A richly decorated and inscribed door at the imam bargah of Goshoshal, Hopar, in upper Nagar. However, newer constructions built to increasingly urbanised tastes are devoid of the uninhibited, naive charm of folk culture | Photos from the book
A richly decorated and inscribed door at the imam bargah of Goshoshal, Hopar, in upper Nagar. However, newer constructions built to increasingly urbanised tastes are devoid of the uninhibited, naive charm of folk culture | Photos from the book

It is said that to know a people you have to look into their art, craft and traditions. Pakistan is rich in cultural diversity with people from multiple ethnic backgrounds living here following various lifestyles and traditions.

The mountainous northern areas of the country are inhabited by several ethnic groups that share a rich cultural heritage, though they speak different languages and have separate histories and religious affiliations. The former kingdoms of Hunza and Nagar — now a district of Gilgit-Baltistan — are part of this tapestry and famous for their handicrafts such as embroidery, jewellery and woodcarving.

Sadly, despite having a rich culture, very little literature, except for some academic studies and travel writing, on the material culture of these regions is available.

A snapshot of mountain crafts before urbanisation seeps in

The Arts and Crafts of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan: Living Traditions in the Karakoram by Jürgen Wasim Frembgen is a welcome addition to the literature on this region. The book is the outcome of thorough ethnographic field research that the writer conducted over the years in these areas. Accompanying photographs add value to the book, providing a better picture of the wide array of crafts that flourish in these locales. 

Frembgen, adjunct professor at the Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Pakistan since 1981 on an annual basis. Between 1981 and 2004, Frembgen worked in the Hunza and Nagar areas and acquired various pieces of handicraft for the Museum Funf Kontinente [Five Continents] in Munich, from where he recently retired as curator.

The Nagar/Hunza collection of the Museum Funf Kontinente includes items of jewellery, embroideries, equipment such as looms, agricultural implements and the tools of craftsmen. Frembgen claims in the introduction that, “Together with photographs and drawings it is the most thoroughly documented collection within the Oriental Department of the museum.”

In this book, he discusses in detail the various crafts prevalent in the valley such as embroidery, woodcarving, weaving of cloth and rugs, jewellery-making, musical instruments, basket-making and mat-weaving, leatherwork, weaponry, tools and crafts of the blacksmith.

Most crafts have historical links to Central Asia and Kashmir, and while tracing these links one can see the blend of cultures that enrich the work. For instance, the ancestors of most silversmiths belonged to Srinagar who had migrated to Gilgit during the mid-19th century. However, after their gradual shift to other, more financially profitable and socially acceptable jobs during the second half of the 20th century, they were replaced by silversmiths from the Hazara district. Each migration introduced new forms and variations of jewellery to Gilgit and the Hunza valley.

An elderly craftsman weaves a basket in Askurdas, central Nagar. The basketry season runs from March to early April. Twigs are cut from young willow trees and either woven immediately, or kept soaked in water, until needed, to ensure they remain supple
An elderly craftsman weaves a basket in Askurdas, central Nagar. The basketry season runs from March to early April. Twigs are cut from young willow trees and either woven immediately, or kept soaked in water, until needed, to ensure they remain supple

New shapes and motifs to traditional embroidery were also introduced as a result of intermarriages between families from various regions; further inspiration came through trade relations with places such as Kashgar, Yarkhan and Khotan and through the Kirghiz nomads.

The in-depth description of the architecture of various types of buildings and their ornate wood carvings, and the patterns and motifs used, shows that there was no fundamental difference between the decorative styles of buildings such as royal castles, private houses, mosques, imam bargahs and the shrines of saints.

The author notes that, as in other societies, class discrimination was present in Hunza valley too. While the elite either imported luxury items from the Central Asian region or Kashmir, or commissioned craftsmen to manufacture them, for commoners it was almost impossible to acquire luxury items or obtain imported household goods.

Also, because of the aesthetic perception of the upper-class ladies — that garish colours reflected the vulgar taste of the lower classes and were thus not suitable for the elite — the choice of colours and the quality of embroidery became markers of prestige and differentiation among social groups in both Hunza and Nagar.

The author notes with concern that since the 1980s, items such as bell pulls, clutch bags, pen holders, pincushions, and other knick-knacks are being made using modern embroidery, to be sold as souvenirs to foreign and domestic tourists. “This commodification, which has little utility value ... was initiated, for instance, by the Karakoram Handicraft Development Programme (KHDP). While such initiatives help local women earn some extra money, they mark a change in the traditional textile art of the Hunza valley and are thus an intervention. The same is true for a commercial project to produce knotted rugs labelled ‘Made in Hunza’, using the patterns found on women’s caps.”

While his interviews with and stories of master craftspeople help to understand the distinct culture of the region, Frembgen notes with sadness that in a number of cases, the craftsmen he interacted with belonged to the last generation of skilled artisans.

The glossary at the end of the book provides interested readers with the specialised terminology for the objects used by craftsmen, artists and the common people of the Hunza valley. The listed words are in the Burushaski language, but wherever possible the equivalent in the Sinha language is also mentioned, although the author makes it clear that “the inventory of terms given here is not exhaustive.”

This book is an important reference material for those who are interested in understanding the Hunza region, its people, and its arts and crafts.

The reviewer is a member of staff

The Arts and Crafts of the Hunza Valley in
Pakistan: Living Traditions in the Karakoram
By Jürgen Wasim Frembgen
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199405206
110pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 24th, 2017