on time, so that they could feed their families.

Today, holding steadfast to its original mission, Aarong supports the lives and livelihoods of some 65,000 rural artisans and handicraft producers. Women make up 85% of Aarong’s artisan base. Every woman who works in Aarong’s production facilities has access to Brac’s multi-faceted development programs, and the support they receive extends well beyond simply their wages. 

The flip side to progress and automation is the threat of losing the craftsmanship we so carefully nurtured, which is such an intrinsic part of the Bangladeshi essence. As we reflect, the new generation of Bangladesh, side by side with their march towards a global citizenship, needs to reconnect with such craft. 

This will only make their identity stronger and more unique. It is so that while buying a sari from Aarong, we can appreciate the fact that somewhere in Bangladesh, a woman travelled 40 minutes on foot to embroider a 100-year-old motif on its aanchol.

This 40-year milestone is not only for us, but for the communities that have supported us, and who have made us what we are today. 

Aarong is the collaborative work of the people of Bangladesh -- from women in rural areas, to master craftsmen, to designers and administrators, and consumers and patrons. 

This collaboration was supported along the way by the government, institutional partners, individuals, and many others. Aarong is our collective achievement. It is one of the success stories of Bangladesh, and we want the country to be proud of what we have achieved together. 

Tamara Hasan Abed is Senior Director of Enterprises at BRAC.

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