The textile world lost a great pioneer and dedicated champion when Ruby Ghuznavi passed away in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 14 January 2023 at the age of 87.
Ruby pioneered the revival of natural dyes in Bangladesh, starting from scratch and eventually setting up Aranya Crafts in Dhaka to test the market for naturally dyed cloth. In time, through trial and error, some 30 basic colourfast dyes were introduced by Aranya, which could, of course, be combined into a large range of colours. Block printing and other craft techniques were worked into her beautiful fabrics and garments.
‘There were ten of us altogether and we started experimenting with just about every plant and every flower we could think of....In those days we had to be very careful and document exactly what we were doing each time we made a new colour.’ (Interview in Daily Star, Dhaka 14.2.11)
Persuading weavers to use naturally dyed yarn instead of easily available synthetic colours was not always easy, but Ruby was nothing if not persistent. Aranya ran training courses in natural dye techniques for producers and makers both in Bangladesh and abroad.
As a founder member of KARIKA, the Bangladesh Handicrafts Co-operative Federation, of the National Crafts Council of Bangladesh (NCCB) and Honorary member of the World Crafts Council, Ghuznavi worked to raise the profile of Bangladeshi crafts in a global context. Determined to restore jamdani fabric to its former status as a fine luxury fabric, she was one of the key organisers of the 2019 Jamdani Festival in Dhaka which convinced both weavers and public that high quality jamdani could still be produced. It is now considered the national fabric of Bangladesh and in 2013 was included in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, in large part due to her efforts.
When many rural women were left without support after the Liberation War of 1971, Ghuznavi encouraged them to stitch kantha (a form of embroidered quilting, worked on flat layers of fabric) which provided them with independent income. Debating whether this commercial approach debased the traditional craft she commented that the women always reinvested their earnings in education or their children, land and cattle, materially improving their lives. Survival took precedence over purity.
Organiser of exhibitions (including involvement in Woven Air at the Whitechapel Gallery London in 1988) and other events, author of books and articles, Ruby did not stop at textiles. She was also involved in Terre des Hommes, a Swiss NGO which started educational programmes for children in Bangladesh. She was an active participant in Naripokkho, an organisation working for women’s rights and development and a key member of Transparency International’s Bangladesh Chapter, which aims to build support for anti-corruption programs through strengthening civil society activities.
Born in 1935 in 1935, Ruby was one of nine children. The family lived in Kolkata where her father was a judge, then settled in East Pakistan after Partition. After gaining BSc and MA degrees in Economics from the University of Dhaka, she worked as a teacher and social activist. The experiences of this work, of displacement and war, clearly informed her understanding of the social value of handmade textiles. She understood the whole cycle from hand craft to global market. Perfectionist in her drive, humanitarian in her vision and artist in her creative imagination. Ruby Ghuznavi will be hard to replace.
by Sonia Ashmore