By Catriona Luke
The Friday Times: 18 Aug 2017
The design aesthetic of Pakistan continues to be unequalled anywhere in the world. Catriona Luke traces its history
In the tragedy of August 1947, largely as the result of the decisions made by Mountbatten, when seventeen per cent of the population of the newly named Pakistan – around 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs – crossed the border into India and 6.5 million came the other way, it is largely forgotten how despairing the remnants of the British Raj were in the western subcontinent.
Over five generations, from the mid nineteenth century, so many ICS officials and their families loved this part of the world. The most sought after postings in British India were Peshawar and Quetta. Lahore, in the late nineteenth century with little more than 70 ICS (Indian Civil Service) officials, had been made a thriving city of education, impressive architecture and brisk economy. For Karachi, clean water and sanitation systems were delivered by rebellious former railway engineer and pani walla James Strachan, often in the face of fierce Raj opposition. Railways connected the region north-south, and west into Balochistan.
I think they loved the western subcontinent too for its people. The history of the region, always a strange British obsession, also fell into their hands like a ripe plum. Kipling writes, “Most assistant commissioners develop a bent for some special work after their first hot weather in the country…. [some are] bitten with a mania for district work, Ghuznivide coins or Persian poetry; while some, who come of farmer’s stock find that the smell of the earth after the rains gets into their blood and calls them to ‘develop the resources of the Province’.” Under Alexander Cunningham, surveyor general of archaeology in British India, it would unlock the history of Harappa and Mohenjodaro.
Made in Europe, obtained from Peshawar, 1869 – manufactured for the South Asian market
Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood Kipling, formerly head of the JJ School of Art in Bombay, had arrived in Lahore to create a school of arts and crafts. As Lockwood Kipling stepped out of the front entrance of the Mayo School of Art, this is what he would have seen: a brilliant new city, in complement to Lahore’s historic old walled city, which swept dramatically down the Victorian Mall comprising the Post Office, Lahore Museum, the Courts of Justice, Aitchison College, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Lady McLagan Girls High School, Government College and the Model Town housing area. It was all the work of the great Ganga Ram, knighted by the British and executive engineer of the British government in Punjab and Lahore.
The Mayo School of Art was established next door to the Lahore Museum in 1875, to preserve the craft of Punjab, and to create a nexus for artisan skill and industrial design such as architecture. Lockwood Kipling, having moved from his position as head of the JJ School of Art in Bombay, was its first principal, followed by the architect and designer Bhai Ram Singh and the Indian modernist artist S. N. Gupta.
The alpha male military men of the East India Company knew their chintzes from their calicoes
Personified in Lockwood Kipling who had left such a design mark on Bombay, British interest in arts and crafts was significant because India had already had such a massive impact on European design over three centuries. The South Asia galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London this summer show how the warp threads of the artistic heritage of the subcontinent were busily engaged by the weft threads of the British empire. It is the story of chintz, of woodworking, of jewellery and of exquisite Mughal painting.
Dress from Kohat
It’s also the story of how the strongest pulse in this dialogue was always the subcontinental. The design aesthetic and the colour palettes refined and brought to fruition by the Mughals were never, and have never, been equalled in Europe. The artisans of the Mughal workshops understood something that was not properly understood in Europe until the early nineteenth century – namely how design potential expanded through the juxtaposition of colours of similar tone. You can create designs of pastel colours together in infinite variations. This subcontinental genius was present in the early block print designs and embroidery of flowers and birds that to the Europeans would become chintz design. Mughal design was chintz design. It continues to flourish in Pakistan, as everybody knows, as lawn.
But there are much older stories too and although much of it is not on display, the entire V & A collection from the lands of the Indus is like the strata of some great archaeological find of textiles and trade.
William Finch, the East India Company agent of Surat and Lahore (he was an indigo trader) in 1609 saw what a cloth trade might be for the British. In the East India Company ledgers there is mention of khes (double weave blankets) of Sind and Punjab being exported from Surat in 1625. By the 1670s the East India Company had moved away from spices and was trading mainly in cloth from Surat and much further south from the Coromandel coast. Cotton known as “chintz” literally clothed Europe.
