Kashigari (mosaic work)

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Kashigari, a form of mosaic work

Dawn

The unsung artists

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

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The over 800-year-old craft of kashigari, a form of mosaic work where small pieces of tiles of a single colour are cut to shape and attached painstakingly, piece by piece, to the wall surface with cement, the kind one sees on the tombs of many Sufi saints, seems to be breathing its last, especially if the last of the living master craftsmen like Mohammad Qasim, who have been pushed to the brink, want to give it up in favour of a job

Malleable and tactile, the inert lump of clay is coaxed gently by the craftsman’s deft hand. Slowly it begins to transform. Once it comes alive there begins a silent dialogue with the artisan’s soul. A connection with nature takes place.

But the story doesn’t end there. Every time the vessel is put in the kiln for firing, it will go through another transformative process. There is no guarantee what shape it will take. Did the magic work and is it what the potter had in mind? The mystery remains till the very end. If this isn’t alchemy, then what is?

Thus begins the timeless art of storytelling. The earthenware, capable of enduring thousands of years, will then tell the story of its maker. But if the potter’s wheel stops its motion, and the artisan stops transforming his mind’s vision into three-dimensional shapes, the magical art of storytelling will die with it...

The over 800-year-old craft of kashigari, a form of mosaic work where small pieces of tiles of a single colour are cut to shape and attached painstakingly, piece by piece, to the wall surface with cement, the kind one sees on the tombs of many Sufi saints, seems to be breathing its last, especially if the last of the living master craftsmen like Mohammad Qasim, who have been pushed to the brink, want to give it up in favour of a job.

“For over a century, if not more, my family has been into kashi work,” says 30-something Qasim, one of the last two remaining kashigars, his paternal uncle being the other, in Nasarpur. The most elaborate display of tile-work in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent is found in Sindh. It was Qasim’s forefathers who made tiles for the famous Jama Masjid built by Shahjahan in Thatta, the shrines of Sufi saints like Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Shah Abdul Latif in Bhitshah, Sachal Sarmast in Darraza, a village in Khairpur, to name just a few.

Qasim was only 10 when he came into the profession, but will pack up tomorrow if he gets a job. “At least that way I will have a permanent income,” he justifies saying times are tough for the craftsmen. “It’s good when an order comes, however, otherwise we just sit and wait. We cannot even work in advance as that means investing in material – colours, glass etc. which are all very expensive, indeed.”

Qasim and some dozen other clay masons from various parts of Pakistan had come to attend the Kumhar Mela at the third ASNA Clay Triennial Exhibition. For the studio ceramists the three-day event provided an invaluable opportunity of exchanging ideas with the traditional craftsmen.

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Qasim justifies the need to finding a job and the other potters nod in agreement. Kora Khan, 70, a potter from Mehrgarh says they cannot stock up as their money gets blocked. He has five sons, all have joined the trade and yet they can barely make enough to make ends meet. The septuagenarian has been in the field for over five decades and has witnessed the gradual decline of pottery.

Giving a quick background to the evolution of his craft, he says: “Our profession is as old as the world itself. It is one of the most ancient art forms. Clay vessels have, for eons, enjoyed a deep relationship with humans and their needs and their location. Initially, hand-built vessels were made solely for utilitarian purposes, with little consideration for artistry. Very early containers were unadorned, and not much attention was paid to symmetry. Gradually these mundane pieces were transformed into precious heirlooms.” It wouldn’t be erroneous to say that a study of the growth and development of this craft, the myriad shapes clay takes on when thrown on the potters’ wheel, is the study of the evolution of the human race.

Perhaps this restive mood and this lack of energy to keep their craft alive at all costs stems from the way the Industrial Revolution has pushed them aside. With mass production of factory-made ceramic and porcelain crockery, use of plastic, steel and other metals, economic competition and the improved transport of goods, village pottery that had been made with love and patience has undergone a sharp decline.

Combined with that is also the exploitation of these unknown hands, which have, for generations been producing these crafts. Many have ended up lining the pockets of the entrepreneurs. The craftsperson remains impoverished. While the trade off has to be equal, it is not so and the profits are never shared equally.

Thus 55-year-old Mohammad Omar of Omar Kot, who has personally witnessed the craft’s fall from grace in the last three decades, holds technology responsible for this. “Clay vessels were there when there was no light (referring to clay oil lamps) and no storage facility for water. It’s science that has given a deep blow to our profession. Plastic and steel have thrust us aside and in this race to prove who has the staying power, these have gone ahead and left us way behind.” He acknowledges, though, that they did not keep up with the changing times and never brought innovation in their work.

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Thus while at one level the mela provided an opportunity for new hands to watch old masters, at another level it gave the latter an avenue to let out their woes. “The idea to hold a Kumhar Mela came from ASNA’s mandate to create an awareness of arts and crafts of Pakistan through exhibitions, dialogue and documentation. You should have seen them embracing each other when they met. So at a microscopic level this coming closer of peers in the profession is a first step towards sharing and future exchange. They met contemporary ceramists. The community in general came in large numbers to see and buy their work. I think exposure will bring respect and appreciation of the clay crafts,” says Nilofur Farrukh, one of the founding members of ASNA, an art critic and a historian.

