Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Glint Gone Dim

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‘Only they who understand the intricacies of misgari will appreciate the hard work that goes into producing a copperware item and will be willing to pay its price commensurate with the work that went into its making.’ Khwaja Safar Ali says referring to a copper plate he has in his home.

The master copper craftsman of Peshawar, Khwaja Safar Ali at work in his cubicle provided by the Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
Constructed from twenty different sheets of copper heated to glowing redness to be stitched together, weighing some ten kilograms and engraved and chased with intricate patterns, the plate took four months of painstaking work. But today the buyer who would be aware of the value of the work is hard to come by. And so Safar Ali has not been offered the asking price of Rs 200,000. He produced it knowing well enough that it may be months before he might find a buyer for it. This piece was a labour of love for Ali. It epitomises his pride in the craft kept by his family through several generations.

Times were once very different, however. According to the 1931 Gazetteer for Peshawar district utensils of copper of ‘various shapes and sizes are made in the city in considerable quantity.’ The ornamentation of these wares was ‘simple and bold’. We are also told that Muslims were the only users of copperware and that this product was exported in large numbers from Peshawar.

The copper worker’s forge. Once Safar Ali worked his forge daily. Now it remains cold most of the time. With a very slow market to cater to, he needs fire it at most once a month
With such a notable industry, it should be no surprise that the old quarter of Peshawar city is home to Bazaar Misgaran (from the Persian misgar for copper worker). In the last quarter of the 20th century, this street was crowded with stores vending copperware. Here elderly bearded gentlemen sipped sweet green tea with tourists as they haggled over prices amid beautifully worked copperware spilling out onto the pavement. Today Bazaar Misgaran is a misnomer for it has but two stores dealing with copperware. Both hang on by just a thread.

In a store established in 1860, Safar Ali began helping his father six decades ago when he was but six years old. Because a misgar is master of not just engraving and embossing, he learned how the sheets of copper were heated and soldered together so as to appear seamless. He learned too how the mass of metal was then shaped on the matrix by mallet to become a ewer, bowl, tray or teapot. Last of all comes mastery over the wielding of the stylus and the mallet.

Ewers locally called aftaba – in different gauges of metal, a lota traditionally used for ritual ablution, tumblers and tray all worked to perfection over fire and under the stylus and mallet of the master craftsman
Those were days when dower traditionally consisting of all kitchenware and cutlery from the largest cooking cauldron to the smallest teaspoon was entirely crafted copper. Ali, his late brother and their father were then busy men as they worked the small forge or shaped the sheets to meet a seemingly endless demand. The small, thin sound of mallets beating on copper sheeting coupled with the tinny ring of hammer on stylus resounded through the street for this family was not alone at it: the entire bazaar was choc-a-bloc with copper workers.

As well as the domestic demand, there was continuous traffic of tourists both foreign and domestic who lapped up copper products. About the middle of the 1990s, tourist traffic into Peshawar died out. Of a sudden there was a significant decrease in the outflow of Peshawar’s copper work. Following the events of September 2001 in distant America, with no foreigner to be seen in Peshawar, sale of copperware simply came to an end. The small forge in the back of the shop that was fired on a daily basis went cold. Now there was just enough work for it to be used once or twice a month.

Wares from the forges that once burned in the scores of shops in Bazaar Misgaran in the old quarter of Peshawar. Once such items were found in every home in the city and beyond, now they are collectors’ items
In 2007, Safar Ali, then working alone since the death of his brother some years earlier, shut down the Bazaar Misgaran store. For the first time in its one hundred and forty-seven years of existence the store could not pay its keep. In all these years, the store had played host to personalities such as Queen Elizabeth and US vice president Nelson Rockefeller, besides a host of other dignitaries.

The workplace
The Lok Virsa museum in Islamabad and its periodic exhibitions and festivals became Ali’s outlet. All that he produces ends up on the temporary stalls set up in the museum’s premises. A sign of changing times was that though the master copper craftsman of Peshawar taught his sons the art he had learned from his father, they did not pursue it. They preferred other lines of work instead.

In a desperate bid to put Peshawar on the world tourist map again, the revamped Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has offered succour to the endangered crafts of the province – among them copper work. Established in the two century-old residence of General Paolo Avitabile, governor of Peshawar under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the academy houses workshops of over a dozen different artisans. With a stipend of Rs 10,000 per month, Ali is here entrusted with two apprentices.

The instruction is slow because of the virtually non-existent market, but the two students are shaping up well. Ali points out that a good learner of copper work is one who can abide by the tedious sharpening of the stylus after every five square centimetres of surface has worked it to bluntness. That they learn, might keep the art alive after him, but Ali fears that without sales, his two pupils like his sons may not practice the craft.

The workplace. The antique piece on left has been received for repair and buffing
‘Copper craftsmanship is like stagnating water nowadays. There is no outlet for it,’ says Khwaja Safar Ali. Without outward movement of products there is every chance that his students will be obliged to look for alternative means in order to keep body and soul together.

Khwaja Safar Ali can be contacted at 0333-918-8189

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