Romancing the past

June 28, 2015

"Textiles define identity just like religion, language and architecture," announced Nasreen Askari, Director of the Mohatta Palace Museum as she inaugurated the spell-binding A Flower from Every Meadow: Design and Innovation in Pakistan’s Dress Traditions

Romancing the past

"I am very proud of the collection which took nine months to come into fruition," glows Askari, who enjoyed a brief stint at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and says her love for textiles began while she was studying medicine at the University of Sindh. "The process began in November 2014 and was a challenging exercise," she admits.  "I wanted to show that beautiful objects have the effect of bringing together feelings of pride, identity and ownership. Also I wanted my children and future generations to witness this amalgamation, relate and recognize it as their identity."

A Flower from Every Meadow comprises of over a hundred handpicked pieces from the far-flung "meadows" of Pakistan and chronicles almost two centuries worth of indigenous textile heritage dating as far back as the 1830s including heirlooms from remote cities in the major provinces of the country.

The exhibition is bifurcated into three categories of fabric: painted/tie-dyed fabrics, woven cloth and embroidered textiles and spans across seven galleries, with each gallery morphing into the next thematically. There is a sense of continuum and an organic confluence from the remote mountains of the tribal areas to flat-plane valleys, providing an anthropological journey vis a vis Pakistan’s indigenous craftsmanship.

The main gallery, a large hall, with its high ceiling and slight glass casings is enveloped with rich embroidered tunics, and shawls festooned with indigenous coins, beads, shells and metal trinkets from primordial cultures of Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The gallery dedicated to the Northern Areas entitled Where Mountains Meet presents woven fabrics from Hunza, Gilgit, Balochistan, Chitral and surrounding regions. Hand-made for harsh climates these garments are made from densely woven and felted woolen cloth, with embroidery, columns, vegetal forms and ram’s horns in warm hues.

The intricate geometric patterns of Balochi embroidery dazzle with a special emphasis on variations in arrangement and colour from myriad Balochi communities including dill-o-bitab needlework pitched around the gidaan, a nomadic Balochi tent woven from goat’s wool.

Another gallery, The Flying Carpets displays carpets from around Pakistan including hand-woven rugs, carpets and centerpieces from Balochistan and Punjab. Interior Sindh is best represented by Ajrak-printing permutations with intricately stitched rilli patchwork. A panni shawl from Khanpur Punjab, with silver foil resist tinsel work, stands out for its mix of tradition, modernity and economical glamour.

Installations are also part of the exhibition, including one which highlights the process of tie-dyeing (bandhani), illustrating the entire process from the mixing of colours to the actual dyeing. Ajrak block- printing using carved wooden blocks and a khes weaver on the Bulbul-i-Chashm (eye of the nightingale), a special diamond weave endnotes this heart-felt installation where visitors can interact with actual master craftsmen and weavers.

Another significant exhibit is the muted grey sherwani or achkan that belonged to the Quaid, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

"The achkan was gifted to the Museum by a descendant of Syed Yaqub Shah, the First Auditor General who brought it to us wrapped in a sheet in a very fragile condition. The Quaid had suggested to auction the garment to raise funds for refugees in 1947," Askari explains with her fondness for historical anecdotes.


"This repertoire of textiles encompasses design and innovation in Pakistan’s dress tradition, from the Arabian Sea to Indus-Kohistan," Askari explains. Included are pieces from Askari’s own private collection, which she has amassed over a 40-year period "much of which I housed under my bed, much to the despair of my family!" she laughs.

"We have introduced private collections never seen before," Askari continues. "Private collectors, who have displayed their pieces, include former princely states of Hyderabad and Kalat and private collectors such as scholar and author Sheila Paine (renowned for her pioneering work on the textiles of South Asia). Other patrons include the Sindh Provincial
Museum and the National Museum of Pakistan."

Askari says her favourite part of curating the exhibition was "choosing" the pieces. With precise attention to technical and historical detail, curate-worthy of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the installations and exhibits dovetail vintage with contemporary interpretations, the princely with the rural and the functional with the decorative to revel in a unique configuration that honours Pakistan’s craftsmanship and textile arts.

"These garments were created on the outskirts and the gateway of what was considered "the ultimate cultural center" Delhi et al.," Askari says almost facetiously. "The creators were considered country bumpkins yet look at the mastery and sophistication of the work! They imbibed the very best and discarded the rest. The embroidery is the most magnificent in the entire world. Just look at the discipline, harmony and faultlessness of the work! This undoubtedly fosters pride in Pakistan’s cultural legacy," Askari enthuses.

