Ramzan sat amid a clutter of fabric and threads, stitching a shalwar, when I entered his small tailoring shop in Mingora, Swat. There was no fan to provide relief from the stifling heat and flies looped around in lazy circles. He looked weary as he bent over his sewing machine, but his face lit up when he heard I wanted to talk about his carvings and sculptures. He nodded towards the display case next to him, “I made those.”
An array of bowls, goblets, boxes and sculptures, including one of Allama Iqbal on a small piece of soapstone, was arranged on top of the case. Ramzan creates his elegant art from discarded slabs and stones gathered from a nearby emerald mine. The impetus for his work, said Ramzan, came from his surroundings; remnants of artefacts at the Butkara 1 archaeological site in Saidu Sharif, where he lives, captured his interest. “I used to examine the designs and shapes of the objects. Around twenty years ago I decided to recreate them,” he says.
However, few know about Swat’s artists, who number about a dozen. Working in relative obscurity, they steadfastly make art despite the lack of recognition or monetary reward. Their art melds tradition with a modern sensibility.
His home town is famed mostly for its stunning scenery. Those interested in art or archaeology also know of Swat’s ancient Gandharan ruins, which are the remnants of a once flourishing Buddhist kingdom more than 2,000 years ago, which was later invaded by Alexander the Great. Others value its hand embroidered shawls, emeralds and woodcarvings. Today, the valley is also famous as the home of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel laureate.
However, few know about Swat’s artists, who number about a dozen. Working in relative obscurity, they steadfastly make art despite the lack of recognition or monetary reward. Their art melds tradition with a modern sensibility. Often, the beauty of a piece is set off by its portrayal of social issues — women’s rights, education, poverty, refugees — that beset the lives of Swat’s people. Swat has no art galleries to boast, unlike the numerous galleries found in Pakistan’s metropolises. Local artists like Ramzan usually exhibit in the veranda of the colonial-era Swat Serena hotel. A few send their works to galleries in Islamabad or Lahore. Most of them are unable to earn a living from art and hold other jobs to support their families.
My interest in Pakistani art began in the mid-1980s, when I acquired a painting of a Karachi street from the newly opened Chawkandi Art Gallery in the city’s Clifton area. I have since collected works from galleries in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. It was only years later that I discovered that an area such as Swat also nurtured talented artists.
My first glimpse of contemporary art in Swat was in 2012, at the home of Usman Ulasyar, a poet and executive director of the Suvastu Art and Culture Association, which aims to promote Swat’s arts through cultural activities, music shows and art exhibitions. I stared in disbelief at the paintings, carvings and sculptures that filled the room I was sitting in. Some of the art was strikingly modern and raw in depicting the suffering Swat’s people had endured during the Taliban occupation.
A table held a small sculpture of barbed wire and chains of a body dangling from a noose that recalled the horrors. A bloody footprint centred around a mixed-media painting in which a spent bullet lay next to a broken tasbih and the charred remains of Pashto literature, ensnared within a spider web. The pieces pulsed with energy.
In September 2014, I returned to Swat and met several artists, who impressed me with their dedication and creativity. Some are self-taught, and some have a college education. They teach, advise and critique each other’s works, and attend workshops offered at the Swat branch of Hunerkada, the Islamabad-based fine arts college.
Hunerkada’s founder, Jamal Shah, opened the Swat branch to nurture talent there. “We provide lessons in visual arts and music for Swat’s artistically inclined youth,” said Shah. Contemporary artists draw upon the history and traditions of crafts of the valley, and today produce work that is equal to that of artists practicing in the larger cities of Pakistan, he added.
At the newly renovated Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif, replicas of rock shelter paintings engraved on a wall of an inner courtyard remind visitors of Swat’s rich past. The museum, founded by the Wali of Swat in 1959, houses a fine collection of Gandhara art. It sustained damage in the 2005 earthquake, and again in 2009 from a bomb blast during the Taliban insurgency — it was then rebuilt.
One of Swat’s pioneer artists, Murad Khan, recreated the cave art for the museum. The original prehistoric paintings, dating to 1,400 BCE depict agricultural practices, and are located in the caves of Kandak valley, south of Mingora, that are not easily accessible.
