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A dhunari at work

Dhunari (comber of cotton) a cotton-ginning labourer skilled occupationally in making quilts, pillows, jajims (mattresses made of cotton or coconut fibre) etc. Traditionally, the occupation of dhunaris is essentially one of labour-hawking from door to door. They met the demand of the customers at their doorsteps. Textile manufacture existed in Bengal from very ancient times and it may be assumed that dhunari (although called under a different trade name) also existed in Bengal since the ancient period. But whether they made quilts, pillows and jajims in medieval times like they do today, is not certain. The extensive use of pillows, cushions and jajims by Afghans, Turks and Mughals tempt many to conclude that dhuna (cotton combing) as Muslim rulers first introduced a trade in Bengal. This assumption is further reinforced by the fact that dhunaris are normally Muslims.

The main instrument of the dhunari is his dhunat, a designed bow made of bamboo or cane or wood. A tough string made from dried cow sinews clinches the extreme ends of the bow. Dhunari cleans and thrashes the cotton by dropping it on the vibrating string. Striking the string with a wooden maku or handle creates a measured vibration. After processing the cotton, dhunari proceeds to shaping and sewing the object according to a prescribed design. Dhunaris get the bulk of their orders on the eve of the winter.   

At present, dhunaris are declining fast as an occupational group. Formerly, they functioned as independent operators. But they are increasingly being reduced to day labours working for the capitalist shopkeepers trading in quilts, pillows, jajims and draperies. Nevertheless, dhunaris are still frequently seen to hawk their skills particularly in rural areas before the onset of winter. [Sharmin Naaz]