Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Turn of the Wheel

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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
In Kipling’s time, the timber used was mainly shisham. Among the several households practicing the art at the time, the scroll work was done mainly by women. Men only worked the hand lathe or jundri, which gives its name to the craft, to machine the timber into shape and apply successive coats of colour. But for the past several decades the craft is handled entirely by men. At that time, a good deal of this work ended up being exported to Britain. Even today, its greatest patrons are foreigners based in Islamabad with a small number of local supporters. And shisham has been replaced by tamarisk as the main timber.

The deep blue and purple colour scheme
of this vase is unusual and was created
on special demand
Faheem Awan, 59, who claims to be the foremost master and last keeper of the art of jundri, is a son of the late award-winning Ustad Mohammed Ashraf. Quitting school after fourth grade, Awan sat at his father’s knee to learn the skill of turning crude blocks of wood into bowls, plates, candle stands and legs for charpais and stools.

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.

The work entails almost superhuman intensity. The tracery is virtually microscopic calling for not just a very sharp eye but an impossibly steady hand. Pressure on each movement of the stylus determines which of the three different colours of lacquer laid in as many layers is to be revealed: greater pressure will bring out the first layer, that is, yellow that forms the base. Gentler pressure will show either red or white. The tiniest incorrect stroke ruins the creation as the coloured lacquer, applied on the turning wheel, cannot be filled by hand.

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
In Ustad Ashraf’s glory days, Elizabeth II and the Shah of Iran were presented with Dera lacquer creations. There was no count of high ranking diplomats whose homes were adorned with this fine art. And there were ordinary travellers, local and foreign, who made their way to Dera Ismail Khan from across the country to buy pieces. But this side of the watershed of September 11, 2001, business dried up. No longer was Awan invited to the International Clubs of Lahore and Islamabad. No longer did wandering tourists end up at his workshop. Simultaneously, the fancy pirah, a low stool with a back, and charpai frames once essential as bridal gifts in this part of the country went out of fashion.

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
But a remarkable turnaround occurred in the following year when an article in an English language monthly suddenly brought Awan and his work into notice among foreign diplomats. A small trickle of buyers began to visit and business perked up.

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
But the concern remains: what are the odds that this centuries-old art will survive with just one family practicing it? Though it would dilute his earnings, Awan would like to see the number of lacquer work artisans increase. If that does not happen there is every likelihood that ‘the most tasteful and refined of all lac turnery in the Punjab’, as observed by Kipling, will disappear forever.

Previous: Silence in Kosh KalatThat Riot of ColourGrit of Stone, Stewards of the Ring

Faheem Awan can be contacted at 0343-683-2969

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

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Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

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