Turn of the Wheel
02 May 2016
Lockwood Kipling knew of Dera Ismail Khan’s famous lac turnery in the 1880s. He was amazed by the ‘microscopic fineness’ of the ‘maze of fernlike scrolls’ and praised the choice of colours that went into the work. ‘The work may be considered the most tasteful and refined of all lac turnery in the Punjab, as there is an entire absence of crude and glaring colours, with a definite system of ornamentation,’ he wrote.
|An exquisite lidded container|
|The deep blue and purple colour scheme |
of this vase is unusual and was created
on special demand
When Awan wasn’t turning the manual lathe to create the various forms, he watched his father apply the usual three layers of coloured lacquer as the piece spun on the hand lathe. A base of yellow to ‘seal the pores of the timber’, then red or white, depending on the planned scheme of the finished piece, followed by black as top coat. Though colours can vary in line with buyers’ demands, only three layers are applied. Anymore, explains the master, and the surface becomes uneven and susceptible to pitting.
Having started his apprenticeship at age 10, Awan took up the steel stylus or qalm to etch out paisleys borrowed from his father’s design vocabulary. Nothing, he asserts, was maintained on paper. Every form and shape, every bit of tracery came out of the master’s head and was assimilated by the apprentice by observation.
Some nine or ten generations ago a certain Ustad Karam Ali was well-known in the court of Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan for his accomplishment as ivory and lacquer craftsman, says Faheem. During the great upheaval of 1857, his descendants, who were until then living in Delhi, fled the chaos to Dera Ismail Khan on the banks of the Indus. In a way they were coming home for as Awans it was from the vicinity of this country that Faheem’s ancestors had first migrated to Delhi at an indeterminate time in the past, bringing their art along.
Time was when some 20 young apprentices besides Awan learnt the art from Ustad Ashraf. These young men received a stipend of Rs. 30 a month each from the Small Industries Corporation. A complete set of lacquer work tools then cost about Rs. 3,000. Since none of the apprentices had the wherewithal to buy the equipment, none practiced the craft. As well as that, the very slow market was a major discouragement to taking up the practice. Today, there is no stipend to lure fresh apprentices. And Awan’s is the last household practicing the lacquer work that once brought renown to Dera Ismail Khan.
|Faheem Awan’s daughter Maria works the stylus on a plate to fill in the paisleys outlined by her father|
Of his 11 children, Awan was training only one of his daughters in 2003 as the sons were in other lines of work in order to earn a living. The man knew then that the work had reached its end.
|Faheem works the hand lathe or jundri to turn an ordinary block of timber into a finely shaped piece that will eventually become a thing of immense beauty|
Currently, Awan has three apprentices: his eldest son redeemed from automobile spare parts salesmanship and two daughters. With an outlet in the premises of Lok Virsa Museum at Islamabad manned by another son, sales are fairly brisk. Awan is fortunate to have also caught the attention of the local bureaucracy which laps up a large part of his output.
|The yellow is first covered by red and finally black in turn as the lathe turns the piece round and round. The pressure on the stylus reveals the desired colour. Any error, there being no way to undo it, the piece is ruined|
Previous: Silence in Kosh Kalat, That Riot of Colour, Grit of Stone, Stewards of the Ring
Faheem Awan can be contacted at 0343-683-2969
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
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