“Art is in my DNA and I have been an artist since I was in my mother’s lap,” Murad said. “My mother told me I began drawing with charcoal on the walls when I was only three.” He continued drawing and painting in school, and by fifth grade, confident about his skills, he painted a portrait of his grandfather in oil, which he still has. Murad put his talents on hold when his parents arranged his marriage at age 16 and family responsibilities took precedence.
For some years, Murad devoted his energy to taking care of his family, eventually opening a print shop. He returned to art in the early 2000s, enrolled in courses at Hunerkada’s Swat branch, and began painting again.
When we met, I asked Murad what inspired him to recreate the ancient rock art. “I wanted to share our history and its artefacts with others in Swat. I knew people won’t be able to go to the caves, so I brought the art to them,” he said.“ Our art should be more than embroidered shawls, calligraphy and wood carvings that people admire and purchase. It should also inform.”
At the remote site in Kandak valley, Murad made copies of the original rock paintings on butter paper and then adjusted the scale for the larger surface of the museum wall. The work, portrayed in deep ochre, dances on a cream wall and provides a glimpse into ancient lives. The paintings we looked at possessed the deep glow of oil paint and layers of grainy texture that gave them an unusual depth. That texture comes from an unusual source: semi-precious stones and minerals; green beryl, mica, lead, zinc and lapis lazuli that Murad grinds into a fine powder.
Like other artists in Swat, Murad is deeply influenced by Swat’s Gandharan past and incorporates Gandharan motifs and designs in his work. He also believes in using his art to call attention to societal problems.
Among the paintings that we looked at, two stood out. Images of three women, two doves, musical instruments, the parasitic vine amarbel, and surface fractures inhabit the oil painting titled IDPs. The women represent the displaced people of Afghanistan, Swat and Waziristan, from the initial flood of Afghan refugees to present times. The amarbel encircles and grows from within the musical instruments, recalling the Taliban who killed local musicians and dancers. The painting recounts a difficult period, still fresh for those who lived through it.
The amarbel also figures prominently in Unspoken, a work that focuses on the state of education, especially women’s education. The vine imprisons a woman from within and emerges into the world; a pair of eyes, a takht, a mihrab and Islamic accents have a unique place in this work.
“The amarbel represents the prevailing parasite of ignorance in our culture. “In Islam, there is no prohibition on women’s education,” Murad said. “I used the mihrab and Islamic patterns as a reminder that it is not Islam but the local interpretation of Islam that denies women their rights.”
To achieve that goal, he works with Hunerkada in Swat to offer free workshops and he mentors several artists. “I consider teaching my service to the people of my area.” He hopes to exhibit either in Lahore or Islamabad, and continue to highlight the social ethos of his people.
Local culture does not encourage artistic endeavors beyond the usual calligraphy on paper, canvas or wood, says Nasar Sheen who earned a bachelor’s degree in arts from Swat’s Jahanzeb College and works primarily with wood. He creates calligraphic panels that fit in with local tastes as well as small statues that nurture his artistic inclinations. His commercial art is popular and sells. “The income from those pieces lights the kitchen stove and puts food on the table.”
Nasar spoke of the problems such as swara (child marriage), the inability of most women to attend school; the culture of men leering at women and touching, hounding “even those in purdah because our men want to know what she is like behind the veil,” Nasar said.
Among the artists I met, Nasar is the only one able to earn a living from art. But that, too, requires a compromise. “Most of my income comes from my ‘commercial art’ or the carved panels of Islamic calligraphy and Pashto phrases,” Nasar said. He decorates such pieces with non-figurative designs found in old mosques, buildings and tombs. Some newer plaques are purely decorative, devoid of calligraphy, but filled with images of tablas, birds, a burqa-clad woman and flowers. These, too, will no doubt sell locally, through word of mouth.
