The Way It Was: Would you rather bang your head?

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Try embroidering a simple flower. If you can’t get the thread through the needle, try painting. If for some reason you would rather not, try whistling a tune thinking of the blossom you love best. If you can’t even do that, then every other day try banging your head on the floor. According to Confucius that should help

I was rummaging through the drawer of my cupboard when to my immense delight I found a fragment of pink fabric with a red flower and two green leaves, embroidered on it. It was my daughter Mina’s very first lesson in hand work at the Lahore Sacred Heart School. It was lying in an old empty cigar box, which I use for storing small bits and pieces and precious little mementoes. Mina is now a mother of a seven-year old Tania who despite an occasional flash of temper is quite a lady at seven and Mustafa at five already fancies himself to be a great athlete. Both like to draw and paint and voraciously run through reams of writing paper.

Personally I am all for children being encouraged to work with their hands. People who employ their hands have to focus and concentrate on what they are working at. When a person concentrates he also thinks and while thinking inevitably new ideas and possibilities present themselves to the mind. “Man became man with the use of his hands”. A person who has a good hand usually also has cultivated conduct and manners. Individuals who are aesthetically arid are mostly also barren of mind and a bane to society.

When I reflect on the past and sometimes saunter back to childhood, I remember quite distinctly, that works of embroidery considerably stimulated my aesthetic imagination. My mother loved to embroider and was rather good at it. Like most active and concerned mothers, she knitted woollies for winter and spent other free time embroidering clothes, pillow covers, bed sheets and table covers. I never ever saw her sit idle. Even now when she is over 80 she is irrepressible and insists on doing kitchen chores while the cook stands around doing nothing or conveniently disappears to relax somewhere. I recall that her arabesque and floral patterns were executed in different techniques ranging from Taarkashi, crochet to embroidery. I have succeeded in making a small collection of her handiwork, which I hope will encourage her great grandchildren to apply their hands to acquire and develop a skill.

Embroidery is a slow process, which requires, besides skill, an aesthetic sense and a sack full of patience. It is not an exciting art for people to stand and observe. My earliest memory of embroidery is of the Murree Mall. It wasn’t actually embroidery in the formal sense. Instead of using fibre thread, the craftsman, who sat in a veranda about ten paces up Fogy’s shoe shop, would pull out with a crochet lance, a lariat off a white paste resting on the mound of his left palm. He would then deftly manipulate this sticky web like thread to spontaneously create floral patterns on a bright coloured silken cloth. These embossed patterns formed with the adhesive material were then sprinkled with powder pigments and delicately rubbed to imbue them with colour. The technique is no longer popular as it used to be in the 1950s.

But looking back what I decisively liked best were the vibrant images fabricated by magic hands of candy vendors in a matter of minutes. These vendors or rather mobile sculpture artists carried candy paste in successive stripes of primary colours, around top of a tall wooden staff for making likeness of birds, animals and familiar objects. The rainbow on their staff not merely excited the children but cheered up the drabbest street. It is sad that they have dwindled away with time. The sweets wrapped in paper twisted to at both ends were not easily available in those days. Since then the streets have been flooded with incredible assortment of them. With poisonous clouds of dirt, dung and smoke sailing through our cities I wonder, who would today be eager to order anything made of candy nakedly stuck on a “pole”.

Those days I preferred to ask for an aeroplane, rather than the more attractive peacock with its long colourful tail. I was fascinated with aeroplanes those days and dashed out to see one whenever it flew by. But that was rare. One of the great excitements for us children, on a train journey out of Lahore, was to steadily stare out of the window to catch sight of the grey birds parked at the Walton aerodrome. Unfortunately more often than not, a lad would be stung in the eye by a nasty speck of coal dust carried back to the train compartments from the puffing chimney of the huffing train engine. It was not easy for any mother to pry into an eye, which was firmly shut and get the intruder out. There was never dearth of sympathetic advice. All concerned and sundry would sing in a chorus, “Don’t rub! Just don’t rub!” The child would invariably consider it a conspiracy against him and rub and rub more vigorously, causing more injury and pain. The eye in the end would look like an overripe strawberry, glazed with tears, dripping out like water from a leaking municipal tap.

The next highlight of the train journey used to be the mighty steel bridge built by the British across the Indus at Sukhar. I would be fast asleep when the train stopped at Sukhar, for almost an hour to clean and replenish the tanks of individual bogeys with water. The bogeys were then unhooked from the train proceeding to Karachi and “shunted” on to the line and hooked to the train designated for Quetta. A fresh, more spirited engine was always attached to the train required to chug the passengers to Quetta. At the Mach railway station, famous for unbearable heat and an internment facility for political prisoners, an extra engine was added to enable the train up the steep gradient, through innumerable tunnels of Bolan Mountains towards cooler valleys of Balochistan.

At Quetta the finest embroidery, was done by the Brohi women. They would in small groups visit my grandmother’s house in Quetta, dressed in most exquisitely embroidered flowing robes to take orders for embroidery. Later in the year when we were back in Lahore after spending the summer vacations my mother would proudly display her clothes so tastefully embellished with the Baloch embroidery. In passing let me mention that while Brohi’s are ethnically Baloch, the tongue they speak belongs to the Dravidian group of languages.

It is amazing how creative our people are. They have intelligent hands and innovative sense of decorative design. This is evident even when they are engaged in their most regular and menial chores. Have you seen, for instance, how our village folks leave conical dung cakes on top of their walls to dry? They are placed in a sequence to create a “kingra” or edging, which adds beauty to otherwise drab walls of an enclosure. Even the more common round dung cakes are slapped onto the wall with a spontaneous accuracy and inherent aesthetic sense. I have often seen canvases messed up by city artists with paint, but I have yet to experience a rustic wall, which a village lass has messed up with dung. In fact a mere solution of dung and earth helps her to keep the floors and walls of her house smooth, clean and better toned than most urban houses with their ugly facades and layers of peeling paint.

It is a pity that anyone, who has been to an English medium school, ceases to appreciate the indigenous things around him. He often develops a blind spot about things, which are his own. He seeks abroad what lies within himself. In his intellectual waywardness he denies himself the aesthetic resources at hand of which he is an inheritor. He thus, inadvertently perhaps, scorns and denigrates those individuals who have ensured continuity of our own particular way of feeling and responding to our functional needs and our longing for inner peace and enrichment.

I must confess that whenever I hold an artefact brought to life by one of our able craftsmen, I find myself instantly transported into another realm where I am at peace with others and myself. I wonder if it does the same to you. If it doesn’t, try embroidering a simple flower. If you can’t get the thread through the needle, try painting. If for some reason you would rather not, try whistling a tune thinking of the blossom you love best. If you can’t even do that, then every other day try banging your head on the floor. According to Confucius that should help.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist