The fate of Sylhet's once cherished craft of making Shitalpati floor coverings is facing an existential crisis due to low demand, a lack of marketing publicity, a rise in plastic floor coverings, and a steep fall in the number of artisans. On top of it all, the Covid-19 pandemic has further worsened the industry's misery.
The legacy of Sylhet's Shitalpati can be traced back hundreds of years — from Balaganj upazila to the royal court of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Historians also say Bengal's first Nawab, Murshid Quli Khan, gifted a Shitalpati to the 17th century Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Kalachand Babu (75), has been weaving Shitalpati for the last 40 years. He inherited the craft from his father, who learned the artistry from his father. After decades in the family business, Kalachand now wants to quit, as selling Shitalpati is no longer earning him the money to support his family.
Kalachand blames the rise in plastic use in the last few decades as the primary factor for the Shitalpati industry's decline. The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the fall.
"I had 30 people working for me before the pandemic. Now I only have five, as most of them left the profession when sales declined.
"I too am thinking of leaving the profession," he said.
Kalachand says he used to earn around one lakh taka per month selling Shitalpati before the onset of the Covid-19 in the country. "Currently, I struggle to earn even Tk30,000-40,000."
It takes seven to 15 days to make an average-sized Shitalpati, which can sell for Tk1000-1200. Larger ones can take up to two months to make, with an average selling price of Tk5,000-Tk6000.
Adhir babu (50), recently went to work as a day labourer amid the pandemic after 20 years of making Shitalpati.
"On average, I would earn Tk200-300 per day weaving Shitalpati and my family would suffer from financial crises all through the year. There were days during the pandemic when we did not have any rice to eat. I had no choice but to change my job," said Adhir.
Another former Shitalpati artisan, Saday Babu (50), said, "There has been a sweeping fall in the demand for Shitalpati, so I quit weaving and started pulling a rickshaw. I can earn about Tk500 a day now."
The art of making Shitalpati comprises of weaving together strips of a green cane known as 'Murta'. The majority of Shitalpati artisans are based in Sylhet where Murta grows in vast quantities in the lowlands.
The craft is also practised in Chattogram, Cumilla, Barisal, Tangail and Laxmipur, Faridpur, Noakhali, Mymensingh, Jhalokati, Patuakhali, and Khulna regions.
The mats are known by many names, including Nakshi, Siki, Adhali, Taka, Nayantara, Asmantara, Chira etc.
Unesco, in 2017 inscribed the art of weaving Shitalpati on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity. The traditional mat has also been awarded the Gold Medal at the Kolkata Crafts Exhibition. Monindra Nath, a revered artisan of Shitalpati from Balaganj, was awarded for representing Shitalpati at the World Crafts Exhibition in Rome, Italy, in 1991.
According to the National Museum, about 4000 families from 100 villages of Sylhet Division have been engaged in the industry for more than one hundred years.
Durgesh Babu, who has been in the industry for 30 years, thinks there are barely 1000 families weaving the mats at present.
Moreover, he says, the younger generation is not joining the profession as the income no good , while veterans are getting too old to continue the craft.
Ayesha Akhter (40), a Shitalpati seller tells a different tale. She sells the traditional handmade mats both at home and abroad— online and offline. In total, she has 30 artisans working for her.
Ayesha thinks the main problem forthe local industry's miserable state is lack of marketing publicity, and the excessive use of plastic floor mats.
"Entrepreneurs in this industry are unable to sell their products at a fair price due to the lack of marketing publicity," she told TBS.
"I have sold twice as many Shitalpati than I expected to at the 2021 SME Fair in Dhaka, and also received orders. This has been possible only because of the SME Foundation's online-offline campaign," she added.
She believes the industry will turn around again if the government pays more attention to this sector by providing financial incentives, and if the craft is publicised more.
Asked about the matter, SME Foundation Managing Director Mafizur Rahman told TBS, "We will take up an initiative for training, production, and marketing to increase the diversity of the products."
"We will suggest to the government to create an opportunity to export this product tax-free, both at home and abroad, and an interest-free micro-credit loan for this sector's entrepreneurs," he added.