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Labour of love July 26, 2008

Posted by Farzana Naina in Pakistan.
Tags: , , , ,

Ustad Inam pours his soul into his work, only to sell it for next to nothing. His art is resold at prices many times over what he earns in upscale galleries and shops, but he works hard regardless, just to keep his craft alive.

He sits on the dusty floor by the cemented walls of his small studio in Landhi, his rough fingers skillfully engraving a dancing Anarkali on a brass vase, unaware of the fact that he is the only karigar in Karachi who specializes in engraving scenes from the Mughal era on brassware. Because he is not aware of his own value, Ustad Inam sells his art for much less than it is worth, just to ensure he can feed his family of eight.

Ustad Inam, 37, deftly engraves cultural and historical scenes on brass vases, employing the Muradabadi craft of his forefathers, generally known as khudai ka kaam. His work distinguishes itself from the regular phool patties that decorate brassware found in abundance in Peetal Gali at Golimar.

“I learnt how to engrave Mughal figures from my father, Ustad Ikram, who was the only master of this art in Karachi after partition.”

Ustad Ikram learnt this art in Muradabad, the hub of engraved art in India for centuries, and practiced it innovatively after he migrated to Karachi.

“He sketched a hundred figures in various compositions depicting Mughal culture and after years of practice, he excelled at engraving,” Inam says proudly, “After a few years, he could draw straight onto brass plates and vases from life.”

Inam himself does not know how to engrave all of the hundred figures though. “I worked with my father for 20 years, but he died before he could impart all his knowledge to me.” Inam is saddened by the fact that his father’s specialised art lays buried beneath layers of earth instead of having been passed from one generation to the next.

Attempting to preserve the centuries old art, Ustad Inam now along with his two brothers practices whatever little he had been able to learn from his father by labouring for a wholesaler in Golimar.

“The wholesaler supplies us with a lot of brassware in varying sizes which we decorate with colour and engraved sketches of flowers after working on them in different stages.”

The Mughal era comes to life the moment Inam works the last stroke on the brass surface. Mughal courts come alive as a young prince sips his wine and enjoys the dance of a seductive courtesan. A doe-eyed princess lays her head on her beloved’s shoulder and watches a lion chase deer in the woods. The haunting melody played on the rabab of the woman sitting by a snake charmer seems to mesmerize not only the young girls in the scene but the person holding the vase too. One’s heart misses a beat just viewing the etched woman playing with deer by houses emitting smoke from their chimneys. So intricate and captivating are the scenes etched onto the surfaces of Ustad Inam’s vases, that they transport the viewer into another realm.

“Detailing these figures requires a lot of hard work and is very time-consuming too,” Inam tells Kolachi while engraving the tiniest flowers on a dupatta adorning a beautiful princess. “All etching on the vases is done by hand and even the smallest jerk can ruin a day’s worth of effort,” Inam adds as he painstakingly colours the tips of leaves on the dupatta. 

Ustad Inam usually makes up to fifty vases in a month. As he is very thorough about the detailing, fully decorating even a six inch vase takes him around three to four days to complete.

 “Vases are washed in acid before anything else. Then they are sprayed with deco paint, sketched on and the background of figures is painted in different colours. Once this is done, the composition is engraved and colour is stippled in using a straw.  The final piece is dried in a furnace and polished before being plastic-coated,” he tells Kolachi.

Despite all his painstaking efforts, Inam only manages to make a paltry 10000 rupees each month, and sometimes not even that.  A pair of 40 inch vases made after a week’s labour sell for 6000 rupees at his seth’s shop in Golimar, yet earns him no more than 200 rupees.

His wholesaler, however “earns thousands for the over 50 vases I sell him a month, as he sells them to exporters.”

Brassware handicrafts don’t have a huge market in Karachi. According to a rough estimate, the city holds only five per cent of brass made handicrafts, which can be found in  Golimar, Cooperative Market, Zainab Market and a few shops in Clifton and Zamzama. The rest are sold to markets in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. A major chunk of profit is earned through exporting brassware to China, Saudi Arabia and Canada with the pieces depicting Mughal culture sold at prices approximately 25 per cent higher than the regular, uncoloured pieces worked with phool patti.

Inam on the other hand, is paid just about enough to make ends meet. “I don’t earn enough to save,” says Inam who is simply sticking to the profession for the sake of preserving his father’s art. “When I am engraving, I feel as though my father is alive.”

However, he complains that despite all his effort and hard work, the business-savvy people he deals with stand in his way forward.

 “I once tried setting up my own brassware business instead of labouring for someone else, but the venture crashed and burned as in business oriented societies the bigger fish devour the small before they can achieve anything.”

 Inam tells Kolachi that when he tried selling his vases to wholesalers, they would often reject pieces even for the smallest defect, and pay him in installments instead of paying the full amount.

“I was left with no option but to serve the same old master or my family would have been forced to starve. I have been serving him for 18 years now.”

Ustad Inam realizes that his present wholesaler exploits him by not paying him enough and never giving him a raise, but he has not considered switching jobs.

 “I owe my seth 300000 rupees. I had borrowed the money to build my house. When I ask him for a pay raise he tells me to pay back the debt and leave, which I can’t.”

As a result of the the tiny amount he earns every month, yet still being bound to the job because of his debt, almost  serving as a bonded labourer, Inam has stopped picturing any kind of change, nor does he work towards it.

 “I could earn a fortune if I were an artist. Since I don’t paint on canvas nor do I earn millions by exhibiting my work in galleries, I can’t call myself an artist. Still I believe that even the greatest artist cannot imitate my work.”

Ustad Inam makes identical circles on all vases without the help of any tool and challenges that no one except him can do it. “I could draw perfect circle even if I was blindfolded, I have been doing it for 20 years now, and flawlessly.”

Ustad Inam’s years of practice, and his chosen profession being one he is quite devoted to have ensured that his work is always finished to perfection.

Though his work demands to be appreciated for its precision and aesthetic value, Inam dreams simple dreams for himself.

Despite being proud of his skill, Ustad Inam has never exhibited his work in galleries since he neither regards himself an artist nor is he knowledgeable and resourceful enough to have access to them. “I don’t know if I can exhibit my work in galleries. I don’t even know whom to talk to if I want to book myself space in a gallery. If I could earn 15000 rupees instead of the 10000 I earn now, I would be a happy man!”

An Article from “Jang”