A majority of these clay masons got orders, both from individuals and retail outlets. “They made contacts which can only grow with entrepreneurial spirit,” says Farrukh.

Terming it a success, she further says, ASNA was able to motivate potters from remote villages to come to the city which they had never done before. “They went back happy and satisfied as most of the ware was sold and they had orders in hand.” But more than that, it contributed to raising an awareness of our traditional cultural links, our rural crafts and the need for a public craft gallery, found in many countries, to display the best of this work.

This air of camaraderie helped muster support for each other, too. “There is no government support for our work,” says 23-year-old Mohammad Ashraf from Badin, who says the shelf life of a potter is no more than 20 years. “Sitting in one position takes its toll.” Kora Khan agrees and says the back, knees and joints are the most effected body parts. “Due to so much concentration, even the eyes get weak,” interjects Ashraf who also does the delicate jaali (filigree) work on pots. He, like Qasim, is willing to give up his occupation. Being a matriculate, he applied for a teacher’s post in a government school but has not been successful so far. “I’ve also applied in the postal service department; let’s see if I succeed this time.”

Hameedullah, who hails from Dera Ismail Khan feels pottery makes you anaemic as it ‘saps the ability in you to make fresh blood’. For the 40 odd potters of his village, life is really hard. “Our foremost problem is water and then wood. We have to fetch it from a distance which is two kilometres away. We need about 200 litres a day which means our womenfolk have to go about eight times in a day. So in most families women take turns to get water and it’s not easy. Many times we also help and those who can afford hire donkey carts. As for wood to fire our kilns we need about 1600 kilogram per month (one kilogram is for Rs110) which has also become costly.” Hameedullah would also prefer to take up a job if given a chance.

With this generation of potters happily calling it a day, the age-old craft may well vanish. Not if the young and upcoming art students can use their artistic expression, mesh it with the adventurous spirit of the entrepreneur and the skill of the craftsman and give the creative juices a free rein. The results would be astonishingly dramatic.

The government can help to prop the endeavour, as has been done in the Far Eastern countries. “The government there has invested money in training, and protection of crafts. They have provided opportunities for regular sales and given extensive patronage. In some cases heavy funding for craft councils to manage the above has also been done,” explains Farrukh. On the other hand, she says, except for a select few NGOs and designers most have had an exploitative approach in Pakistan as there is no accountability, which have given them the advantage leaving the crafts people in the same place from where they started.”

With the danger of the trade breathing its last, would these potters be willing to teach the art students in urban centres, so that the craft remains alive? Haji Lal Mohammad, an artisan from Quetta, has no problems coming and staying in Karachi. “If I get a decent salary, something like Rs15,000 per month, so that my family is well taken care of, I’d stay and teach.” He says he has taught 30 students at a factory in Sibi and in Pishin for two years.

“However, the problem is that these people don’t share their expertise and that is one of the reasons it’s dying. They will work with you and even teach you the techniques, but you will never know the exact amount of mixing they do of ingredients,” says a frustrated Shanaz Siddiq, another ASNA member, who has worked closely with most of the potters who have been present in the mela.

Siddiq also feels just getting together some students to learn how to make pots is not enough. “Learning has to be integrated. When you learn ceramics it’s not just a one-off exercise. It comes with a baggage of learning the history of not just ceramics but art history of the region, how it evolved, various influences it absorbed and its relation to other art forms and to that society. Thus it’s all encompassing and you cannot study it in isolation.”

Endorsing her views Amra Aslam, another art critic, adds, “The whole education system and the curriculum have to be strengthened and that needs a vision. Unfortunately we lack that.”

“Learning should also be a two-way process and in the process even the craftsmen should go away enriched. The exercise should help him improve, too. We should intervene and better the designs, give him the confidence so that he experiments and is innovative,” says Siddiq, who feels part of the frustration also stems from not being given esteem. “We, as a nation and as a people, have not given them the respect. We have not been proud of our crafts people.”

However, Noorjehan Bilgrami, an established artist, textile designer and a researcher feels, “Bringing them as teachers to art schools would certainly help them gain their dignity, it is a way of acknowledging their skills, but that is a short-term solution. To make the craft sustainable craftsmen need to be rooted and able to effectively market the products to the urban areas from the village.”

Maybe setting up of whole craft villages may not be possible, logistically speaking, and given the diverse geography she suggests forming of co-operatives and common marketing strategies. “It would help being together.”

“Lack of exposure to the market and the knowledge to make the transition from a medieval craft to a modern one needs to be addressed with design intervention like it has been done in some countries like, Malaysia etc.,” says Farrukh.

There may not be just one solution, according to Bilgrami, to breathe new life into this craft, as “the problem lies at many different levels,” yet she tries to provide some suggestions, “Infrastructure and support from the government and the local NGOs is vital. So it is primarily a matter of economics. If the craftsperson can sell his/her wares at an adequate price; the threat of extinction is diminished and they would not seek other options.

