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COVER:The footsteps of design:Artisans, Sufis, Shrines

COVER:The footsteps of design:Artisans, Sufis, Shrines

THE work Artisans, Sufis, Shrines by Hussain Ahmad Khan is a study of cultural ethos and the various means and strategies employed for its propagation. Taking the historical process as his can-vas, the author studies the play of two starkly polar world views in 19th-century Punjab — Sufi and colonial British. The central idea of the work and the position taken by the author attempts no mystification: “political control does not necessarily entail control over culture”.

While the coloniser’s cultural objective was to maintain reason-based Positivist knowledge and a new Victorian idea of civility over the subjugated population, the Sufi’s ideology was to reinforce Muslim identity and revive Islamic culture, within the broader vision of establishing an Islamic state. The book lends us insight into the media that have served — successfully or unsuccessfully — as the vessels for the dissemination of these world views. Set in 19th-century western Punjab, the research ventures into a time of great flux in the region vis-a-vis political control, ideology, and civilisation.

Khan deals with an almost amorphous subject matter — namely culture — making visible its roots, it’s often covert motives, and the politics of its propagation. The defining of ‘culture’ has been the subject of philosophical attention as far back in antiquity as the classical Greek period. “In nineteenth century Britain, ‘culture’ was a concept-metaphor to explain the relationship of human beings to artefacts and natural phenomena … [and] also included the meanings of ‘taste’ and aesthetics which were considered essential characteristics of a human civilisation”. To the Sufi masters on the other hand, culture meant the propagation of the mystic Islamic belief system, in tune with political opposition to colonial occupation.

In the words of Khan, “the Sufi shrine was a cultural project” — both by means of shrine art and architecture, and through the philosophy transmitted largely to the artisan-builder community. Khan’s discussion in formidable detail does not make idle comparisons but comprehen­sive analyses, leading us to understand the multifaceted factors that operationalise art and culture.

At first glance, one is partly confounded by the Punjabi artisan-builder being an essential actor in the politico-ideological equation. It is this very misconception — wherein the Pakistani audience is conditioned to viewing the artisan stereotypically as ‘doer’ rather than ‘thinker’ — that the book’s subject matter resolves. It was the tri-partite relationship between the artisan-builder, his practise, and his Sufi patronage that served as vessels for the Sufi agenda. The Sufis patronised the artisans through khanqahs, where Sufi knowledge was imparted through the training of the artisan not only in art and architecture, but in an all-encompassing world view of Islamic mysticism. However, as pointed out by the author, 19th-century forms of Sufism in Punjab were different from their predecessors; here the khanqah was not a politically isolated reclusive space, but an incubator propagating a distinctive Muslim identity, and in some cases the political and social revolt towards British and Sikh dominance.

Khan’s discussion on Muslim identity and Sufi shrines brings us to the central role of ‘place’ in providing the enabling platform for the dissemination of the cultural ethos. While imperial architecture may have been viewed in all its glory, the Sufi shrine was a lived-in place, every element of which, from the dome to the humago fresco (the image of a tree with a variety of flowers and fruits used in Sufi shrines), was a labour of love by the artisan and a semiotic of the baraka (a Sufi belief in divine grace) of the divine idea impersonated by the Sufi masters. The Sufi shrine was a place where folktales, poetry, and talks were presented. It follows thus, that where there is the intimate relationship, there is the personalisation of ethos. While the coloniser set up the formal cultural institution, it is the informal cultural platform so characteristic of the South Asian landscape such as the Sufi khanqah, the mela, and the urs — the subcontinent’s truly inclusive public spaces — that were the enabling agents for the transmission of the Sufi world view.

**“In 19th-century Punjab, the colonial art institutions (art schools, exhibitions, and museums) provided theoretical bases for craft practices to influence the local culture. The colonial art institutions were based on liberalism; these institutions tried to rationalise the local craft practices by introducing science and attempted to integrate the Punjabi artisans into the colonial economy and administra-tive apparatus. The colonial administrators engaged the Punjabi artisans through art education and architecture, and the policies devised and implemented in England for promoting design education in Punjab were emulated in Punjab with similar theoretical assumptions. However, the stated objectives were not achieved and colonial art institutions ended up deviating from them. Thus, the interaction of the British and the locals was not hegemonic. Rather, the interaction was a complex one because of the uneven reception of the instruction and the limitations of the MSA (Mayo School of Arts). When Lionel Heath took charge as principal in the 1910s, the administration began to concentrate on ‘fine arts’, altogether ignoring the school’s objective of reviving the local crafts.”

