Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A Chorus of Craft

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Crafts, like all other inventions, are parented by human needs. Sometimes this birth takes place by sheer fluke. The first drum played a hundred thousand years ago, if not earlier, was perhaps nothing more than a termite-ridden trunk of a felled tree pounded with a club to loosen grubs to feed upon. Played to a cadence, the hollow sound morphed into music. Simil     arly, some 50,000 years later, the first stringed instrument may arguably have been a hunter’s bow indifferently strummed during the wait to spot game.

Anthropological research suggests our Neanderthal ancestors were wearing colourful shaped and polished stone pendants as early as 60,000 years ago. They were also interring their dead with similar ornaments and powdered dyes.

Closer to our times, we find ample examples of high-quality crafts from the Indus Valley. Rewind 8,000 years, our ancestors living in the fabulous cities of Moen jo Daro and Harappa were shaping and polishing semi-precious stones such as obsidian, carnelian and agate to be strung together for adornment.

Except nothing remains static in the face of the long, creative passage of time. Inventions too take the natural course of evolution and alter amidst shapeshifting scenarios. What was a much valued craft yesterday was passé the day after, surviving only as a shadow of the original.

Though our earliest history emerging from the ruins of Indus Valley cities do not offer any proof of such prejudices, we do come across many crafts practically dying due to a bias against artisans. This discrimination took root after establishment of the caste system between two and three millenniums ago. The potter, the leather worker, the carpenter, the man at the forge and all those who worked with their hands were denigrated to a lower caste. And despite the fact that the work of these artisans was indispensable for daily life, they were shunted into ghettos in ancient cities.

Somewhere along the line, the maker of musical instruments as well as the musician who brought joy to the human spirit joined the ranks of the ostracised. This led to their exploitation by the privileged: never were craftsfolk to be recompensed fully for their long hours of hard, often back breaking work. There would just be given enough to keep body and soul together.

As well as this prejudice and abuse, the past seven decades have shown that many crafts have gone out of circulation because of the pressures of modern-day life. To cite just one example, the lacquer work walker for toddlers, crafted in the workshops of Kashmore in Upper Sindh, once found in homes not only across Sindh but all over Pakistan, has quietly given way to an unattractive metal and plastic copy imported from the West.

Though each province has a dedicated department mandated to keep an inventory of traditional handicrafts and support artisans, lack of financial resources and interest prevents this from occurring. Consequently, when a floor covering is needed, the average city dweller, not knowing where to seek information on availability of indigenous carpets such as the farasi handmade in interior Sindh or Cholistan, chooses an ordinary and readily available machine-made rug.

This lack of information has told drastically on the market for indigenous crafts. Resultantly, more and more artisans are moving to other professions for better livelihood opportunities. From Gilgit-Baltistan through the length and breadth of Pakistan down to the deep south, artisans sound a unanimous lament: There is no market for our work. Because of the slow turnover, we find it difficult to feed our family and have therefore not passed on to our children the art we learnt from our forefathers.

While it is primarily the government’s responsibility to ensure conservation of indigenous crafts, it rests on ordinary people to value the work of local artisans. Far too many times a traveller passing through Thar, for instance, is seen haggling with the khatha maker over price. What needs to be understood is that the weaver has a living to make. Even at current prices, the ordinary Pakistani artisan, whether a maker of clove necklaces in the outback of Rajanpur, the farasi in Golarchi or the soapstone markhor in far-off Baltistan, demands a price that is extremely low.

Many of the women and men featuring in this diary are the last practitioners of crafts handed down through no fewer than eight to ten generations. Some continue their work despite meagre gleanings because they know no other skill. Others carry on as a matter of habit or even to while away their time. And save one, none of them has a willing apprentice to take the art forward when the master is no more. On being asked what the fate of their ancient art will be if this were to happen, their reply is summed up in a resigned but sad smile and shrug.

The pages to follow trace the development of 12 indigenous crafts that were once famous in the subcontinent. But the list is by no means comprehensive. Even as you read these pages, there are scores of other crafts, equally valuable, that are all but non-existent due to neglect.

For every craft that dies, a bit of our heritage, if not a bit of ourselves, dies with it. If this publication nudges you into realising just that, it would have served its purpose.

Previous Books of Days: Waters of EmpireDiscoveries of EmpireStones of EmpireWheels of EmpireRoads Less TravelledSights Less SeenTales Less Told, A Chorus of Craft

Note: Articles from A Chorus of Craft - Book of Days 2016 - appeared on this blog on the first of each month 2016.

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My Books

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

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days