To fulfill his creative urge, Nasar makes one piece of original art, usually sculpture, for each commercial one. Those sculptures caught my attention, when I saw them in 2012 in Ulasyar’s house. Since then, he has worked on a series, Islam, Purdah and Women, which addresses several problems still prevalent in the culture, Nasar said. Some sculptures in the series are abstract but imbued with pathos.
He has no access to exotic woods, so Nasar uses whatever is available. “I work with deodar, shisham, walnut and pine; the woods commonly used to make furniture.” Whatever the wood, the results are impressive and captivating.
Nasar’s sculptures skillfully mix modernity and tradition. A ten-inch high sculpture, a small figure clings to a hollowed out shape, probably its mother. The overall sense of sorrow and loss in this piece is tempered by the sense of life and potential healing that a mother can give her offspring.
Nasar puts thought in all his creations, even his “commercial art.” He derives ideas and inspiration from visits to old monuments and incorporates their traditional designs and motif plaques. His small sculptures, however, evoke work found in large international museums. They border on the abstract but signal cultural nuances.
Nasar’s work continues to evolve. He is now delving into other realms of art, including the use of “found” wood. His latest work, Hidden Life, depicts a duck. Nasar used wood sharpened like nails to affix a piece of found wood that calls to mind a duck’s head with another that he formed into a body.
The sculpture, however, is not merely an object of beauty. “The pieces of wood that combine the two parts represent taunts that pierce people’s hearts. But people are strong. They still carry on and remain whole,” he said.
Of the three artists, Ramzan, the tailor, is completely self-taught; his formal education ended after fourth grade. Most people would categorise his work as craft, not art, but I disagree. His work takes thought, creativity, and displays a sophisticated sense of design, balance and form. Although Ramzan uses simple tools – a saw, chisel, screwdriver and a stone for leverage – the work he creates is as fine as that of any trained artist. The pieces – stupas, perfectly rounded bowls, small boxes with matching lids, goblets, plates, sculptures – showcase his talent.
But some of his art is not appreciated locally, particularly when he sculpts images of Allama Iqbal, the Quaid-e-Azam, Fatima Jinnah and even of himself. “Some people accuse me of being a budh taraash. I don’t show many people my sculptures because they connect them to the Hindu religion,” Ramzan said.
Ironically, the army which routed the Taliban out of Swat, became one of the biggest supporters of art in Swat.
Such criticism is one reason why Ramzan began to concentrate on making innocuous pieces, with geometric and floral designs that fall in line with the local mindset. Murad, too, is sensitive about how his traditional and conservative culture perceives art, including its dislike for portraying images of people. He wants to change such thinking and to make art accessible to more people so they can experience its cathartic benefits.
The old artefacts inspired Ramzan and also taught him. He is proud of his accomplishment, but acknowledges his debt. “I have no ustad. My teachers are the old stones and the ruins, carved and built by those who lived here centuries ago.”
The tailoring, which he learned at age 13, might feed his family, but art feeds Ramzan’s soul. “I feel compelled to carve. If I didn’t have to worry about my livelihood and feeding my family, paying rent on this shop and my house, then I would do nothing but work on my art.”
Ramzan is not as hungry for money or attention as he is for the opportunity to create full-time. Unable to devote much time to his art, he steals an hour or two in the evenings to wrestle form out of a shapeless stone, chiseling and shaping it and embellishing it with designs.
He is, understandably, quite attached to his pieces. “I don’t like to sell my pieces. I want to keep them all. But I sell them sometimes to make a few extra rupees,” he said.
Ramzan dreams of owning a workshop, where he would hone his art and teach his skills to others. He knows it is a wish that might not come true. In the meantime, he will doggedly pursue what he loves best — turning raw stone into objects that are a pleasure to behold.
What lies ahead for artists in Swat? The answer is not easy. They work with little encouragement from the government, neither provincial nor federal, and have few patrons locally.
Ironically, the army which routed the Taliban out of Swat, became one of the biggest supporters of art in Swat. It has, since, organised art exhibitions and purchased art from local artists. Both Nasar and Murad acknowledge the army’s help, but also wish for other avenues.
In the meantime, the artists of Swat will carry on as they have in the past. They know they have talent and the work they make is beautiful and moving.