Dhaka weaves a new tale with muslin, the long-lost royal fabric

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Weavers use handlooms to make traditional muslin garments at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on Jan. 8, 2022. (AFP)
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A weaver uses a handloom to make traditional muslin cloth at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on Jan. 8, 2022. (AFP)
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Workers weave traditional muslin cloth at the Dhakai Muslin Project facility in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, on March 14, 2022. (Bangladesh Handloom Board)
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Updated 19 March 2022
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Dhaka weaves a new tale with muslin, the long-lost royal fabric

  • Light, soft and almost transparent, Dhaka muslin used to be known as ‘woven air’
  • Complex skills to produce the handwoven cloth were forgotten by the early 20th century 

DHAKA: Dhaka muslin, a fabric so light and fine that poets have described it as “woven air,” is poised for a rebirth in Bangladesh after years of research to revive long-lost production techniques.

The delicate cloth derives its name from the city of Mosul, now in Iraq, where it was first manufactured in the Middle Ages.

The fabric became popular in the Indian subcontinent under Mughal rulers, and from the 17th century production was centered in Dhaka, where weavers developed the cloth to its finest form, soon exporting it to the far corners of the world.

Dhaka muslin dominated the global market for 200 years. International royalty were among those who favored the fabric until it all but vanished in the early 20th century, phased out by machine-made alternatives and high import tariffs in Europe.

The complex technique required to make the fine handwoven cloth, which has thread counts ranging from several hundred to over 1,000, as well as knowledge of which cotton types were suitable for production, disappeared along with a generation of weavers who abandoned the craft.

Once the pride of the region, Dhaka muslin was forgotten for decades. Five years ago, however, researchers from the Bangladesh Handloom Board set out to revive the fabric. But it was not an easy task.

“We didn’t have any authentic samples to hand,” Mohammad Ayub Ali, who leads the project, told Arab News.

“But we didn’t give up. All of us nurtured a firm determination in mind to restore the secret.”

Ali’s team traveled to India, Egypt and the UK to find original samples of the historic fabric, and eventually relied on a version found in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

To determine the cotton species used by the old weavers of Dhaka, researchers turned to “Species Plantarum,” the groundbreaking book published by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, which listed every species of plant known at the time.

The plant was thought to be Phuti carpus, which researchers feared was now extinct.

“We prepared a morphological sketch of Phuti carpus and searched across the country to find if any sample of this cotton still existed,” Ali said. “Thirty-nine species of cotton samples were collected in this process.”

DNA testing, which matched the samples with muslin thread from the London museum, found that one plant, collected in the Kapasia region of Gazipur district, north of Dhaka, was almost 100 percent compatible.

To save it from extinction, the plant is now grown on experimental farms.

Prof. Mohammad Monzur Hossain, a University of Rajshahi botanist who led the search for Phuti carpus, said that the plant has features not found in other species.

“The fiber of this cotton has a high tensile strength compared with other cottons. And these fibers are short in length, which is convenient for hand spinning,” he told Arab News. “The muslin produced from Phuti carpus was so thin and transparent that it was called ‘woven air.’”

The “woven air” metaphor originated from classical Persian poetry — as did “flowing water,” “evening dew” and other terms. To bring these descriptions to life, however, proper skills and techniques were also essential.

Weavers taking part in the project were trained for over a year to use traditional wooden spinning wheels and hand-drawn looms to make fabrics with thread counts many times higher than what they were used to.

Higher thread counts — the number of crisscrossed threads per square inch — make materials softer and tend to wear better over time. The target was 500, but in the beginning the artisans could not go beyond 80.

Mohammad Rubel Mia learnt the craft as a child more than two decades ago and was accustomed to weaving delicate saris with thread counts around 100, but it took him a while to learn the muslin technique.

“Initially, it was not easy to deal with this almost microscopic thread,” he said. “We failed again and again.”

For Mohsena Akter, another worker at the Bangladesh Handloom Board’s Dhakai muslin project facility in Narayanganj, southwest of Dhaka, it is the most difficult task in her life.

The fabric is so fine that the fingers that weave it must always be soft.

“If our fingers get dry or become hard, we can’t deal with the delicate threads of muslin,” she said. “There is no time to lose focus, even for a fraction of a second, and it demands the highest level of perseverance.”

Fifteen spinners work for the Dhakai muslin project. It takes them 150 days to produce enough thread for just one piece of a muslin sari.

As they are preparing to enter the market, the project lead, Ali, said one muslin sari would cost an estimated $7,000 to $17,000, given the labor it takes to make it.

Hopes are high that the reborn historic fabric will be welcomed by the world’s fashion industry after an absence of almost 100 years.

“I believe it will also help in branding Bangladesh as the finest cloth-producing country,” Ali said. “We are considering taking in different fairs across the world.”


UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s

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UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s

NEW YORK: Earth’s population will peak in the mid-2080s at around 10.3 billion people, then drop slightly to a level much lower than anticipated a decade ago, the United Nations said.
The current population of 8.2 billion people will rise to that maximum over the next 60 years, then dip to 10.2 billion by the end of the century, says a report released Thursday entitled “World Population Prospects 2024.”
It said the size of the world’s population in 2100 will be six percent lower, or 700 million people fewer, than what was anticipated in June 2013.
“The demographic landscape has evolved greatly in recent years,” said Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.
He said the unexpected population peak stems from several factors that include lower levels of fertility in some of the world’s largest countries, especially China.
He said this lower maximum will also come earlier than previously calculated and this is a hopeful sign as the world fights global warming: fewer humans accounting for less aggregate consumption would mean less pressure on the environment.
“However, slower population growth will not eliminate the need to reduce the average impact attributable to the activities of each individual person,” this official said.
More than a quarter, or 28 percent, of the world’s population now lives in one of 63 countries or areas where the population has already peaked, including China, Russia, Japan and Germany, the report said.
Nearly 50 other countries should join that group over the next 30 years, including Brazil, Iran and Turkiye.
But population growth will continue in more than 120 countries beyond 2054. These include India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United States, said the UN.
A rise in global life expectancy — interrupted by the Covid pandemic — has resumed, with an average of 73.3 years of longevity in 2024. It will average 77.4 years in 2054.
So the world’s population will get more and more gray. By the late 2070s, the number of people 65 or older is projected to be 2.2 billion, surpassing those under 18, the study predicts.

Four killed, nine hurt in Russian shelling of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, governor says

Updated 9 min 37 sec ago
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Four killed, nine hurt in Russian shelling of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, governor says

  • In the town of Myrnohrad, two people were killed and six were injured
  • A separate attack on an unnamed enterprise in the town of Kostiantynivka killed two civilians

KYIV: Russian shelling killed at least four people and injured nine others in Ukraine’s eastern frontline Donetsk region on Friday, the governor said.
In the town of Myrnohrad, two people were killed and six were injured in an attack that landed near an administrative building and a bus stop, Vadym Filashkin, the governor, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
A separate attack on an unnamed enterprise in the town of Kostiantynivka killed two civilians and injured three others, he said.
Images from the impact sites which he published alongside his post showed badly-damaged building facades and a bus with shattered windows. There was also a burnt car that appeared to have been thrown to the side by a blast.
Donetsk region, which Russian troops partially occupy, regularly comes under Russian shelling and airstrikes. Moscow denies targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure in its invasion of Ukraine, although thousands of people have been killed.


Kenya police chief quits after deadly protests

Updated 24 min ago
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Kenya police chief quits after deadly protests

  • The announcement came a day after Ruto sacked almost his entire cabinet in the face of widespread public anger at his government
  • The attorney-general and all cabinet ministers, with the exception of Foreign Minister Musalia Mudavadi and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, were axed

NAIROBI: Kenya’s police chief has quit following criticism over dozens of deaths during anti-government protests, the latest head to roll as President William Ruto struggles to contain the worst crisis of his near two-year rule.
Ruto has “accepted the resignation” of inspector general of police Japhet Koome, who has served in the role since November 2022, the presidency said, adding his deputy Douglas Kanja has been named acting chief.
The announcement came a day after Ruto sacked almost his entire cabinet in the face of widespread public anger at his government after largely peaceful demonstrations over proposed tax hikes descended into deadly mayhem.
The attorney-general and all cabinet ministers, with the exception of Foreign Minister Musalia Mudavadi and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, were axed.
Some of the young Gen-Z Kenyans behind the demonstrations had called for Koome to go, with police accused by rights groups of using excessive force, and reports of abductions of some protesters.
IT specialist Cyrus Otieno, 27, said Koome “must be prosecuted for police brutality.”
“Someone must be held accountable.”
Ruto, who took office in September 2022, has taken a series of measures seeking to placate the demonstrators, including abandoning the finance bill that contained the deeply unpopular tax increases.
But the cabinet announcement, while welcomed by some, did not appease some young Kenyans frustrated with Ruto’s failure to deliver on his 2022 election promises to create jobs and boost their fortunes.
“We will be back on the streets until Ruto goes. He has wasted two years in office traveling and telling lies,” said Hyrence Mwangi, 25.
Initially peaceful, the protests sharply escalated when police fired at crowds who stormed parliament on June 25, ransacking the partly ablaze complex.
While large-scale street action has subsided, anger against the government has not, particularly toward the police, with rights groups saying that 39 people were killed in the demonstrations and more than 360 injured.
“When we first went to the streets, Ruto dismissed us as a bunch of hired goons and criminals, only to come later and start saying he will make changes,” said 27-year-old Jackson Rotich. “We can’t trust him.”
Law student Melisa Agufana, 24, welcomed the cabinet dismissal, saying she wanted to “thank the president for listening.”
She added that ministers had “wasted two years doing nothing apart from being driven around with our national flag.”
Analysts said the cabinet move offered the possibility of a fresh start, but warned of further risks.
“The challenge that Ruto now faces is forming a new cabinet that includes various vested interests, whilst simultaneously calming popular anger in the face of an explicitly leaderless movement,” Gabrielle Lynch, professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick, told AFP.
Last week, Ruto announced sharp cuts to government spending, including travel and refurbishment costs, and said he would increase borrowing to pay for some services even as Kenya grapples with massive foreign debt of about $78 billion or about 70 percent of GDP.
The crisis led US-based Moody’s to downgrade Kenya’s debt rating further into junk territory, warning of a negative outlook, which will make borrowing even more expensive for the cash-strapped government.
Ruto said Thursday that he would “immediately engage in extensive consultations across different sectors and political formations, with the aim of setting up a broad-based government,” without elaborating.
Media reports this week have been filled with speculation of a “national unity” government, possibly including the coalition headed by Raila Odinga, the veteran opposition leader defeated by Ruto in the 2022 vote.


