Trained as a textile designer from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, Iram Zia Raja’s foray into jewellery design and production is not necessarily a departure from her first love, the world of fabric, thread, zardozi, tila, marori, dabka and the myriad other forms of decoration which inform the subcontinental aesthetic. Raja’s collection of silver pendants is a joy to behold, and a privilege to wear. Conceived as individual pieces, each pendant is a unique landscape comprising stunning stones set in backdrops of the most exquisitely crafted silver, embellished with motifs and patterns reminiscent of richly woven tapestries or profoundly wrought architectural elements — each one stunning and glorious in its celebration of tradition as the foundation of modernity. Iram Zia Raja spoke about her odyssey to Dawn:
What led you to take the journey from textile to the more tactile world of jewellery designing?
I’m a trained textile designer and for most of my professional life worked as a design teacher at the NCA which in turn helped me hugely in understanding motif, pattern, colour and design. I have to confess that my teaching experience shaped me into what I am today. This shift from textile to jewellery was a very conscious one since I believe designing to be a very conscious, sensitive activity. Whatever the market had to offer was lacking in so many ways. I couldn’t find anything decent for my wedding. So as a matter of need I started to design jewellery. This journey started as an idea as all journeys do.
Iram Zia Raja’s jewellery designs romances fabric, thread, metal and stone
As a woman I have always been interested in jewellery in its very conventional context. What I didn’t realise back then was that jewellery could be more than just adornment: it could be a feeling, an emotion, a text, a context, narration, a dream and much more. It was later that I felt and embraced all of these. My rigorous training and practice of textile designing was my most important tool and an asset when I started doing jewellery. My viewers and clients acknowledged that it is different from anything that they have seen before and they could actually connect it to my textile design background and that for me was very important.
What are the overlaps between your initial training as a textile designer working in fabric and thread, and your latest passion of working in metal and stone?
Well, the overlaps are motif, pattern, colour, contrast of hues, variation of scale and so on and so forth. I love this transition into metals and stone because the feel is very different. But I don’t leave fabric and thread behind when I’m working in the domain of metal. The doree that is created for a jewellery piece is an integral part of its being. Doree completes and complements the design. I have to confess that textile is a crucial part of my jewellery practice.
How do you see the notions of art and craft playing themselves out in the domain of jewellery? Is it art? A craft?
I’ve actually never let this debate / notion of art and craft bother me. My jewellery is an extension of my being: it’s my expression, it’s my idea, it’s my story and it’s my way of telling my story. Idea is art and how you shape it is a craft. Both exist together. They don’t have a life without one another. A story in one’s mind is art but writing and storytelling are crafts. Likewise my ideas, unless and until given form by a material, are just not there. A soul needs a body. Through our physical existence we know one another and likewise we know someone’s art through a craft. Well, this is purely my take on it.
What is the future of jewellery design as an ‘academic’ subject in Pakistan? Is there a market for the kind of work you are pursuing, here and abroad?
There are many courses around jewellery designing being offered at various art and design schools. How academic these are, I really can’t comment. I have worked extensively with a number of government projects regarding jewellery design for artisans, etc. such as AHAN and TEVTA since my interest in jewellery is academic to a large extent.
I look at jewellery of the past as a testament to the beauty and a powerful existence of the material culture. Jewellery has contributed in its own way to the history of ideas. A look at any ancient civilisation will give you ample evidence that jewellery was much more than adornment for the people of the past, be it the Indus Valley civilisation, the Vedic period, Egyptian Middle Kingdom, the Ming dynasty or the Mughal period in the subcontinent.
Talking of my work and its appeal abroad, I believe my designs have an international appeal and market since I get a lot of queries and orders from the US and the Middle East. My next stop is Europe though.
How closely do you work with the crafts persons who handle the materials?
I work very closely with the craftsmen. Every single design of mine has a combination of techniques so I have to ensure that all techniques are perfect and hence I have to work with them. Also I’m kind of looking at the processes from a different perspective and thinking of a different way of employing those techniques, so in the end it’s all a very experiment based activity at my jewellery studio.
To what extent are you ‘reinventing’ traditional motifs and styles? To what extent are you employing new concepts in jewellery design?
First of all I would like to clarify that I have not made any tall claims about reinventing tradition. When analysts and critics review my work, they come up with these phrases. I’m a humble student of design and even humbler of tradition. Traditional motifs have travelled to us through a very long journey that encompasses thousands of years at least.
Ancient peoples created techniques and strong designs. And my basic question to myself and others remain: are we proving to be the torchbearers? Are we able to keep the fire burning? If we are not doing that, we are off track. If we are not creating new sensibilities, we have missed the bus. In my view and understanding, tradition is the continuity through which we know ourselves. Here I would like to quote my favourite example of the statue of the priest king from the Indus Valley civilisation. He is wearing a shawl that has a trefoil motif carved on it. Today’s ajrak has the same motif.
This is the power of tradition: an unbroken lineage of over 5,000 years. How can that be thrown away just like that? So I have this conviction of purpose in accepting tradition as my teacher and for every artist / designer out there I feel it is very important, almost a lifeline to stay connected to your roots and feel for them and work on them and innovation will follow. It has to follow. That’s how the building blocks of innovation are created.
In short, tradition is my springboard through which I take a plunge.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 28th, 2016