They need to be given due respect and appreciation for their art, apart from the financial returns.” The same is endorsed by Nilofur Farrukh who feels that by respecting their work, putting them up in national collections and documentation they will earn social respect and income, which are great incentives.”

At another level, Bilgrami emphasises that, “We, the urban dwellers, need to use pottery more in our daily life; demand better quality and also compensate the craftsmen appropriately.”

Farrukh provides another set of suggestions to “stem the rot”. She calls for provision of, “Non-profit exhibition sale venues dedicated to purely traditional potters, inviting artisans on rotation for maximum national coverage.”

Having been active in organising the Kumhaar Mela, she says, “They (potters) feel more opportunities like these will provide them more income and attract more people to the profession.” She also feels that providing funds to improve their production capacity, both in quality and quantity with technical intervention, will improve their work and help them cater to bigger orders. Fauzia Aziz Minallah, the renowned artist and activist, has embarked upon a great mission in life. While learning the art of pottery in the village of Saidpur with famous potters like Rahimdad and Riaz Mohammad, she realised that the age-old tradition of pottery was gradually disappearing due to development which was a great loss to our culture and heritage.

Heading an NGO, which carries out art workshops in katchi abadis, she teaches mural making and recycled paper making to children and produces books. Minallah has published her third book for children, Sadako’s Prayer, in collaboration with a partner NGO in Hiroshima. She has three more books planned for children based on a cartoon character ‘Amai’, which is a magical bird made of light that turns into a shooting star and takes children on different tours of the world.

Minallah also teaches the art of pottery to visually impaired children. With an MSc. in Communication Design from Pratt Institute, New York, and an MSc. in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Fauzia Minallah has exhibited her clay work and slate engraving locally as well as internationally.

Speaking of her artistic inclinations, she says, “I consider myself an unconventional artist and have not developed a market for myself. My activities as an activist take up a lot of my time. I learnt paper making from a Japanese friend and make paper out of the barks of different trees such as wild mulberry and sheesham. With children I make paper from used newspapers because they don’t require boiling.”

Minallah has been promoting chitakari or slate engraving, which was exclusively used for the beautification of tombs. On her association with pottery, she says, “Almost 25 years ago, my mother sent me away to learn pottery from Rahimdad who gave me pottery lessons. I had a traditional wooden wheel installed in our back lawn.

Pottery, however, was just a hobby for me at that time. Recently, I visited the craftsman again after many years and asked him to revive the pottery they used to make, for e.g. the gharholi or a small water pitcher which was traditionally used to bathe the bridegroom. It is decorated with clay flowers embellished with a mirror in the centre and clay balls hanging like jewellery. I asked Rahimdad to take impressions of the decorative motifs used in the old houses especially the clay flower.”

She is also promoting the lost clay traditions of Saidpur, an integral part of the historical side of the city of Islamabad, which has not received due recognition. “The remnants of the rich culture of the Potohar region are slowly fading away and Saidpur is one of them. A village of historical value, two potters, Rahimdad and Niaz Mohammad are the only ones left in Saidpur who are practicing pottery. Though their sons know this craft, they don’t find it a lucrative option,” laments Minallah.

Appreciating the ASNA Triennial, Minallah said, “Pottery is a dying craft and events such as these are always helpful in raising awareness about the survival issues of this craft. They open new markets for the craftsmen. A craft only survives if it has a market. ASNA is an important stage where problems of these craftsmen are highlighted.” — S.S.N.

In a narrow, dusty, alley of Nassurpur, Ustad Mushtaq owns a shop. Of the many potters in interior Sindh, he is one of the fortunate ones to still have his business running. In a typical rural township, crafts such as pottery are passed down from father to son, but in recent years many potters have had to abandon their craft because of dwindling profits. Mushtaq’s workshop, which trained about 20 apprentices, is now left with only five to six men, employed at a pittance of Rs100 a day.

The primary thrust of Mushtaq’s workshop’s production is in the area of kashigari or tile-making. Tiles are moulded out of red clay and coated with a mixture of powdered white stone from Rohri, sand from Sehwan and a paste made of flour, salt and water. The tiles are then painted in brilliant cobalts and ivory whites, which are the distinctive features of Sindh’s ceramics.

In the rural setting, kashi tiles are conventionally used in the decoration of town mosques and religious shrines. However, due to limited demand, kashigars have difficulty in finding a market for their wares. Mushtaq’s right-hand, Irfan, thinks they should try to capitalise on the urban market, however, in order to compete in a more sizeable market, he fears that the equipment in their workshop may not be enough.

In fact, it is Mushtaq’s clientele in Karachi that has enabled him to sustain his workshop over the years. Having tried to maintain an outlet at Tariq Road, he believes that stepping up production will not necessarily promise a boost in business. Though the cities are more populated, the truth is that the aesthetic demands of the urban clients are not always met by rustic kashi ware. Both Mushtaq and Irfan hope the Kumhar Melahas helped them build their network in Karachi. — Sumbul Khan

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