When the saris return from the Bangladeshi village of Katakhali to the United States, they are well worn: They smell of smoke, from time their owners spent cooking over open fires, and small burns dot their fronts. Mud from unpaved streets stains the hems. And the soft cotton has become more so—thinner, more fragile.
Bangladeshi-American multimedia artist, painter, and lawyer Monica Jahan Bose brought these saris to her ancestral village on the island of Barobaishdia in the Bay of Bengal six years ago. Bose gave the colorful garments to a dozen women she’d been speaking to over the phone for months. The women had just learned to read and write, and to honor those achievements, the artist gave them custom-made wooden blocks in the shape of Bengali words to use as stamps, as well as paint and other materials. The plan: The women would decorate their saris with the stories of their lives.
“They only have two saris typically, one they wear and one that’s drying after they wash. But they sleep in their saris, cook in their saris, and actually bathe in their saris,” says Bose, who brings the well-worn saris back to her home in Washington, D.C. Her project, Storytelling with Saris, combines the women’s words, artistry, and physical details to tell the story of women living on the front lines of climate change.
Each year rising sea levels and worsening cyclones are forcing hundreds of thousands of rural Bangladeshis to move from the country’s coasts to its capital city, Dhaka. The mass displacement is due in large part to the rapid intrusion of saltwater on their farmland and into their drinking water supplies.
Both on the saris themselves and in separate journals, the women told stories in Bengali of how it’s becoming harder to grow their crops, like rice, lentils, and sweet potatoes, and of their struggle to fish due to the warmer, rougher waters. A study published in June predicts that for every 1 degree Celsius that the oceans warm, we’ll see a 5 percent loss in marine biodiversity. This is a crisis that will hit tropical countries like Bangladesh the hardest. Already, as fishermen bring in smaller and smaller catches, their wives must supplement the family’s income. For instance Salma, one of the dozen participants in Bose’s project, grows vegetables and raises fish on a local community farm.
On the saris, you can also find the names of local rivers, like the Darchira, which frequently floods after cyclones slam the coast. Hasina, a project participant who moved to Katakhali from a neighboring village, lost her home from the particularly catastrophic Cyclone Sidr in 2007. That was the same year she lost her baby during childbirth, due in part to inadequate local health care.
“I fear the storms,” one woman wrote on her sari. But where there is sorrow and anxiety, there is strength, too. Another sari reads: “Women’s solidarity.”
“I really got to know them personally,” Bose says. “Because my grandmother, mother, and aunts grew up in that village and everyone knows them, they took me in as family. I didn’t expect that.” Bose’s grandmother Johora Begum, died in 1993, but her home continues to be used by the Katakhali Project, a local cooperative that provides services like free healthcare and literacy classes for residents.
Bose has featured the saris in art exhibitions, such as the public installation “Bus Stop Bangladesh” in which the 18-foot-long saris hung on the exterior of Mt. Rainier City Hall in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. She’s also taken these saris around the world—to those living in countries contributing more than their share of greenhouse gases.
At community gatherings that Bose calls “climate art actions” in cities like Paris, Miami, Athens, and New York, she has inspired hundreds of people to make climate commitments and express them on saris—commitments like riding a bike to work, taking shorter showers, and eating less meat. Bose then brings the garments to Bangladesh for the Katakhali women to wear.
“They love to read the stories,” says Bose, who helps translate the writing and explains what it means to “take the Metro instead of driving” or to use less hot water. “Some of them have never even been to the capital city,” she says, and so aren’t very familiar with cars, or even showers.
The cultural exchange acts as a poignant bridge—between those who’ve helped cause the climate crisis and those who are starting to suffer from its effects first. That link, Bose hopes, will engender more empathy and action from those in countries with outsize carbon emissions.
The artist has begun working with the Indian-American filmmaker Leena Jayaswal on a documentary on the women, their saris, and climate change to help bring attention to the plight of communities like Katahkali.
Because when the storms come, and the waters rise, and the crops die, and the fish are nowhere to be found, not everyone can just pick up and leave. “These are people who have had generations on that island,” says Bose. “They’re connected. They were born there. Their ancestors are buried there. The land is part of their heritage, and we need to help protect it.”
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