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Mausoleum of Sachal Sarmast, Daraza, Khairpur
c. 19th century CE

Reviewed by Zain Mustafa

IF we consider Pakistan’s contemporary design identity relevant to its history as a nation, its earlier history as a part of the region, its colonial past, imperialist influences and its present cultural role in the global village due to the ever democratic digital age of the world wide web, we may run into vague, woolly and disconnected ideas on the topic. A logical line of analysis would be to look at who we are based on where we have come from, who our ancestors were and what traditional design have we inherited from them. We have to understand through research, learn from the language of our antiquity and contextualise a history in traditional design before we are able to define its evolution into what we have today and where we will take it into the future.

Instead of sidelining our design history and its enormously rich language as old fashioned and uninteresting due to its daily overshadowing by western media influence of what is considered worth owning, a contemporary revival is desperately needed in our design industry. Architecture, interior design, product design, textile design, fashion and the entire culture of design needs a very clear understanding of what a traditional design revival means, as a concept and not as a romantic surface application for decorative purposes only to glamorise ethnicity. This understanding will begin once the present learning design generation has access to consumable sources that have visual appeal amidst a continuous bombardment of distracting visuals, an evolving directionless educational infrastructure and design leadership.

The 400-page hardback, Tale of the Tile: The Ceramic Traditions of Pakistan by the illustrious duo Abdul Hamid Akhund and Nasreen Askari is the kind of document we need to inundate our design institutions, bookstores and design offices with. A true jewel, it is a beautiful, colourful book, with a plethora of large photos that speak for themselves, a visual treat with terrific printing and an encyclopedia of information. It can be used not only as a coffee table book but is also a critical addition for research libraries in design institutes within Pakistan and anywhere in the world. Pakistan, its design industry and its youth that are all searching for a design identity need more books like this.

As the loose slip cover states on the inside, Tale of the Tile draws “on historical linkages and cultural affinities with Mongol, Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal influences’’ — a crucial attempt to learn about the culture which is a part of who we are today and which should be embraced, even celebrated, along with our colonial heritage and ongoing present day media imperialism. It is this very diversity in our history of design and the traditional arts that lends us to be an enigmatic and multi-faceted culture. And the “500 illustrations record this cultural progression’’.

This book is the perfect springboard to study where our design history stems from. It is also an excellent bridging document to use for research and analysis towards the overall creation of a design vision for tomorrow. As this book “traces a decorative tradition that evolved in the Indus Valley and promoted a renaissance in architectural adornment,’’ it delivers us a window of information, an opportunity to indulge ourselves, our design interest and senses that appreciate hidden subtlety of how things were once done. Through this book, a tip of the iceberg, one can be educated on the reasons for developing those ceramic traditions relevant to the celebration of a renaissance that we can aspire to emulate today in our own idiom. A contemporary design renaissance is desperately needed, a renaissance not based on plagiarism or surface embellishment but on an internal, soulful, intellectual, philosophical and spiritual understanding of what a revival of traditional arts means to us today.

The Tale of the Tile opens with laying down a poignant context: a map that clearly demarcates the journey that our ceramic traditions took to reach us — a phenomenal journey from India to China, Russia to Turkey, Spain to Syria, Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Iran. We are not just a political boundary called Pakistan. Our genetic construct has chromosomes from all these peoples, cultures, histories and their design traditions. Therefore, we have an incredibly rich and dense design language to harness and translate into a new language relevant to a modern us today. The book lays out in a very accessible format the historical perspective moving through a few major areas: Sindh, Multan, Uchh and Lahore with extracts from these centres displayed at the MohattaPalace exhibition in 2006. The catalogue of this powerful exhibition is also in the book. To further support the stories the book also has included in its appendices three peripheral but relevant areas to study: the virtues of jewels and delicacies of perfumes, the manufacturing of modern Kashi earthenware tiles and vases, and finally, a chapter on the technique and preparation of tilework and pottery.

As one thumbs through this book, gradually, one sinks very quickly in synch with the love and passion with which this document is compiled. It is layered with stunning images, historical facts and dates to understand a chronological evolution, information on rulers who supported the patrons of the artisans, regional Medici’s so to speak, the reasons for developing the ceramic art of pottery and tiles, a celebration of the tradition, the renaissance that was the overspill through this carefully constructed cultural development of the arts and architecture, also shown through delicately drawn, accurate architectural plans, elevations and details where required. One learns how the tile patterns were created from simple forms to the complex filigree we see on the facades and inner domes of the buildings, many a time interwoven with calligraphy, the fine balance between these various scales of design, form and colour are presented to the reader in a simple yet poetic, magical tour through time, geography and materiality.

Tale of the Tile is a testament to the international standard quality of books we can create with the resources we have. It contextualises this region’s design development in conjunction with that of Europe’s. It is an easy to read text, a non-technical, non-jargon-infested book for anybody interested in the region, its traditional arts, ceramics, pottery, calligraphy, heritage, antiquity, design, decoration, architecture, textiles, fashion, poetry or with an interest in our cultural history. If one is at all interested in who we are, where we came from and where we could be in the future in the light of connecting tradition to a modern life and the future of regional design, this is the book.

The reviewer is an architect and educator

Tale of the Tile: The Ceramic Traditions of Pakistan

(Art History)

By Abdul Hamid Akhund and Nasreen Askari

MohattaPalaceMuseum, Karachi

ISBN 978-969-9535-01-7

400pp. Rs6,000/-