Runa Khan

2006 Associate Laureate, Cultural Heritage
Bangladesh, Born 1958

Project Goal

Develop a "living museum" of traditional boats to preserve this national craft

Location: Bangladesh

Reviving the Ancient Art of Boat Building

A Successful Partnership
Leading a project to preserve boat-building is an unlikely occupation for a woman from an aristocratic Muslim background. But, early in her adult life, Khan demonstrated her resourcefulness by setting up a fashion house and a security firm. Then, after overseeing the implementation of a major educational programme, she established, in 1998, the Friendship Association to provide health care in a floating hospital, flood relief and educational assistance to the impoverished inhabitants of the islands of the Brahmaputra River.

She was already known for her ability to implement challenging projects when, in 1994, she met Yves Marre, who was staying with her parents in Dhaka after sailing, from France to Bangladesh, a 38-metre river barge to be used for humanitarian purposes. He brought more than romance into her life as his passion for boats proved to be contagious. "I discovered a new world," Khan recalls, "and within months I was hooked." One of their first joint achievements was the restoration of a malar, a 30-metre sailing boat they bought in 1996, which took local craftsmen over a year to bring back to life. She explains that her husband’s technical expertise, coupled with her own ability ”to get things done”, helped them establish a bond of mutual trust with the marginalized riverine people traditionally involved in boat-building.

Small Beginnings

The couple then set up Contic River Cruise, which runs up-market river excursions on the malar. Established initially to repay the money they had borrowed for the restoration, the business now attracts influential foreign clients vital to Bangladesh’s fledgling tourist industry. In 1999, determined to prevent boat-building skills from disappearing, Khan searched Bangladesh for master ships carpenters, commissioning them to build scale models, each about 65 centimetres long, of boats from across the country. These replicas (there are now hundreds of them, reproducing 27 different types of boat) are built using the same techniques and materials as those for full-size boats. They provide an accurate record from which carpenters are able to build life-size boats.

Birth of an idea

"Once we saw the first models, and the success they enjoyed, we realized we had to do more," Khan recalls — and the idea of a living museum was born. Since 2004, carpenters, blacksmiths, rope-makers and sail-makers have been working at the Living Museum of Traditional Country Boats of Bengal, which opens to the public in April 2007. Carpenters from the Brahmaputra River have restored one of only two remaining 15-metre-long palowary boats, which have stapled hulls, while their counterparts from the Meghna River have constructed from scratch what is now the world’s only patham, a fine example of a smooth-skinned boat. A team of carpenters from an island in the Bay of Bengal are building a seafaring shampan using techniques forgotten in Bangladesh, but revived with the help of Western marine architects and ethnologists, as well as museum documents and oral history. For each vessel, naval architects are documenting every stage of the boat-building, and their records will be made available to marine archives worldwide.

Building a place for tradition
The project has given these people back their dignity, says Khan, "and the pride that comes from having great skills". A local businessman has pledged to finance the construction of several buildings at the museum, including an exhibition area, a model-building workshop, shop and research centre. Khan’s project is making a vital contribution to her country’s heritage. Annie Montigny, of the Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, says that of all of Bangladesh’s cultural heritage, "these river boats deserve, more than anything else at present, urgent attention and development. The skills of the boat-building artisans are disappearing, and must be saved."

Fiona McWilliam

Other 2006 Associate Laureates