UK plans to release more prisoners early to tackle overcrowding

Updated 39 min 16 sec ago
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UK plans to release more prisoners early to tackle overcrowding

  • Prisoners who are let out can be returned to jail if they reoffend or break other terms of their release

LONDON: Britain’s new Labour government plans to expand the early release of prisoners from September to tackle a jail overcrowding crisis which justice minister Shabana Mahmood said threatened to create “a total breakdown of law and order.”
Prisons in England and Wales have space for only 700 more male inmates and are likely to be full within weeks, after which cells in police stations would need to be used, preventing officers from patrolling the streets.
“We could see looters running amok, smashing in windows, robbing shops and setting neighborhoods alight,” Mahmood said in a speech at a prison in central England, blaming the crisis on her Conservative predecessors.
Under the plan, which is subject to parliamentary approval, most prisoners will become eligible for release after serving 40 percent of their sentences behind bars, down from 50 percent currently.
Prisoners who are let out can be returned to jail if they reoffend or break other terms of their release.
The early release plan would be reviewed in 18 months’ time, Mahmood said. Asked how many would be freed, she said the figure was in the “low thousands” in the short term.
Britain has western Europe’s highest rate of incarceration and prisoner numbers have risen sharply since the pandemic, due to longer sentences, court delays and a requirement for serious offenders to serve at least 65 percent of their sentences behind bars.
Labour, which came to power last week, has used the crisis as an example of the legacy of underfunded public services left by former prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government.
Mahmood said 10,000 prisoners had been released since October 2023 under a previous emergency scheme which she would scrap to allow for a more systematic program.
Violent offenders sentenced to at least four years, sex offenders and domestic abusers will not be eligible for the early-release program, the justice ministry said.
Britain’s Prison Governors’ Association had said on Thursday that a new government policy was imminent, and welcomed the move.
The Law Society, which represents most lawyers in England and Wales, said the problem reflected long-term cuts to criminal justice funding and the government would need to put appropriate safeguards in place to monitor newly released prisoners.
“The concerns of victims who are having to wait years for justice and then see offenders released early must also be recognized,” Law Society President Nick Emmerson said.
Britain’s justice ministry said an extra 1,000 trainee probation officers would be recruited by March 2025.
However, existing government budget plans — which Labour has said it will largely stick to — foresee real-terms cuts of nearly 3 percent a year over the next four years to a range of public services including justice.


Ambani nuptials spotlight India’s multibillion-dollar wedding industry

Updated 25 min 16 sec ago
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Ambani nuptials spotlight India’s multibillion-dollar wedding industry

  • Groom is the youngest son of Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani
  • Lavish pre-wedding celebrations around the world started in March

NEW DELHI: After four months of lavish events spotlighting India’s multibillion-dollar wedding industry, the nuptials of the son of Asia’s richest man reached their final stage on Friday, with global A-listers and elites arriving in Mumbai for the most extravagant of billionaire celebrations.

The celebrations that built up to the wedding of Mukesh Ambani’s youngest son, 29-year-old Anant Ambani, to Radhika Merchant, daughter of a pharmaceutical tycoon, saw the family and hundreds of its guests serenaded by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber, sailing up the coast of Italy on a luxury cruise, watching a 5,500-drone light show in Cannes, and participating in a jungle-themed safari party in India’s Gujarat.

The groom’s father, chairman of Reliance Industries — the largest private sector corporation in India — is the world’s 10th richest man.