Askari says she wants to highlight the importance of contextualizing with the ambience and setting of the exhibition.

"In this regard I want to mention the beautiful backdrops to the exhibition spaces which created the unique ambience," explains Askari thoughtfully. "These include the Swati pillars in the textile room, the Sheikhpura pillar and the plastered clay walls. These were created by Hamid Akhund, a Mohatta Palace trustee with the help of his team including Ustad Khan Mohammad and Sufi Ramzan, my two trusted panel-makers who I have worked with for over 40 years who work at the Sindh Provincial Museum (the Mohatta Palace’s mother museum)."

Contemporary Interpretations

A striking feature of the exhibition is the almost effortless transition of age-old traditional pieces transmuting into the reinvented contemporary interpretations provided by leading revivalists of the Pakistani Fashion Industry including Faiza Samee, Maheen Khan, Shamaeel Ansari, Sonya Battla, Khaadi, Bunto Kazmi, Rizwan Beyg, Nilofer Shahid and Sana Safinaz.

These passionate artisans were given an opportunity to highlight their inspirations whether it was via silhouette, hue or embroidery, with the intention to "illustrate the continuity and innovation in the country’s dress tradition."


"I am proud of the design repertoire popularized by our designers and the need to demonstrate continuity between the old and new by romancing the past," Askari enthuses. "I am very grateful to the participating designers who were rumoured to be snobby and difficult. But they were all so passionate, kind and cooperative.  I just invited them over a cup of coffee and all of them contributed gratis. They all came up trumps!"

Faiza Samee’s presentation is a glorious trifecta of the classicist revivalism of traditional embroidered handiwork that Samee is passionate about reviving.

"My collection at the Mohatta Palace exhibition is a tribute to bygone craftsmen of yore," she says. "We actually pulled out pieces created by our original master kaarighars as almost all the pieces we exhibited in the first week were from people who were no longer in this world. But their legacy remains an inspiration for us all. We’ve replaced it with a new display where the fabrics are more robust, although the sensibilities remain the same and ties up well with the display from the museums archives."

Maheen Khan calls her collection a "patronage to the Pathan shopkeeper." Her initiative KOYA is an exercise in reviving the silk handloom industry in Orangi Town, where the silk weaving craft is disappearing despite it being generational. The impetus of KOYA is to take the Orangi Town craft to Zamzama with Hilal Silk Palace. Clients especially designers, will be able to craft, customize and order their own fabric which might uplift the standard of garments and also help revive a dying industry.

Shamaeel Ansari, with 28 years in the Pakistan fashion industry is known for an eye to detail and inspirational collections related to deep historical research, which translate into contemporary wearability.

"My inspiration is taken from antique cultures and periods depicting grandeur and rich textiles, evocative vintage colour palettes and detailed embellishment. I enjoy recreating something totally different from the original inspiration. Fifteenth century textiles and craft grab my heart. The weaves, colours and embellishment typical to the Court of Emperor Akbar and the Ottomans is by far the most creative era for artisans," Shamaeel enthuses.


Sonya Battla says that she carries the past with her in order to define the present and works with Pakistan’s traditional crafts to carve a niche for indigenous skills in her contemporary garments, ensuring that contemporary design remain in sync with Pakistan’s cultural identity. Deriving inspiration from local crafts she reinvents them in her contemporary and crisp silhouettes and embroidery.

A black and gold dress from Battla’s Formals 2013 collection was inspired by phulkari (flower work) a form of embroidery used on hand-woven cotton shawls for ceremonial use in the Punjab. The geometry of the patterns is traditionally produced by counting threads on the reverse of the base fabric. In Battla’s ingenious garment, the embroidery takes up a single thread with the needle, leaving a float of silk on the front.

Beginning with twenty-five handlooms and a single product line, Khaadi has grown to become a leading retail brand in Pakistan.

‘Azure’ was a series of one-off costumes produced especially for A Flower from Every Meadow by the design studio at Khaadi. The fabrics were dyed entirely with natural indigo and were a combination of fine handloom cotton, silk and merino wool, bringing together disparate materials into a vibrantsynergy.

