Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft

KARACHI: The practice of stonecraft in the area that makes up modern-day Pakistan is as old as Buddhism itself, but without government support and after decades of militant attacks that scared off foreign buyers and halted exports, the ancient art is all but lost.

Now, a handful of artists and entrepreneurs are trying to preserve and restore the dying craft.

Ancient cities in Pakistan, including Taxila in the country’s eastern Punjab province and Thatta in the country’s south, were home to artisans skilled in the art of stonecraft, a technique in which stone is used as the primary material to build statues, buildings and structures, as well as day-to-day items, such as pots and utensils.

In Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Gandhara art focused on creating statues of Gautama Buddha, while Sindh’s Thatta city became famous for large stone structures that combined impressively carved decorative and floral motifs and arabesque patterns.

“From Karachi to Badin, you will see stone-carved graves of multiple tribes, their symbols engraved to differentiate them from one another,” anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, told Arab News. “Particularly, Ghazi Tehsil in Haripur (city) has had remarkable stone carving until the 1970s. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still has the tradition.”

However, the craft has declined over time due to lack of patronage, Kalhoro said.

“No one was willing to buy pieces from the artists which were made otherwise for clients living outside Taxila. With conversion, motifs also changed and this declined the craft. People bought those which depicted non-figural elements. Taxila was home to the stonecraft tradition. Many artists migrated to other regions and continued to produce as per demand by clients.”

Ilyas Muhammad Khan, a sculptor from Taxila, said that the 3,000-year-old center had long been referred to as the “City of Artisans” due to craftspeople who produced rich Gandhara art.

“Over the years, Taxila attracted tourists and foreigners, being an ancient city, and local sculptors began selling replicas of Gandhara’s famous artwork abroad as ‘antiques’ to make money,” Khan, a sculptor for over three decades, said.

“Back then, there were hardly three or four artists, but they taught the skill to their fellows and the number increased over time.”

A decline in the tourist industry, devastated by militant violence in Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Pakistan joining the war on terror, also threatened the ancient art.

Pakistan was last a prominent tourist destination in the 1970s when the “hippie trail” brought Western travelers through the apricot and walnut orchards of the Swat Valley and Kashmir on their way to India and Nepal.

But after 2011, deteriorating security chipped away at the number of foreign visitors. There were fewer buyers for stone artisans, who lost their livelihoods and left the trade.

Many are now making efforts to revive the lost art, including Shakoor Ali, a craftsman from the Shigar Valley in the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region, who is turning serpentine stone into handicrafts and decorative pieces.

Ali inherited the craft from his forefathers.

“They used to do all the work with (their) hands and I started the same, but now I have set up a machine and a small workforce which helps me create these pieces,” he told Arab News.

The award-winning stonemason recently displayed his work at the Gemstone and Mineral Exhibition 2022 in Islamabad.

Islamabad-based design label Noon and Co., spearheaded by Taimur Noon, is also working on the preservation and revival of stonecraft in Pakistan.

Before opening his Islamabad store last month, Noon traveled across the country, identified and acknowledged the skill of stonemasons in various areas, and felt he could elevate the design sensibility.

“The craftsmanship of our artisans is unparalleled,” he told Arab News. “I wanted to give them a design direction, designs that are in demand today.”

Noon said that stonemasons in Pakistan produce stonecraft by hand, while the workforce in developed countries employs machines. Innovation and diversification in stonecraft are key, he said, adding that the process of selecting and fashioning the stones was “quite challenging.”

But Noon hopes his work can keep the conversation around stonecraft alive “so that the revival and preservation of the ancient craft stays in motion.”

“I want to show people in Pakistan and beyond what we are capable of, make this skill commercially viable and turn it into a career for artisans,” he said.

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