The display of his wealth through the wedding has set a new benchmark for the sector worth some $130 billion, according to last month’s report by the global investment banking firm Jefferies.

The Indian wedding industry is the country’s second-largest, after food and grocery.

“The Indian wedding industry is one of the largest and most lucrative markets globally. India hosts around 10 million weddings each year, with varying scales and budgets,” Simran S. Kohli, wedding planner and founder of Love Me Knot Weddings, told Arab News.

“The Ambani wedding is a prime example of just how extravagant and grand one can be.

Drummers perform as staff members of Antilia, the house of Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, dance on the day of Anant Ambani's wedding in Mumbai, India, on July 12, 2024. (REUTERS)

With the swathes of business billionaires, world leaders and top Bollywood and Hollywood stars attending, and the amount of international media attention focused on all the nuptial events, it is also an example of how the legendary allure and grandeur of Indian weddings never fades.

“How everyone looks forward to being a part of Indian weddings, the involvement of international celebrities, performers, and guests reflects the global influence and reach of the Indian wedding industry now,” Kohli said.

“Indian weddings can push the boundaries of creativity and extravagance.”

A decorated Rolls-Royce car carrying groom Anant Ambani leaves Antilia, the house of Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, on the day of his wedding in Mumbai, India, on July 12, 2024. (REUTERS)

With dignitaries and celebrities from all over the world flocking to Mumbai to attend the four-day ceremony, parts of the city have been sealed.

“Mumbai is closed for almost three days now where the wedding is happening. There are VIP restrictions,” said Suneer Jain, director of Oh Vow Weddings.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Blair pose for pictures on the red carpet on the day of the wedding of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant in Mumbai, India, on July 12, 2024. (REUTERS)

“Ambani’s wedding reminds you of the grand Mughal weddings where thousands of horses and elephants used to participate. Now, the elephants have been replaced by artists. The Ambanis have set a different standard in weddings by inviting lots of international artists to come and perform.”

While the celebration has been reported to cost $600 million, from the artist lineup alone, Jain estimated it could be much more.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (L) with his wife Gauri Khan pose for photos as they arrive to attend the wedding ceremony of billionaire tycoon and Chairman of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani's son Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant in Mumbai on July 12, 2024. (AFP)

“This wedding is a showoff and it’s showing to the people how important they are and how well connected they are, how powerful they are. It’s a demonstration of wealth,” he said.

“The spending in Ambani’s wedding would be much more than what we can think about. Engaging an international artist is not only about the fee, it’s also about their comfort, their hospitality, doing everything for their team. It involves huge costs in many other aspects also.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino (L) poses with his wife Leena Al Ashqar for photos as they arrive to attend the wedding ceremony of billionaire tycoon and Chairman of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani's son Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant in Mumbai on July 12, 2024. (AFP)

It has raised the bar so high that it will not be easy for the next celebrity weddings to cross it and organize nuptials on an even bigger scale.

It is a matter of Indian family prestige to do so.

“It is a lifetime event. We earn for only two things in life: for getting our own home and for weddings,” Jain told Arab News.

“When people see Ambani’s wedding, (it is assumed that) the next super wedding would be at a much higher scale … It gives you a clear picture that no one wants to do a normal wedding, but everyone wants to do a grand wedding.”

Actors Sidharth Malhotra and his wife Kiara Advani pose for pictures on the red carpet on the day of the wedding of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant in Mumbai, India, July 12, 2024. (AFP)

Everyone also wants to attend weddings in India, as they are an intrinsic part of its culture and play a major role in boosting other sectors such as entertainment, fashion, design, and travel.

“There is a person who is creating entertainment, there is a person who is doing labor work, there is a person who is doing floral work, there is a person who is working for fabric treatment. There is a person who is working on the structure, there is a transporter, manager, designer, sound engineer, artist. A lot of people get jobs out of it,” said Rajat Tyagi, director of Weddings Flowers Decor India.

An Indian wedding is never a cheap affair. A “good decent function” organized by Tyagi’s company at a local venue starts at about $45,000.

“As Indians, a society, we are bright, we are vivid, we are diverse, and we are vocal. We are not bland … If we have a taste, why not flaunt it,” he said.

“Even if you go to a village, the poorest of the poorest women are wearing makeup … It’s like we are made this way, our upbringing is that way. We love to show off.”

The display pulled off by the Ambani family was for Tyagi not only a record-breaking event, but also proof of India’s growth.

“At the end of the day, Mukesh Ambani is also an Indian entrepreneur, so India is not just a country of snake charmers. Now it has people who have the potential to bring such international artists and spend so much,” he said.

“It shows the potential of the Indian wedding industry. It shows the potential of Indians globally.”