ARCHITECTURE: THE ART OF MUD

Published March 12, 2023
The facades of old mud houses are often decorated using playful patterns by village women | Photo by the writer
The facades of old mud houses are often decorated using playful patterns by village women | Photo by the writer

Jabbo, a tiny hamlet just outside of cosmopolitan Lahore is now merely a relic of an aesthetic that once was. Today, steel girdled roofs and semi-concrete houses stand in place of the mud houses that have been typical of any Punjabi rural settlement.

Flash floods and the human instinct to make habitat ‘everlasting’ may both have contributed to this development. The tragedy is that, in achieving development and preserving obdurately for posterity, what has become lost is the mud artwork that Jabbo’s women carved on their little houses.

Many women in Jabbo have historically come together to decorate their houses, creating a repository of imaginative designs for their upcoming generations. This includes but is not limited to cleverly contoured arches supported by pillars fashioned from clay pitchers, courtyard walls catching sunbeams through latticed windows, wall niches offset by a trellis pattern, entire walls sporting frilled shelving and that one outstanding single floral or geometric motif proudly ornamenting an otherwise nondescript elevation.

If time and finances allow, a splash of colour — mostly blue or green — is added. Or, as seen in Sindh, the glisten of tiny shreds of glass are used to light up a motif. The tiny, subtler additions have been personal innovations but, primarily, mud and thatch dominate the visual palettes.

Village women in pockets across Pakistan create mud filigree art as ornamentation for their mud houses. But while the worth of their craft is often dismissed by men, this indigenous art may also be under threat from a rapidly changing society

But not everyone appreciates this form of art.

The men of the village view mud art with disdain. Noor Muhammad, a resident of Jabbo, tells Eos, “It is our womenfolk who have been doing all this.” He clarifies that no man would ‘stoop’ to ‘play with mud.’

Many men in Jabbo share Muhammad’s patriarchal disdain towards mud art, dismissing the artistic worth of an activity that brings their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters together.

Muhammad insists that the women in his clan and those of so many other men in the rural hinterlands of Pakistan continue to ‘play with mud’, and that it is bereft of any intrinsic ‘value’.

But studying the details of this form of art that relies on limited mediums at hand, suggests that the women of Jabbo break monotony by using daily objects to channel their creativity.

Village girls who grow up making mud pies for play become master artisans, learning the tricks of mixing and matching designs from their mothers and grandmothers who come together to discover new ways of creating mud decor.

Evidently, in a lot of cases, the efforts of these women go unsung — unappreciated by the men of Jabbo and undiscovered by the world. So far, their playful aesthetic, which departs from conventional mediums of art, has found no place in any art genre.

Nobody in the village has ever thought of formally archiving their indigenous art, which has inhibited its prospects of visibility to the world and kept it out of art galleries or exhibitions that people frequent to learn about new trends in the art world.

In the past few decades, elements of contemporary city lifestyle — like developing concrete, gated houses — have permeated rural areas, raising a new concern for mud artisans. Will this artform survive for long?

Mud filigree work is a dying art but, those who do practise it do an honest job of crafting flowers and fauna and tiny bird figures, circles and triangles from a crude mixture of mud and discarded husks of grain directly on the walls of their private residences.

The patterns are moulded over doorways, they frame earthen granaries and chicken coops. Without stencils or punched patterns, bound by no rule of drawing or drafting, they work under the instructions of their virgin imaginations, each woman’s creation becoming a sign of her individuality.

In between their daily activities — fetching water from a neighbouring well, herding cattle, breastfeeding a child or kneading the dough for the men’s lunch in the fields, these women have traditionally found respite in mud art. The tradition is as old as time as each woman brings her own imagination into play.

While all women have an inherent feminine instinct to decorate a homestead, it would be reductive to understand it only as an idle hobby for their fancies. There are many purposes mud art — like any art — serves for these women. With no colour save the rough browns dug up from mother earth, these patterns are silent stories of dreams and fancy visions that inhabit the dreams and mobility of these women.

Many women remain blissfully unaware of the artistic worth of their artwork. It is rare for their art to see the light of day outside the village. In the unusual case that it does make it to a market, the exchange is usually administered by male relatives who keep the amount themselves and leave the labours of these women uncompensated.

Mud filigree art has been retained in small pockets all over Pakistan. While the green fields of Punjab themselves rise as a canvas dotted by the earthen design on tiny huts, in Sindh it is the vast stretch of parched land that suddenly becomes beautiful when a cluster of hutments comes into view. Lit up by the sun during daytime or subdued in the light of the moon at night, the colours of the mud house remain bright.

From Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Balochistan, to Sindh and Punjab, all women in rural areas have found comfort in this vocation. For each female, most of whom have never set foot outside their comfort zones, the act of plastering mud motifs on walls is testimony to their resilience.

Each one of these unsung nascent artists knows that, come winter drought or monsoon rain, the painfully crafted designs will either wilt or wash away, unable to stand the vagaries of nature, and that it is a thankless job unappreciated at home or abroad. Yet they continue, season after season, undaunted in their labours of love, carving out dream visions whose existence depends on weather conditions.

With no potential for market utility so far, this art serves as a combination of entertainment and therapy for the women belonging to the rural areas. Given the trend towards adobe architecture in urban areas, the shades of art in rural design offer viable options.

What is left to be seen is whether rights of franchise to this unrivalled art will ever be recognised formally by the contemporary art market? If so, is there an ethical way of incorporating the rural mud art with the modern genres of art without depriving it of its essence, which remains rooted in the unique psyche and material circumstances of the women who make it in the villages?

The writer is a freelance journalist, creative content writer, translator and book reviewer for local and international publications

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 12th, 2023

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