Art and craft: Blue magic on clay

Published August 1, 2010

Multan is one of the oldest cities of South Asia, and some historians even believe that it is contemporary to the Indus Valley civilisation of the second millennium BC. Known to us as the city of saints and their shrines, it is also famous for its crafts, in particular pottery and ceramics. 'Blue ceramics' or glazed pottery called 'kashikari', has become an indelible part of its identity, almost immediately recognisable because of the faithful repetition of colours and designs over the years. The floral and geometrical patterns and the white glazes embellished with rich shades of turquoise and deep blues are the hallmark of Multani ceramics, and one continues to be impressed by the beauty of these creations. Not only can these be used as aesthetically appealing utilitarian items, but they can enhance the décor of any interior, and the ceramic tiles continue to be used for the embellishment of architecture.

In recent years, a number of local architects have opted to design buildings that reflect our local heritage, and make use of these traditional tiles in their design. Decorative blue tiles, both plain and patterned, are a distinctive feature of Multan's various shrines, tombs and mosques, for example, the mausoleum of Baha-ud-Din Zakariya, the tomb of Shah Rukhn-e-Alam, the Eid Gah mosque and many others.

An excellent full-colour publication on the history of Multan and its crafts was published almost two decades ago by the Punjab Small Industries Corporation. This reasonably-priced book lends insight into the rich history and culture that this city is embedded in, and also into its predicaments and limitations with regards to the promotion of its heritage. On the internet, a post titled, 'True blue kashi work of Multan' by Shirazi in a blog called Chowrangi is a good source of information about the aforementioned ceramic crafts.

Nonetheless, a first-hand viewing of Multani ceramics drives home the fact that though its colours and patterns are simple and almost repetitive in many ways, mostly consisting of flowers, leaves, leafy scrolls or geometrical patterns, there is a timeless beauty in them that enchants their beholder. However, in certain pieces there is a crudeness and lack of imagination that goes with hurriedly-made works produced for the market. Among the colours that are used for glazing and pattern-making, white and shades of blue reign supreme, though occasionally earth colours, lime green and terracotta can also be witnessed.

The overall effect is of stylisation of forms. The spontaneity, quick brush work, and steady hand of the artisans is apparent. Calligraphy is used mostly on tiles made specifically for architectural adornment. Rarely does one see any human or animal form. The style and patterns reflect influences from the Mughal era, as well as Central Asia.

The demand for Multani ceramics is high amongst foreigners visiting Pakistan, while most locals seem to ignore it. The elite opt for other, more sophisticated, branded, and expensive decoration pieces from abroad, while others incline towards gaudy, multicoloured objects. This is a fact confirmed by handicraft retailers who claim that it is mostly foreigners who like to buy our handicrafts.

As an owner of a number of pieces myself (and not a foreigner by any means!), I find this to be a sad fact, since our handicrafts have much to offer in terms of both beauty and utility. There is room for improvement of course, and our art institutes and graduates must explore possibilities to improve the lot of our precious artisans, who might become extinct if they are not promoted with the kind of fervour they deserve.

I wonder if any one agrees with my personal theory that more than large-scale mechanical industries, we must encourage our wonderful handicrafts, making them our speciality as a nation, and thus provide not only creative and lucrative, but also eco-friendly occupations to our population. There are individuals and organisations who think on these lines and are even making some efforts in this regard, but it must be done in a more focused and significant way.

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