A tile of two cities
Written by and photography by Umair Mohsin, Pakistan
The tale of the traditional blue pottery of Pakistan, known as Kashi Kari, mirrors the set-up of what is today’s Pakistan.
On the one hand, it is a tale of excellence derived from centuries of generational workers in the craft toiling in the same manner as their forebears did centuries ago, learning via apprenticeship yet eschewing modern methods, designs, and experimentation for ‘what has worked true’. On the other hand, it’s the tale of a young Pakistan emerging on the global scene with a promise of newness, modernity, and – dare we say – even playfulness.
Whilst the centre of blue pottery and the hub of all craftsmen in Pakistan continues to be the twin cities of Hala and Multan in the interior of the country, the traditional art is seeing a renaissance of sorts. New artists in urban centres, trained in the design techniques of the West, are creating works in a variety of media that speak to contemporary ideas. Amongst those who represent these two extremes are Zaid Hameed and Ustaad Masroor Hussain.
Hameed hails from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, an elite art school located in the bustling metropolis of Karachi, a place he joined to give direction to his fascination with ceramics and pottery, which he had been collecting from a very young age.
One can see the passion shining in his eyes as he talks about his art. “So here it was, the blue and white pottery of the region I live inìwhose architecture has been adorned by the beautiful tiles for centuries, and traces of its existence have been found from times as old as the Indus Valley civilisation – I knew I wanted to work ?in it and bring back the former glory of this art to the region.”
During his academic times at art school, Hameed learned about craft intervention, the techniques and approach as to how the art can be taken from traditional to contemporary or with something that is new and innovative without really losing the identity of the craft. This was the point where he decided that blue pottery would be what he would do for life and that he would make his mark by re-inventing the craft.
Hameed hasn’t looked back since and has been exhibiting every year since 2008 at the SAARC women’s association exhibits, which are great supporters of this craft. He has also represented Pakistan, alongside Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and India, at the Children of Asia exhibition in Singapore in 2010. One can even say he was destined for this due to his family background. “My crafts gene was probably passed down from Mum’s side of the family as she is a traditional embroidery expert, and I have a family filled with architects, textile designers, and artists.”
Travel a few hundred kilometres to Multan, however, a medieval city with a history dating as far back as the Indus Valley (and perhaps even further), and the world changes. This is a place where the city shrines and busy bazaars find themselves in the shadows of the ancient citadels and monuments towering above them. It is a city where one feels time has slowed down. This is the home town of Masroor Hussain, a kashigar (ceramic artist) with almost three decades of experience in the craft and who is currently associated with TEVTA – Institute of Blue Pottery Development, Multan Govt. of Punjab.
Like many in his craft, Hussain is a prodigy of the generations in his family who have been down the same path. Showcasing an array of geometric and floral motifs in a variety of forms including flowerpots, lampshades, vases, serving dishes, earthenware, dinner sets, pitchers, trays and soap dishes and tiles infused with white glazes with a splash of turquoise and rich blues – the hallmark of Multani ceramics – he offers an interesting examination of the rich stylistic heritage through which these ceramics have come to be.
Talking in Urdu, Hussain says: “Ours is a phenomenal journey across India, China, Russia, Turkey, Spain, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Our designs partake of the cultures, histories, and design traditions of all these nations; thus we have an incredibly rich and dense language to harness our designs from.”
Our talks turn to the principal patterns employed in blue pottery, from simple forms to the complex ornamentation found on the façades and inner domes of many of the Islamic buildings in Multan and where the blue colour and decoration [also akin to the colours of the heavens] sometimes interwoven with calligraphy are intended to be a source of inspiration and wonder for the viewer.
“The hexagons of Multan spiritually reflect the glory of the Islamic world and are a tribute to the Sufi silsilas (orders) who helped spread Islam in the region. We also have the lotus flower, which speaks of our ancestral Buddhist influence. Other common motifs include the split-stem scrolled-leaf arabesque, whilst our patterns of irises, carnations, and tulips are an amalgamation of many cultures. Another interesting aspect of the local craft is the relief, which sometimes can be as high as ¾ inch. This is what creates the interplay of light and shadow against the usually white background of the crafted object.”
Acknowledging the Iranian influence on his art, he cites the cool blue mosaics of Isfahan’s Islamic buildings and the blue-tiled dome above the elaborate tiled façade of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashad in Eastern Iran as his biggest inspirations – and yet even then he talks about creating his own identity within the craft.
“Every aspect of the craft – the materials, the processes, and the techniques – speak about its owner in blue pottery. Right from your choice of clay, through the tools applied, and decorations and glazes used to even how you work the fire, all create your own personal statement on these crafted items. The objects or utensils one creates thus should serve to provide nourishment to each and every aspect of the human psyche – the mind, the body, and most importantly the soul.”