From Bannu, a skirt of indigo dyed cotton, with an ocre waistband, yellow wheat sheaf phulkari embroidery with shisha (mirror) work, 1867
It is of some fascination to me that the alpha male military men of the East India Company knew their chintzes from their calicoes. In 1810, Lieutenant Henry Pottinger (later Sir Henry Pottinger, governor of Madras) is on a journey from Somniani to Bela and Kalat in eastern Balochistan. It is February. In Kalat he meets Baubee (“they were in general Uffghans”) traders. He describes in intricate details what they wear:
“All of that class whom we saw were stout well-made men, with good features, and their manners rather polite and refined than otherwise; their dress at this season (winter) consists of a Pyrahun or shirt made of white cloth or coloured silk, a chintz ulkaliq or tunic, quilted with cotton; a pair of blue silk or cotton trousers, very long and wide and the better classes wear variegated worsted socks; their turbands are moderately large, being formed of a common sized loongee or silk cloth, under which they have a cap that covers the whole skull”
On top, continues Henry Pottinger, “when they go out of door they wear a posteen or cloak made from sheep skins, with the woolly side inward, an appendage of dress which gives an incredible deal of warmth; they likewise usually carry in their hands, or tied over their shoulders, a spare loongee.” In summer, he is told, “they discard all the warm parts of their dress, wearing Pyrahuns or shirts of thin calico, a tunic of very light chintz and in lieu of turband, many of them adopt a quilted cap.”
Pottinger distinguishes between calico and chintz, with ease. His presents for the Djam of Bela presented on 24 January 1810 have included the highest quality of goods: one piece of Chinese silk, ditto one European chintz, eight coffee cups and saucers, eight china bowls, eight cut glass tumblers, one piece of Indian silk, six common knives, two pairs of common scissors, one pound of gunpowder, one small telescope and a pair of horse pistols. The Djam was “amazingly gratified” but asks the Hindu interlocutor who they are and what they want.
NWFP, early 20th century – black, rose, crimson dress
The answer comes by way of “a very well dressed man called Fyz Mohummud, who said he had been on intimate terms with an English gentleman who was formerly resident at Kurachee in Sinde. … after a few minutes he made use of the word “company” and wished to be informed how old she was. At first I could not conceive his aim; but he soon explained it, by saying that he had always understood that the “Company” was an old woman, with an immense deal of money”. The Company, it was being put about, as well as being a woman had a lot of money and a mania for cloth.
Politically the geopolitics of trade had changed dramatically in the years between William Finch, visitor to the Mughal court, and Lt. Pottinger’s visit to the Khan of Kelat. The flood of Indian textiles into Europe had been met with a massive rebellion by the mill workers of industrial Britain in the eighteenth century. A law was passed in 1720 to forbid “the use and wearing of apparel of imported chintz, and also for its use or wear in or about any bed, chair, cushion or other household furniture.”
In India the rural design and handloom industries were suppressed by the East India Company and then the Raj, who made bonfires of printing blocks and destroyed the local industries, leaving the rural poor destitute. The chintz that Pottinger describes, presented to the Djam of Bela in 1810, is imported cotton from India now manufactured in Britain.
It wasn’t the British who destroyed local pride and textile trades. It was the pressures of identity in Pakistan beyond 1947 that took away regional and tribal dress and highly sophisticated weaving skills
But mostly this doesn’t seem to have been the widespread case in what is today Pakistan. While the British pressed their own exports – the rather unlovely chintzes of British design that were for sale in Peshawar in 1859 (in the V&A collection) and woollen broadcloth – they were also in awe of the local industries and their design aesthetics.
In 1843, when Thomas Postans writes an account of Sinde, he notes: “instead of cotton and muslin garments worn throughout the year in India, the wealthy people of Sindh wear English broadcloth, wadded silk, and chintz dresses, Cashmere shawls, and rich thick scarfs of Multan manufacture, over which they commonly throw a warm posteen of Cabul or fur cloak.”
Woman’s dress – black, crimson, with pearl buttons, 20th century, of NWFP origin
Thatta, he says [the river Indus has ruined the town] was formerly a place of great renown for its trade and manufactures “but its glory has departed, it presents a ruined and dilapidated appearance and where it boasted formerly 3,000 looms, and until the beginning of the present century was famous for its embroidery and a silk fabric called lunghi these are now only obtained with great difficulty. Thatta had a population of 80,000; now it does not probably have a tenth of that number. The town is so flooded … the climate of Thatta is particularly bad.”
The picture in 1843 is that whereas the looms of Sindh used to make silk and cotton and silk-cotton, the weaving skills are now in Multan and Bhawulpur which supply Sindh. “Raw silk was imported from China, Persia, Turkistan and dyed in Sindh with cochineal and madder, but now the dyes in general use are brought from the north west.”
Shalwar from Kohat, blue with crimson stripe, 1855
By the time Lockwood Kipling is appointed head of the Mayo School of Art, the British reverence for the artisan skills they find in Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan means they are now actively promoting western subcontinental design. (Amin Jaffer, curator at the V & A has written a book on the furniture of the Raj. Although there are few examples from the western subcontinent, it does include rough sketches for Anglo-Indian furniture by Lockwood Kipling, dated 1884.)
The industry in the North West Frontier Province is dynamic. We learn that silk weaving is carried out at Kohat and Peshawar, mostly for turbans and lungis. The Imperial Gazette of India of 1908 singles out Gholam Hussein of Peshawar, Abdul Jabbar of Kohat and the lungi-weavers of Punjab, whose “beautiful goods” could be seen at the Delhi exhibition of 1903. While “coarse cotton fabrics are woven in every part of the province”, the weaving of silk and cotton in NWFP takes place in Kohat, Peshawar and Bannu.
Printing block, Bannu district
Shawls with dark-blue cotton central fields and brilliant silk bands and ends were a speciality of Waziristan. A deep blue cotton cloth was “extensively used by both sexes in the valleys west of Kohat”. Further east, the Hazara district is famous for its interlocking rhomboid phulkari-type stitch and in Swat an Englishman, John Biddulph, in 1880 notes the sophisticated materials, patterns, techniques and motifs used, which include the central Asian Turkmen designs. The silk looms of Lahore have been busy since Mughal times. The British simply watch on in awe. In the 19th century out splash the bright Punjabi silks in primary rainbow colours: yellow, lime greens, red.
You can only take so much Punjabi bling, so for me the subtle sense of design aesthetics west of the Indus is most appealing. Centuries of the indigo trade and the silk trade from Bokhara have formed dress and style in delicate palettes that draw directly on the landscape for inspiration.
In the V & A collection, the lungi or lacha of silk and cotton with gold-wrapped threads and borders, dating from Rawalpindi from around 1855 is a shimmering piece of silk that describes the colour of the Indus above Attock ( https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O480532/mans-garment/ ). I love the woman’s dress (khat) from Kohat, also mid-19th century, in plain indigo-dyed cotton, that you know with wear and washing will turn to the soft mauve of the mountains. The stripe round its way to Europe, but its origins were in the western subcontinent – clearly visible in Mughal paintings of the early 17th century – and here it is in the women’s shalwar of Dera Ghazi Khan, also mid-19th century, the indigo cotton woven with silk stripes ( https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O476896/trousers-unknown/ )
The landscape informs that local design in Waziristan, where the colours are black, grey, pink and sand. Tonal earth colours, with splashes of red, continue in Balcohistan. Lt. Pottinger writes of the Baloch women in 1810: “The women’s attire is very similar to that of the men, their shifts are usually cotton cloth dyed red or brown, very long, quite down to the heels; their trowsers are preposterously wide, and made of silk, or a fabrication from that and cotton mixed. The young women, both married and unmarried, have a very ingenious method of fastening their hair up, by dividing it into different locks, twisting them round the head and inserting all the ends in a knot on the crown; it looks very tidy and at a short distance I mistook it for a cap. The old women tie handkerchiefs round their heads, flowered with worsted or silk. When they go abroad, both young and old muffle up their faces so as not to be seen, but in their houses they are not.”
Now, you may like your chintz and I may like my chintz – the V & A frequently puts on exhibition the cloth and designs that changed Europe – and the fine cotton lawn block prints were the founding business of such emporia as Liberty of London in Regent Street who until the 1990s sold the slightly glazed, beautifully designed highly prized Tana lawns, but there is something far more special about their western subcontinental collections.
It wasn’t the British who destroyed local pride and textile trades. It was the pressures of identity in Pakistan beyond 1947 that took away regional and tribal dress and highly sophisticated weaving skills. In cities such as Peshawar these survived right up until the 1980s.
Then, with the horrendous shift in geo-politics and the war in Afghanistan, they were gone.
Catriona Luke is an editor and writer based in London. All photographs courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum collections