Upward mobility with Ustad Ji

Published January 5, 2014

At a walking distance from Chandni Chowk of Saeedabad, Baldia Town, Karachi, on Guldad Shah Road, Muhammad Shabbir has been weaving charpoys since 35 years. In all his time, his charpoys have been made of iron pipe frames and synthetic nylon strings.

“This shop is the mother of all charpoy shops around here,” asserts Shabbir. “Dozens of my pupils learnt making iron frames or weaving charpoys with nylon strings at my shop, and now have their own businesses.”

Forty years ago, Shabbir arrived in Karachi from Abbottabad, Hazara division. He learnt how to weld at a shop by working as an apprentice; later, he began his charpoy business in Saeedabad. His brother assists him by taking charge of all the welding work involved in making charpoy frames. Together with current apprentices, business is booming. But in and around the area, his students have followed the path he treaded and opened shop themselves too.

This is the traditional cycle of an ustad-shagird relationship, crafted from the mutual benefits it provides to both the ustad (master) and the shagird (pupil/apprentice). For an ustad, the primary purpose of having a shagird is to have somebody to assist in minor tasks or look after work and business in his absence at low or, in some cases, free of cost. For a shagird, the benefit of working with an ustad is that it allows them the opportunity to acquire a skill without paying a penny.

The ustad-shagird way of doing things dominates the vast rural and urban informal sector: in small businesses, various skills, crafts and services. In rural areas, these skills are typically transferred through families or kinships. In urban areas, family ties have been replaced by the tradition of non-familial ustad-shagird relationships.

Take Shabbir’s apprentice, for example. Thirteen-year-old Mohammed Waqas, a student of Grade 8, sat quietly on the pavement outside the shop, engrossed in weaving a charpoy. “He has been working with me for the last two years and has learned the skill here,” says Ustad Shabbir, of his young charge.

“My father is from Buner,” Waqas tells me in Pashto. “He insisted I serve as an apprentice here with ustad ji to learn this skill. Before this, I had learnt how to do embroidery, but my old ustad had to shut his workshop for some reason. Now everyday, after school and after having lunch, I come here and weave two charpoys and get paid Rs100 for each. I give the money to my mother, and take a small portion of it as pocket money.”

Waqas, according to Shabbir, isn’t the only apprentice around that he is mentoring and who help him run the business. “There are two more pupils of mine who are on leave today, they work here for the whole day and weave four charpoys daily, each earning Rs400 every day,” Shabbir says.

In times of economic hardships, the apprenticeship provides employment opportunities to folks such as Waqas, as well as valuable experience for setting up an independent business once they are ready. Most shagirds are unpaid during their training period, especially at the beginning. Unpaid training is preferred by apprentices over paid unskilled jobs, as acquiring a skill is considered vital if one has plans to start a business of their own.

For many shagirds, their resolve to become entrepreneurs or even to see better days, is strengthened by success stories such as 33-year-old Sarfaraz, a commercial painter and writer, who started as an apprentice but now runs his shop.

Sarfaraz started training for his vocation when he was only 12 and still studying at a primary school. He worked with his ustad, Arif Naz, for more than a decade, learning the art of making Urdu and English publicity material, nameplates, signboards, hoardings, billboards and graffiti used by traders, shopkeepers, educational institutions and political parties as well. Now he has a shop of his own, at a distance of 100 yards from his ustad’s shop.

“My father came to the city in search of a job and better earnings from Shakkargadh tehsil of Narowal district, a town famous for its fertile lands and high quality of rice production but dismal opportunities for the landless and the poor. I was born here,” he explains.

“In those days, one could hardly expect an income for their work as a trainee; the only motive was to learn the skill, and get remunerated with a token income. A time came when Ustad was reliant on my efforts for most of the work and assignments he got. With the passage of time, I developed my own connections and started getting assignments from clients. This encouraged me to establish a shop of my own.”

On a question about rising flex culture and increasing use of computer graphics and designing in outdoor publicity and advertising work, Sarfaraz replied that their work is long-lasting as compared to panaflex work and still has its demands as most people prefer these traditional ways.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Ali, a resident of Swat Colony, who has recently returned from Saudi Arabia. Son to a Kashmiri father and Pakhtun mother, Ali was the typical “chota” — a young boy who would run errands and menial tasks at an automobile workshop as work-based learning.

“I started working as a trainee with a local auto mechanic, Ustad Tariq, when I was 14, soon after my father died of a heart attack. He used to work in a tea factory, but after his demise, I had to go to work,” says Ali.

“I started training with Ustad Tariq to become an auto mechanic of small pick-up vehicles and old car models, the ones used as taxis. Initially, I was paid Rs10 a day, which rose to Rs50 in a period of three years,” he narrates reflectively.

“After three years of work and learning from Ustad Tariq, I got an opportunity to work at the enterprise training workshops of Atlas Honda. I earned a certificate there, which helped me acquire a work visa at a company in Saudi Arabia,” he continued.

Things took a turn for the better. Ali is now busy reconstructing his house in Karachi, turning it into a three-storey building. He has been employed in Saudi Arabia for almost a decade, helping loved ones also find gainful employment at the same workplace.

“During these years, I helped my three brothers and some friends from the community find better job opportunities in Saudi Arabia as skilled labourers, and get a higher remuneration,” he says.

Due to challenging economic conditions, low salaries at the formal sectors and chronic political instability, there is a significant growth at the informal sector these days. Despite the exploitation and job insecurity, working in traditional and emerging fields still offers hope. The better the shagird, the greater the rewards. And all with ustad’s blessings.

Ali Arqam is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi. He can be contacted at aliarqam80@gmail.com or on Twitter @aliarqam

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