The iconic four decades fresh, Bunto Kazmi couture house is renowned for its mastery over luxurious detailing, penchant for tradition and a predilection for intricate craftsmanship. Bunto’s inspirations are gleaned from nature, heritage, the royal courts and folk lore. Shawls and bridals make up the majority of Kazmi’s embroideries but it is creating large tapestries that excite and challenge her the most. Her hand embroidered wall hangings based on the adventures of Amir Hamza and Faridud din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds highlight her grasp of embellishment.

Revival, sustainability and social development have been key elements in Rizwan Beyg’s design evolution. For the past nine years the 25-year old Rizwan Beyg label has turned to ethical practice in its efforts to promote heritage and crafts. From working with rural women on reviving and sustaining chikankari, gota patti, kamdani and phulkari to maintaining and reinventing obsolete stitches in urban workshops, the aim has been to bring genuine value addition to each creation.

"My inspiration was Pakistan," Beyg enthuses, "especially the traditional craft of artisanal embroideries done by the village women of KPK and Southern Punjab and the revival of traditional marori which is now almost obsolete."

When asked how his contributions relate to the theme of revivalism, Beyg stoically answeres: "Only time will tell how successful we have been. Our efforts continue. This exhibition is phenomenal! We actually need a full time textile museum; a place to house our tremendous legacy and heritage."

Nilofer Shahid is renowned for working on historical themes blending history, poetry and art into garments that seamlessly fuse the traditional with the contemporary.

"I think the exhibition was profound in bringing together garments from various regions and illustrating how designers take inspiration from age-old embroideries and re-invent them," Shahid says. "I am definitely passionate about textiles and was responsible for developing myriad textiles, sitting with vendors when I couldn’t find a variety of local indigenous fabrics. I was also one of the first to develop colourful kora and dabka tones in Pakistan. I love the beauty of old craftsmanship and we need to keep it alive as it is a world of art, a class apart. My contributions come from my heart."

The installation by Sana Hashwani and Safinaz Muneer illustrates their design philosophy of garnering inspiration from their natural environment and travels.

"We derive our inspiration primarily from our immediate environment. We are keenly observant of our surroundings and therefore we thoroughly enjoy traveling and exploring different environments as we are able to benefit from a different viewpoint," Muneer says. "It is hard to pinpoint a specific area or forte as we are constantly designing for the vast spectrum that falls under our label."


Asked about how their piece contributed to the theme of revivalism despite its dependence of machine work, Muneer explains: "For a design requiring heavy, ancient aari work such as the gown and shawl we showcased, it would involve several days of labour-intensive craftsmanship which would be neither cost effective nor marketable in today’s climate. The same work can now be achieved through machinery and as a result is both economical and of a higher commercial value, all the while maintaining the same aesthetic outcome and lending itself to the theme of revivalism. Pakistan is rich with talent and craftsmanship that needs to be honed and developed. We truly enjoy having so many possibilities available to us and as a result our designs are that much stronger because of it. It would be a tragedy to allow these beautiful and historic aesthetics to die out simply because we live in a world where "time is money" and more and more emphasis is on commercial value. Luckily through machinery it is possible to strike that balance between both, although often times the pure hand craftsmanship does need to be emphasized as well."

Nasreen Askari herself hopes the exhibition will run for several months and is enthusiastic about it traveling around the world.

"I would love for the exhibition to travel," Askari coos. "The exhibition is worthy of any attention."

When asked about the possibility of the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) facilitating a traveling exhibit of A Flower from Every Meadow, Rabiya Javeri Agha, Secretary TDAP who was travelling with a delegation to China, sent a promising statement: "The exhibition was very good and certainly would be appreciated abroad at an appropriate venue and before a discerning audience," Javeri said.

"Till such time as its permanent collections are acquired, the museum will continue to hold temporary exhibitions," Askari explains.  "We are a registered charity run by a board of trustees and we rely on public and private donation for our activities.  We want to set up a permanent collection on the top floor of the Mohatta Palace Museum but right now that is an uphill exercise. Presently all the exhibitions including A Flower from Every Meadow are visiting exhibitions with the objects on loan to us. The culture is changing where individuals are now offering pieces to the Museum for us to look after. But there needs to be a greater degree of civic-mindedness. Abroad the donation of objects to museums is a form of philanthropy," she adds.

With the patronage of the Mohatta Palace Museum, Pakistan’s leading revivalist fashion designers have ostensibly transmogrified the essence of Pakistan’s primeval and rural dress traditions simultaneously focusing ahead and harking reverentially to the past, all the while creating contemporary pieces and indubitably romancing the past. Kudos!

Romancing the past