Abid Shah collects his art pieces before going to Saddar to sell them | Photos by Wasim Sajjad
Abid Shah collects his art pieces before going to Saddar to sell them | Photos by Wasim Sajjad

Syed Abid Shah sits in a small, windowless room on the first floor of his ramshackle house in Bahadur Kali, on the outskirts of district Peshawar.

One by one, he pulls out wheat straws from a bunch packed together like a broom and flattens them with a chisel and mallet. After flattening a few, he chisels them thin so that they are ready to be used for a straw painting or calligraphy, a traditional Chinese art that dates back at least 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty.

Shah, who is now in his 60s, learned wheat straw art when he was 12 from his artistically inclined uncle in Karachi. He became proficient in the art in four years and returned to Peshawar.

After more than 40 years, he feels he has finally mastered the art. Shah says that, when he began to learn wheat straw art, he had done it out of curiosity and passion, but he never knew it would become his bread and butter to support his family.

An artist in Peshawar claims to be the last practitioner in the Subcontinent of a traditional Chinese art

“Decades ago, I knew only four wheat straw artists in the Subcontinent,” he says poring over wheat straw patchwork on a black cloth. “Two of them belonged to Karachi, one to Punjab and one hailed from India, but they are all dead now. I believe I am the only living wheat straw artist in Pakistan.”

Shah preserves wheat seeds which he gives to a farmer to cultivate for him once a year. His work requires a particular type of wheat, which has straw that is taller than regular wheat. The farmer gives him 12-15 wheat straw bales, which is enough for a year’s artwork.

Abid Shah waits for customers on a footpath in Saddar Baazar, Peshawar
Abid Shah waits for customers on a footpath in Saddar Baazar, Peshawar

Shah uses red and green colours mostly for his paintings, which require the straws to be trimmed, polished and dyed. He makes portraits in different sizes, such as 8x12 and 16x20 inches. The smaller patchwork is usually done on cardboard covered in black cloth, while the medium- and large-sized portraits are made on wooden ply covered with black or blue cloth. The sheets of ply, cardboard and cloth are bought in markets from Karachi and Lahore.

From morning to evening, Shah weaves portraits and develops calligraphy on his canvases. In a day, he can finish four small portraits, two medium ones or one large one.

Despite being time-consuming and laborious, his art does not bring him a justified amount of money. He sells a small piece for about 400 rupees and a medium piece for 500 to 800 rupees. Sometimes, people request him for special art pieces, for which he charges a little more, depending on the size and time it takes to make it. He usually sells his work on the footpaths in Saddar Bazaar in Peshawar.

The most expensive piece he has created, he relates, was the family tree of the former religious affairs minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, for 50,000 rupees in 2012.

Most of Shah’s paintings depict Islamic ornaments and architecture, stories from the Mughal era and historical buildings, though he has also created some commissioned portraits of revolutionary icons. His calligraphy work focuses on Quranic verses, the names of Allah and the names of people.

Before dusk, Shah collects his art pieces in a large cloth sack and securely ties it up on his motorcycle to take them for display. After maghrib prayers and until isha, he displays his art pieces on a footpath opposite the famous Takhto Jumat mosque in Peshawar. Shah does not sell more than three to four pieces a day. Some days, he doesn’t sell a single piece.

Abid Shah displays his art on a wall in his work room
Abid Shah displays his art on a wall in his work room

“It is on those days that I feel like destroying all my art pieces and to give it up altogether,” he says. “I think I have spent all my life doing this work and it doesn’t bring much in return.”

But the next day, when some customers buy a few art pieces, Shah gets re-energised about his art again.

Shah wishes he could sell his art internationally. But courier services are tedious, he details — courier companies often check his pieces by first cutting them open to check the wooden ply, the cardboard and the cloth separately. Being the breadwinner of his family, Shah feels sad that he can only provide two meals a day to them.

“We live in misery,” he says. “If I had the money, I would have installed a door and have a window constructed in my room. But I am fighting to survive in the present-day inflation.”

Shah’s only son Fahad was studying for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Peshawar but had to drop out of his fifth semester because of financial constraints. Since the last four years, he has been learning wheat straw art and helping Shah to make portraits.

But the son does not share his father’s passion. “I don’t want to pursue wheat straw art as my source of income because I know how my father has struggled,” says Fahad.

Shah feels that the art will disappear as no one is interested in learning it, primarily because no one wants to buy it.

“There should be a place for this art in the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum,” says Shah. “My work can be displayed there and, in this way, the art won’t die with me. If only I had an institute where I could teach this art to others.”

In our fast-paced, stressful, robotic, technology-driven lives, wheat straw art could provide the young and old with some peaceful time-out to channel their creative energies. But for that to happen, its legacy and the skills of its last practitioner would first have to be preserved.

The writer is a Peshawar based journalist.

He tweets at @Wasim_Chashmato

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 4th, 2022

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