When Shafiqul Alam set up a stall at the 1986 industrial fair in Dhaka with 1,500 portraits made of straw, he was optimistic. The portraits were of renowned personalities and of the liberation war. However, none of pieces were sold.
He then adopted a different tactic. He hung up a signboard saying, "Do you want your portrait made of straw?" This did the trick and orders came pouring in. Every day he had to make 10 portraits on average as sales shot up. He came back to Rangpur with plans and prospects of handicrafts in his head.
He next set up his small shataranji (rug) weaving establishment in Rangpur in 1991. At that time, shataranji was a traditional and common item of the district, but was on the brink of extinction. Despite this, his establishment 'Karupannya' exports shataranjis to 36 countries of Europe and America per year. Last year it exported products worth $1.36 billion.
Shafiqul's father MA Sobhan was a politician and Shafiqul was involved in student politics since very young. He failed in the final exams of Class VIII and was expelled from Rangpur Cadet College. Later he managed admission to Cantonment Public School and College, but again failed to continue his studies here. Eventually he passed his his SSC and HSC exams in 1982 and 1991 respectively.
Due to his involvement in student politics, Shafiqul was sent to jail in 1987 and was released a few months later. During his time in prison, he had watched people weaving and had learnt from them.
Upon his release Shafiqul planned to set up a handicraft factory. It was housed at a Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) shop at Rangpur Press Club. Shafiqul sought out 20 weavers of the lost shataranji tradition from Rangpur and arranged for them to train new weavers. All these were part of his big dream.
He established his outlet Karupannya and people began placing orders for shataranjis. As income began to come in gradually, he started publicising his business. There was positive feedback and he was able to send his products to several industrial and trade fairs. Demands for shataranjis began rising after this.
The story doesn't end here. Shafiqul then reached out to attract foreign buyers and his first opportunity came in 2002. He exported shataranjis to Japan and found avenues to other countries too. This inspired him further to set up a factory of handicrafts, 'shataranji' in particular. He rented in a small factory of BSCIC at Pashchim Nisbetganj, four kilometres from Rangpur city, with 50 men and women from the village.
As business thrived, he named his institution 'Karupannya Rangpur Ltd' and built five factories at Lahirir Haat, Padaganj, Pirgachha, Robertsonganj in Rangpur and Ulipur in Kurigram. He employs 6000 workers at the factories now.
There's a green factory of shataranji at Robertsonganj, Rangpur. Various plants and gardens surround the building. Workers lunch on a rooftop garden in the lush greenery.
A 30 ft sculpture of a woman named 'Banalata', symbolising the women workforce, has been set up in front of the factory. The space is used as an open stage. On special occasions, the workers and their families participate in events held here.
Ninety per cent of the 6,000 workers working in the day and nights shifts are women. They are provided with free healthcare and medicine under the supervision of a physician. An ATM booth has even been set up near the office. Working mothers can bring their children to the workplace where infants are provided with milk and food for free.
Karupannya has been awarded as the best exporter of handicrafts in the country for eight times. "Shataranji is not the tradition of Rangpur alone but of Bangladesh too,” Shafiqul said. This man of Rangpur’s Guptapara stresses that his handicrafts production is not only adding to the handicraft production but also providing employment for the destitute.
*This piece has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin.