During her stint in Bangladesh as a senior advisor with the United Nations Development Program, Cathy Stevulak had been trying to find “a grey-haired woman who does stunning embroidery”. It was all an acquaintance from the Toronto museum gift shop could tell her about the newly invigorated kantha art in Bangladesh. Near the end of her two-year stay, Stevulak finally found her: a woman named Suraiya Rahman.
Although Stevulak soon left for hometown Toronto, Rahman came to the city to visit her family. While there, she began telling Stevulak about how she had reworked the quilt-work tradition of kantha and, in the process, given opportunities to hundreds of women in Bangladesh. Stevulak decided to start filming a documentary. “I had no idea of what it would take to make a documentary. If I did I probably wouldn’t have done it,” says Stevulak with a laugh. It took her five years to create her debut piece titled Threads.
The film, which was screened in Mumbai last week as part of FLO Film Festival, follows Rahman’s story from when she was born and brought up in Kolkata in the ’30s. Although a painter at heart, she soon began to take interest in kantha work, which is the process of recycling old clothes and saris into beautiful tapestries. Rahman stitched scenes from her childhood of pre-Independence India: sahibs and Bengali attendants in courts, amorous couples in rowing boats, social gatherings at dinner parties apart from some old folktales.
Initially, Rahman contributed her designs to an international program, Skill Development Project, but she later started her own organisation from home. She called the organisation Arshi and became one of the first female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. The women that she worked with weren’t able to afford basic social services, but embroidering for Rahman allowed them to fulfill their needs. Hundreds of women across Bangladesh came to join her. Rahman kept a strict watch over every stitch that went into her pieces.
The 30-minute documentary alternates between interviews of Rahman and other people who contributed to the project, and scenes from her workshop and the kantha art the women produce. Over the years, the craft has gained international prominence, and people all over the world have Rahman’s exquisite tapestries hung on their walls. It is this story of success that Stevulak captures in Threads.