Back in Karachi, however, we find a repeal of this mode of design. “The products that are traditionally produced are usually items that are of daily use in their lifestyle, such as matka (earthen containers) to carry water, basic tiles used for ornamentation of buildings, and a few ornamental pieces like vases and so forth that haven’t really evolved drastically over a very long period of time, resulting in lowering of demand and the craft dying. New designs need to reactivate the interest of the audience which has the spending power as once patrons did centuries before, eventually resulting in more and better work and living standards of the artisan,” says Hameed.
Thus an internal conundrum strikes – which way to turn? The sometimes vastly divergent styles of the same craft might even make the viewer find themselves disconcerted if found together in the same place – Hameed’s work is playful and reflects the joy he feels, the beauty he finds in everything whilst pushing the limits of the art; while Hussein’s work is reflective of the generations of hard work and energy that have gone into perfecting the spiritual art in its current form. It is the same spiritual conflict that can be seen in the essence of Pakistan.
The future of this craft, however, seems very bright as new people with expert knowledge are stepping forward to join this venture into craft revival and preservation. More exhibition opportunities are being created, more jobs are emerging, and the industry is moving ahead from what it was a few years ago. “The lost glory is regaining strength,” says Hameed.
Ideation in the Modern Blue Ceramic Studio
The process that I go through to arrive at a product or design is that I plan out the forms on the paper with sketches, sample them in clay, then decide the placement of the traditional patterns, sometimes using them the way they are traditionally used but most often using a single or a couple of patterns to create the final look and feel of the product whilst also experimenting with modern techniques and newer finishes to give the product an edge. This is different as the process usually results in new forms or products that fit in with modern-day uses and are better suited to contemporary interiors, whilst still retaining their traditional identity and value. The quality control is also a lot more strict; the raw material is refined and of the best quality. The thing I enjoy the most about my work is being able to create beautiful objects and being able to bring about a change and empowerment in the lives of artisans and craftspeople for a stronger future and better living standards, whilst preserving the craft indigenous to our region.
The Process of Kashi Kari
The process of blue pottery and tile manufacturing has received an upgrade in line with customers’ expectations – especially regarding durability of the products. Wood and dung-cake fires, the staple of traditional ceramics, have been replaced with gas furnaces, which allow for controlled and uniform temperatures for biscuit firings and glazing that can reach as high as 800–850°C for Kashi work and can exceed 1,200°C for glazing. Baking of raw materials has been broken down to its current process of grinding, kneading, filtration, moulding, and biscuit firing, in that order.
The ‘red clay’ of Multan has been replaced with clay from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and Tharparker in Sindh, which tends to be of much finer quality. The special blue colour prepared from cobalt oxide and copper oxide is a special technique and a distinctive feature that still relies on the judgement of the artisan controlling the process.
Blue-and-white pottery from around the world
One of the world’s most famous names in ceramics – and with good reason – this blue-and-white pottery has been made in and around the city of Delft in the Netherlands since the 16th century. Due to its popularity, it can be hard to buy authentic pieces, but today Delfts Blauw (Delft Blue) is the brand name that is hand-painted on authentic ceramic pieces. The archetypal Delft design features a windmill, but this floral lidded vase offers an elegant interpretation of the traditional style.
Belgium: Pieter Stockmans
Modus Vivendi set of three dishes.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the restrained modern elegance of this celebrated Belgium ceramicist’s creations. Stockmans’ designs combine a restrained palette with organic forms for something truly unique. A favourite designer of chef Alain Ducasse, a limited edition of the design studio’s tableware is used at his three-Michelin-star restaurant Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo.
Japan: Nendo for Gen-emon
Patterned mix-and-match porcelain.
Japanese studio Nendo has collaborated with 260-year-old ceramics company Gen-emon to create a truly exciting fusion of new and old. Nendo, known for its cutting edge aesthetic, has reworked Gen-emon’s traditional plum blossom pattern, known as ume komon. The result is an eclectic mix of intricate blue-and-white pieces that can be mixed and matched for a visually spectacular table setting.
Siirtolapuutarha dinner plate.
This mesmerising graphic Räsymatto pattern is part of Marimekko’s Siirtolapuutarha dinnerware collection by Maija Louekari. The Finnish artist’s whimsical style is inspired by traditional fairy tales and folk stories. Räsymatto is the Finnish word for a traditional rug weave found inside Finnish cottages. The quirky cobalt-blue dot design is perfectly complemented by a simple and clean silhouette. Invest in some of Louekari’s quirky dinnerware for an instant mealtime update.
Regal Peacock rectangular dish.
This quintessential English pottery company has been creating ts signature blue-and-white designs since 1851. Clay still comes from Devon and Cornwall, and pieces are finished by hand in its Stoke-on-Trent workshop. The 1913 classic blue-and-white design, known as Regal Peacock, was recently reintroduced by the company. It depicts a 12th-century poem, known as The Conference of the Birds, by Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar.
Distance: 1,565 km
Flight Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes