By Aown Ali
Roaming around the old fort in a pleasant midday of late February as I got into craft bazaar of Multan my first encounter was with Abdul Rashid Qureshi. The man into his 70s is an artist of camel bone carving. His stall has dozens of pieces, small and large, on display. Every item, from a key ring to large size models, is gorgeous and intricately carved out of the camel bone. Every piece of art is exquisite and every minute detail is carved fine.
But the craft bazaar had no customer and like other craftsmen there, Qureshi was also sitting idle, peeping through his glasses towards the entrance of his shop.
I wanted to interview Malik Abdul Rehman, an eminent Naqash but he was not there and I began chitchat with Qureshi which ended into a valuable and enlightening talk on the art and craft of bone carving, how it began, it’s development and current situation.
Qureshi has been in the business of craft from the last 56 years, and his last three generations had also been doing this, initially on ivory and then on camel bone.
He told PakVoices that craft of ivory carving has a long history; it had been done in India and many other parts of the world, adding that his family is doing this carving work since generations. First, they were doing it on ivory but in early 20th century as the prices of ivory were high so his ancestors experimented to do it on camel bone.
He explained, “It is similar to ivory, but not illegal to obtain and no animal is harmed for this.”
He has learned the craft of camel bone carving from his father when he was only eight years old and has been doing it since then. The craft, in fact, is a family craft, he told, in this sense that the whole family, men, women and children are engaged in it.
Qureshi tells me that camel bone carving is done only in Pakistan and India. In Pakistan it’s found only in Multan and in India its roots are found in Delhi, Ludhiana and Jagraon. His family had also migrated from Jagraon which is a sub division of Ludhiana district in the Indian Punjab, and he tells that his relatives in India are also in this field, so it can be derived that the craft of bone carving is basically rooted in one family either in Pakistan or India.
To his credit, Qureshi has crafted many masterpieces, for example, the model of Alkhalid Tank, tractors models for Alghazi Tractors and most recently the model of a Metro Bus which the district administration of Multan presented to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the inauguration of Multan Metro Bus.
But he is much distressed over the deteriorating situation of craft market and tourism in Pakistan. He told that more than 50 families were in the field of this craft but due to decreasing earnings and ongoing slump, most of families, have left this profession and almost all other who are still doing it are not teaching this art to their younger generation.
He was also extremely concerned over the way middle men take handicrafts from craftsmen but do not compensate them duly. Talking about their dependence on middlemen, Qureshi explained that craftsmen do not have not resources to market themselves nor the time to visit different cities for selling their items so agents are part of the game but game spoils when they grab all even the share of craftsmen who create it with great hard work.
He told that lesser number of tourists has hurt the craft market badly in Pakistan. Moreover, the government is not doing sincere efforts to keep this art alive it, he complained. He viewed that if art and craft exhibitions are held in foreign countries, Pakistani handicrafts have huge potential to earn foreign exchange, however, it could not be possible without institutional commitment and sincerity.
Qureshi has attended many exhibitions and big shows abroad and won prizes including 1st prize in bone carving from the exhibition in Berlin, Germany. He has also conducted numerous workshops and crash courses in Pakistan and abroad.
Being a distinguished craftsman, he has spent his life in carving and his practical experience can be extremely helpful for promoting the dying art within and outside the country. But like most of other craftsmen, he is also unable to influence the concerned department and bureaucracy least interested in preservation and promotion of the art.
Making a final comment on the future of the craft, the legend craftsman replied saying: “I must be optimistic for the art and craft but when it comes to rewarding the craftsmen, I have serious concerns. I would say the art and craft may survive but not sure about the craftsmen who first consume their blood with a commitment to create art and craft and then beg for their reward”.
Aown Ali is a Lahore based photojournalist with interest in culture, architecture and history.
All Photos by the author.