— Excerpt from the book**

The author’s debate on the colonial concept of artisanal education is a map into the mind of the colony. Here, the author establishes the colony’s primary motive of expanding the network of global trade by incorporating Indian artisanal products into the global economy, and draws connections between academic and pedagogical debates on art education at leading British institutions of the 19th century, and their extension onto institutions being newly established in the subcontinent. “A key concern of the Cole circle was how to increase the market value of artisanal and industrial products … that designers should take inspiration from nature rather than ancient art, so industrial design should not be too decorative; rather, decoration should accord with the use of a product.”

Art institutions such as Lahore’s Mayo School of Arts hence become a key medium of propagation, engaging artisans “through art education and architecture to influence the local artisanal practices”. Here the rational perspective of art was taught through drawing, geometry, and theoretical instruction, and was meant to replace the more imitation-based artisanal learning method. In part this resulted in hybrid or eclectic forms of both art and architecture. However, according to Khan’s research, the coloniser met with great struggle in attempting to “engage Punjabi artisans through architectural projects and art institutions”, and in effect failed to do so. In short, the pedagogy must resonate with the world view. Whereas the coloniser’s objective was to promote the utilitarian value of art presenting the British as “intellectual and moral leaders” while furthering the political and economic interests of the empire, the Sufi doctrine and all its artisanal practises were ‘devotional’ and faith centred.

Of the colonial practices received as most absurd by the local populace, was the Eurocentric idea of the exhibition. This was tied to the imperial objective of expanding global trade and industry through large-scale trade exhibitions held in the UK and later in its colonies; the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London) was followed by a number of exhibitions along similar guidelines in British India in the 1860s. The long-term agent in strengthening imperial trade was the establishment of an inherently alien space type: the museum.

Lahore Museum was initially meant to function as a sample room for traders, but an important additional motive was to “introduce science among the locals” and to impart “morality and the liberal values of the British empire to the local populace”. This involved the “physical isolation of the viewers from their actual context by confining them within a designated space, where they could think about Victorian tastes, science, history from a Eurocentric perspective and the benefits of global trade”. In contrast — the mela was the Sufi form of exhibit, which was place-and-activity-centric and was a ‘living’ experience of both baraka and Muslim solidarity, as opposed to the ideologically detached construct of the museum or ajaib ghar.

Museums were a cause of amusement, and were seen with suspicion by the locals, believing these to be means of imposing greater taxes and promoting colonial trade. Here discord or resistance by the artisan-builder community came in various forms, such as treating exhibit displays as a source of amusement rather than education, “not cooperating in the collection of exhibits” and “contesting the judgements of the juries”; the Sufi shrine remained the revered and popular local magnet. “The colonial museums and the Sufi shrines present an interesting contrast. The intention of the Sufis and the artisans was to use the building as an identity marker in religious and cultural terms … the Lahore Museum aimed to disseminate colonial knowledge but its reception was contrary to its objectives … Visitors viewed the exhibits from two main perspectives: most of them believed the collection to be a wondrous (ajaib) and strange (ajeeb) sight and a source of entertainment; a few also felt proud of the display of their religious artefacts”.

The discussion brings the reader to an important conclusion. The colonial process being part of Britain’s industrial expansion laid the foundation for both economic and cultural globalisation. And although colonial cultural edicts may have been resisted by the local artisan-builder community during British occupation, the establishment of the formal art institution nonetheless perpetuated a new model of art education in the colony, creating the synthetic distinction of ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. Post-independence, it is the new local literati that adopts this philosophy, while the Sufi ideology henceforth remains with the masses. This creates an evident crevice within society and its knowledge ethos: the rational ‘art’ of the colonial paradigm, versus the traditional ‘craft’ of the local populace.

Khan writes in a fluid, reader-friendly style. Like any groundbreaking work of historiography, his endeavour allows the reader to better understand the present world and the footsteps that led to it by design. The book covers the much wanting subject matter of art patronage and the strategies which either enable the flourishing of the cultural agenda, or incite its failure. Through rich cross referencing, the discussion provides us with an overarching understanding of this often simplified notion of ‘culture’. An element left wanting however, is the title of the book which could have been more indicative of its uniquely, thoroughly engaging content.

The reviewer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture, National College of Arts, Lahore. She is an independent researcher with an interest in urban development and equitable cities.

Artisans, Sufis, Shrines


By Hussain Ahmad Khan

I.B. Tauris, UK

ISBN 978-1784530143


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