Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Silence in Kosh Kalat

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According to legend, the ancient town of Kech, known variously as Turbat, boasted some 2,000 leather embroiderers and cobblers. Today, Qazi Lal Buksh is the last remaining practitioner of chakankari or leather needlework, at least in Balochistan. By his account, it was because of the large population of these artisans that the town’s precinct of Kosh Kalat – literally Shoe Fortress – took its name.

Tools and raw material of the chakankari master’s trade
While he continues to craft women’s slippers, male footwear has gone out of fashion. The latter was a shoe with an upturned toe, equipped with a sewn anklet that sometimes reached up to the knee like greaves used by horse riders. The design for the shoe came down through nearly two millenniums of equestrian history. As well as that, there was the elaborate bandolier.

Qazi Lal Buksh at work
Richly embroidered with multi-coloured thread, the shoes were a blaze of mostly floral designs. In between twirled and flowed curvilinear and abstract forms, especially when made for bridal couples. While common folks made do with coloured cotton threads, richer clients indulged themselves with inlays of gold and silver wire of the finest measure.

Once the artisans of Kosh Kalat turned out these beauties in large numbers. But by the time Buksh joined his father’s workshop in 1968 at the age of 13, this workmanship was already extinct. He recalls hearing about it from his father who also described in detail the design of the then vanished men’s shoe.

The bandolier, on the other hand, was still in fashion. As intricate and rich in design as the shoes, this piece of male attire was exceedingly bold and intricate. The flowers were larger and more complex with the spaces between them filled in more elaborately. Back in about 1960, such a bandolier could set you back a thousand rupees.

Those were the days when Kech had a workshop sponsored by Small Industries Corporation (SIC) where a dwindling number of craftsmen worked in a commune of sorts. The year 1952, when this workshop was established, marks the time when it was recognised that this ancient craft needed institutional support. In consequence, besides providing workspace the corporation supported the 100-odd artisans with an even contribution for purchase of material.

Bandolier embellished with tiny brass ferrules.
As little as three decades back, the chakankari 

master would let his skill and design vocabulary
run amok across this ample ground. Today,
this accessory would not even fetch his 

labour’s worth,
let alone generate a livelihood
By the 1970s, demand for men’s shoes and expensive bandoliers dried out, forcing the artisans to concentrate on women’s footwear and diversify into other products such as wallets, purses, key holders and cigarette cases. Lighter on the buyer’s pocket, the smaller products quickly caught on and became quite fashionable in markets as far away as Karachi and Quetta.

But this trend faded and the market shrank to just the towns of Makran besides some demand in distant Quetta. As the older generation of chakankari experts passed away, fewer and fewer younger people were drawn to learn the ancient art for they felt the earning was just not commensurate with the painstaking and laborious hours spent on each product. Indeed, even at the time of his initiation into the cobblers’ convention, Lal Buksh was the youngest among a host of elderly artisans. And that was when the chakankari market was thriving.

The final blow was struck by the floods of 1998 when Kech River overflowed its banks and washed away the shed that had housed the SIC workshop for nearly half a century. It was never rebuilt. With that erasure, the fifty percent government contribution to the craftsmen’s expense on purchase of material dried out. Coupled with a market increasingly unwilling to pay the right price, the craft slowly began to be asphyxiated.

Ball point pen in hand, Buksh continues to pour over pieces of leather shaped to form the upper of women’s slippers. Brow furrowed in concentration, he meticulously draws patterns as they emerge from the brilliant recesses of his mind. These designs feature in no handbook but take shape in his mind and find expression on the leather he clutches in his hand. Even the colour scheme is extempore.

Then, depending on the thickness of the leather to be worked, he uses either a large needle or an awl and slowly the blue lines of the pen begin to blaze with every shade of orange, blue, green and red. No space remains vacant. In three days, he can have a men’s wallet ready and in ten a women’s clutch. The last bandolier made two decades ago had taken up the better part of three weeks and had sold for Rs. 20,000. Today, it would fetch twice as much.

Buksh explains that even when there were all those many artisans in Kech working communally, every man had his signature patterns. A floral shape can only be just that but each craftsman gave a distinctive nuance to its form, considering it below his dignity to copy another artisan. Unsurprisingly, artisans could recognise their handiwork on display months after it had been shipped to an outlet.

Wearing a sad smile, Buksh says he can still make a living by his craft because as an SIC employee his salary augments his income from his work. But when he passes on from this life, Kosh Kalat will be a misnomer for a part of Kech town. His son, the only one of his offspring who chose to be tutored by Buksh, cannot support his wife and children by following the craft practiced by several generations before him. Instead, he works as an unskilled construction labourer.

Creations of a master who knows there will be no takers after him for the art form passed down from as many as eight to ten generations

Asked if no one will shed a tear when the ancient art of chakankari will die out with him, Buksh lets out a cynical laugh: ‘If they were up to wasting tears for my craft, they would have conserved it with institutional support.’

Qazi Lal Buksh can be contacted at 0322-230-4092

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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