|A display by Sana Safinaz | Courtesy Mohatta Palace Museum
| A Flower from Every Meadow: Design and Innovation in Pakistan’s Dress Traditions | Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi | Opened on June 11, 2015
Museums link the present with the past through archaeological finds, reliefs, preserved paintings, recovered or discovered treasures, obsolete coins, that may otherwise look like mere playthings, or idols of bygone worship. Among such relics are clothes – more intimate, in a way, than other artefacts – that someone once wore, once made, once gifted or sold. Clothes reflect characteristics of the persons they represent: the width of a crinoline or the cut of a kameez immediately helps to place a person within a particular era and part of the world. What evades the grasp of museums is the names of those who patiently stitch, with unfaltering flow, the tiny flowers that bloom across a gharara or those who work long hours at the loom, rhythmically weaving yards of glistening jewel-toned shot silk.
An active, if not concerted, effort to support and promote the work of these artisans has been under way among some renowned fashion designers in Pakistan. Complex stitches embroidered by hand have decorated finished outfits in the ateliers of the likes of Bunto Kazmi, Rizwan Beyg, Nilofer Shahid and Faiza Samee for years. Their design philosophies link the traditional with the modern, the rural with the urban. They seek out embroiderers who have inherited the finest of skills from generations of ancestors.
This is why the expansive textile exhibition, A Flower from Every Meadow: Design and Innovation in Pakistan’s Dress Traditions, is a significant reference point in showcasing the history of indigenous dressmaking in Pakistan. Among other things, it offers a glimpse into the evolution of traditional textile crafts into contemporary fashion.
A montage of pictures of men, women and children in native dress covers the walls of the entire stairway leading to the display rooms on the first floor of the museum. On the landing, a large woven hanging catches one’s eye with its myriad bright colours — the covering for a horse. As the viewer’s eyes rove over its coloured rectangles nested within each other and the texture of its fabric, another display attracts attention with its starkly monochromatic but bold presence: a black and white drama, created by Sana Safinaz, unfurls its multiple drapes and folds. This is the quintessential representation of the designer duo’s niche yet widely-known brand that remains a market leader in upscale fashion. Set off by a Persian-inspired terracotta backdrop interspersed with white pigeons (a nod to Mughal aesthetics) is a sequined western gown with a black felt peplum bodice and a cream organza skirt donned on a mannequin. To its right hangs an embroidered cream panel with a black floral border, densely adorned with eastern aari embroidery. This embroidery gets its name from the hand-operated hooked needle (locally called aar). Sana Hashwani and Safinaz Muneer, however, have opted to produce the embroidery with machines which can operate aar needles.
Clothes reflect characteristics of the persons they represent: the width of a crinoline or the cut of a kameez immediately helps to place a person within a particular era and part of the world
The exhibit’s display is true to the design philosophy of the house of Sana Safinaz: an East-West fusion, the mixture of a flair for western cuts and silhouettes (even prints) held up by traditional eastern motifs and embroidery patterns in a colour palette derived predominantly from Iznik pottery, Persian designs and the Mediterranean coast.
From there onwards, the viewer is transported back in time. The first display room has an earthen rural feel: set up as an ajrak press, a tie-and-dye workshop and a handloom, all stockpiled with printing blocks, yarns, dyes and assorted knick-knacks. After walking through rooms that display traditional dresses, rugs, shawls, beddings, coats, turbans and tunics from as far back as the 18th century, the viewer moves to the tail end of the exhibition — to a room named Here and Now. This room contains the contemporary fashion designers’ contribution to the exhibition.
|Fabrics in natural dyes by Khaadi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
“The traditional exhibits provide inspiration for the contemporary designers,” says the curator, Nasreen Askari. “The [works of the] selected designers are an integral part of our traditional arts and crafts and they all fit neatly into the entire concept of the exhibition,” she explains. The curatorial note at the doorway duly explains that this room presents the contributions of “Pakistani designers looking forwards as well as backwards”. The tradition-inspired outfits they have presented are simultaneously in accord with the “international fashion language”.
In this rectangular room, works by Samee, Shahid, Kazmi and Sonya Battla are grouped together. After the riot of colour in the previous rooms, the overall ambience here is underwhelming upon first glance. It is only after closer inspection that the viewer can ascertain the relevance of each ensemble on display to the theme of the exhibition. The lack of vibrancy is most likely due to lighting; it does not accentuate any of the assemblages in a manner that draws attention to a particular piece of garment. The displays when seen together also appear a bit off-balance. In Samee’s exhibit, shawls, dupattas and a sari layer the wall while kameezes and kurtas are displayed as clusters in the foreground. The display layout for the works of three other designers is dispersed, and appears minimalistic without any textured or coloured backdrop.
|A traditional Balochi kurta on block-printed silk by Faiza Samee | Arif Mahmood, White Star
|Balochi embroidery on a brocade kurta by Faiza Samee | Arif Mahmood, White Star
A doyenne of revivalist, classical haute couture, Samee enjoys a vast clientele in places ranging from India and Pakistan to the Middle East. She affirms Askari’s declaration that our country is the inheritor to one of the oldest and finest textile traditions in the world. “Pakistan is the only place that retains this exquisite handiwork,” Samee claims.
For her installation in A Flower from Every Meadow, Samee has submitted a piece which she made 25 years ago as a homage to the craftsmen who worked for her back then. Some of the fabrics she has put up for the show – such as a green brocade kurta finished with Balochi embroidery at its hem and a shot silk shawl produced in chashm-e-bulbul weave – are woven by the artisans employed by her.
Battla’s reinvention of the Kohistani jumlo, or female dress, may not be a showstopper in appearance but it assumes additional significance once the designer explains the concept behind it. In her interpretation, the traditional jumlo’s commodious sleeves get zippers so that they can be detached from the rest of the garment. While the sleeves are kept wide in the original jumlo in order to give the women the freedom of arm movement while doing her domestic chores, Battla’s version allows for a little skin to show, giving the imaginary woman worker more personal freedom. The maroon jumlo is paired with a black appliquéd skirt. On one side of this assemblage is a hand-woven skirt paired with a tie–and-dye indigo jacket, showing the traditional bandhani method of dying. An ensemble to the right comprising a long black jacket with machine-made gold phulkari, layering a vest embellished with buttons and fasteners. It echoes the features of Baloch vests that make use of found objects as embellishments and sequins.
|An ensemble from Nilofer Shahid’s Nur Jehan collection and a pishwas inspired by Begum of Oudh (right) | Courtesy Mohatta Palace
Shahid’s repertoire embodies the confluence of traditional eastern dresses with contemporary utilitarian sensibility. Her pièce de résistance is a digital printed silk gown, titled Nur Jehan after the Mughal empress. This is flanked by costumes that together complete a scene set in a Mughal court — from a Kashmiri-influenced regal black kameez, accentuated with firoza stones, to Mughal booti (vine) needled onto a pishwas that is a tribute to Badshah Begum, the chief consort of emperor Muhammad Shah. Some of the mannequins wearing these regal outfits are draped in jamawar shawls, one of which is inspired by an Abdur Rahman Chughtai painting. More suitable lighting could have helped these outfits stand out like a vision from a bygone era of opulence.
The curator, however, explains that lighting has been a tricky element to control in an exhibition displaying delicate, old, preserved fabrics and embroidery: If the light is too harsh, it may damage the garments. (As a precaution, the curator has additional garments for rehanging in case anything is damaged.)
Kazmi’s house of fashion is a legacy – both on aesthetic and personal levels – as she has carried on the name and business of her mother-in-law for nearly four decades. Her signature portfolio consists of bridals, tapestries and shawls – that draw inspiration from epics like Hamzanama and Conference of the Birds. The two shawls on display in the Here and Now room are lent by private collectors. These look like tapestries in themselves that show the merging of French influence into shawl traditions of the East. Inspired by the style and motifs of Mughal miniatures, these include French woven patterns, in zardozi and silk. The detailing on one, showing Mughal horse riders on cream silk, is unrivalled.
|A silk shawl by Bunto Kazmi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
The last room of the exhibition groups three more trailblazers in Pakistan’s fashion scene. Amid the crisp light here, two displays stand out: the ones that have an overtly modern way of dealing with fabric. Maheen Khan showcases the products of her venture Koya, hand-woven modern silk/banarasi prints with confident polka dots and snazzy broad stripes in black and gold; Saira Shamoon of Khaadi features six pieces of hand-woven wool and cotton dyed with natural indigo. Her installation is reminiscent of a Parisian window display of sorts with unfinished outfits, emphasising dyeing techniques and cuts and silhouettes.
Shamaeel Ansari’s three pieces, displayed in the same room, are a contrast to the others. Her ornate work is inspired by such varied sources as keshte needlework from Central Asia, tilla and marorhi techniques prevalent in embroidery from Sindh, Kachh and Gujarat and dabka, pitta, phulkari and zardozi traditions found in Mughal crafts.
Rizwan Beyg has chosen pieces that stay close to home. A proponent and practitioner of ethical fashion, he has exhibited the chikankari work that is one of his label’s forte: the front panel of an ivory silk georgette kurta, embroidered by women employed by him in Bahawalpur, and a blood red kurta incorporating all the classical traditions of embroidery — marorhi, zari, kasab, teki and dori work. The latter item could have been displayed better in order to make it look every bit as grand and regal as this heavily adorned kurta. An ivory sari also part of the display has a border decorated with Persian boteh (bush) and suzani (needle) motifs with supplementary embellishments done in French knots technique. Two sari borders that hang like lace seem to be linear tapestries of birds and flowers. The last item in his display is a doshala of silk velvet chenille which has marorhi embroidery in dori with kasab zardozi.
|Installation by Maheen Khan | Courtesy Mohatta Palace Museum
|From Maheen Khan’s display | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Sana Safinaz’s chic installation, that announces both the start and the end of the exhibition, is a reminder simultaneously for the need to preserve traditional handicrafts and the spectre of their extinction, as conveyed by their exhibited of traditional aari embroidery done on machines. The contemporary couturier’s exhibit, however, leaves one desiring for more fabric, more colour, more embroidery at the denouement of the show in order to gaze upon them in awe and hold them in the mind for inspiration. A longer line-up of in vogue fashion might have helped produce a better sense of completion.
Textiles may no longer serve as a social identifier, fabrics may not tell individual stories anymore but the exhibition affirms that the distinct identity of Pakistani fashion, indeed, originates from a legacy that goes back millennia.
Also read: Linking threads
This was originally published in the Herald's July 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.