Ceramics, textiles, embroidery, cuisine and, above all, music create the rich culture of Sindh. A sampling of all its excellence was to be had at the three-day Sindh Cultural Festival which ended last Sunday at the Expo Centre. I am not a pessimist by nature, but amid the festivity I felt sad. To me the festival seemed to be a requiem to the dead or dying.
The festival did not reflect the real state of Sindh culture. The actual state is to be witnessed in the cities and villages which are the centres of the province's arts and crafts. Last year I happened to tour the whole of Sindh. It was shocking to see the deterioration, poor workmanship, disregard of traditional methods, use of artificial dyes and factory-made cloth. On our way on the tour, the first stop was to be at Jamshoro to savour Palla fish. No water in the river; no fish.
At the hostel we were staying in Hyderabad, we met some women from Umarkot. Whenever I tour Sindh I always carry my Thari chaddar; it is more than 20 years old. The Umarkot women were surprised to see the chaddar. They told us such work is no longer done in the Thar, by and large, because there is little demand for it in the city markets.
The lack of patronage is the chief reason for the deterioration in the culture of Sindh. I mean local patronage. Take the case of rillis. There was a time when a bride's trousseau included at least a dozen rillis. How many Sindhi brides today have rillis, even one rilli, in their trousseau? May be one in a hundred. One could safely say the demand for rillis is down to one percent.
Look at the Hala tiles that decorate the tombs in Sindh and compare their quality to tiles that were fixed on the Clifton bridge in the days of Z.A. Bhutto. The ones on the tombs are hundreds of years old and still bright and shining. Their colours are still sharp and clear. There is hardly any use of these tiles in contemporary architecture. The last great demand for them was for Masjid Bhong in the Punjab, which won the Aga Khan architecture award. That event, too, is more than two decades old. Do you imagine that a once in 20 years demand will keep Hala tiles flourishing?
The blue and chrome decorated pottery still looks pretty, but you are lucky to find six bowls of the same size. The potters continue to produce articles which are no longer in demand, such as the tiny, long-neck vase with a frilly lip. There seems to be no design centre to create designs that modern buyers would purchase. One could learn from the adaptations of pottery for the contemporary market in Turkey, Thailand and Malaysia. Pakistani travellers return home with usable items in folk pottery craft, while on the other hand they would not touch local pottery items with a barge pole.
Ajrak is the most abused of traditional textiles. The genuine ajrak which is printed using natural dyes and passes through 22 processes is rare and highly expensive. It takes an experienced eye to detect the fakes. The madder dye used in the basic red colour of ajrak is hardly available, thanks to the massive desertification of Sindh.
Madder is a herbaceous plant with yellow flowers and a red root. The dark red dye is made from the root of this plant. Just think: a textile which was produced in the traditional method for, it is claimed, nearly 8,000 years is now becoming extinct because of the ravages and plunder of natural flora and the shortage of water in the Sindh River. Ajrak is mentioned in the tablets of Babylon and Mesopotamea. It was called "Sindu".
Ajrak today is not much in demand as a chaddar, an article of clothing representing status. Women, traditionally did not use ajrak. A modern Sindhi today does not drape himself with an ajrak, except on a festive occasion. The clothes which represent status today are western. But the worst thing is the use of ajrak for things like cushions and chilmuns. It irritates me who was born in India; does it not irritate people who are born Sindhis?
Sheesha embroidery and the complicated Sindhi stich known as "hurmich" has suffered from an increase in demand and shortage of skilled needlewomen. Either the sheesha is stitched on with slovenly amateur sewing or, worse still, it is simply glued to an article.
The art of hurmich embroidery is still popular decoration for dupattas and kameez but in the markets one cannot buy the really good embroidered stuff. Yet a lot is sold, as if people do not care how badly a piece is embroidered so long as it is hurmich. There was a time when every woman including the lady of the house and the housemaids could do hurmich. Now one has to go to villages to order a hurmich embroidered piece.
The packaging of mango pickle has been given no attention. It is sold in horrible plastic jars, and that is just the appearance of a product which is discouraging. The quality of pickle has suffered too. Once it never spoiled; now it spoils easily. Pickles introduced here, such as the ones from Deccan Hyderabad do flourishing business.
Kashmore's lac-decorated furniture remains in styles not much in demand, such as the jhoola or swing bed, and low chairs and stools. Here is yet another craft which has suffered from a lack of demand and from lack of innovations to create new items.
Thank heavens there is still a great local demand for Sindhi music. This has kept alive the wonderful kafi classical style. The voice of Sindh is beautiful and whether it is a famous singer like Abida Perveen or an unknown young vocalist, their renditions show command of classical music. This is not the case in the Punjab which is also a land with a beautiful voice and many famous classical gharanas or schools of music. The demand in the Punjab is for remix and young singers from gharanas have migrated towards pop singing. Though their voices also show command of classical rendering of sound, it is not of such high quality as in Sindh. The reason is that traditional music is not in demand in the Punjab.
That is the point of this article. Unless there is local patronage a culture cannot survive. A culture is a living thing. If it is not nurtured it will eventually die. Besides the absence of demand is the general ignorance about the culture of Sindh. Hence, few people know its real worth, its history and its international fame.
Yet another reason for the near death of Sindh culture is exploitation. The artisans and artistes remain poor and down trodden. They do not earn from their crafts. Their children leave home to find work as labourers and Odd job men in the cities. The government and people who organise festivals and shows and music functions fill their own pockets. There is no organisation that is devoted to the welfare and promotion of Sindh's artisans and artistes.
Sindh's culture is simply a publicity stunt. Take the case of folk singers taken to foreign lands where they have earned great fame and popularity. Most of them die like paupers. To name a few, Mai Bhagi, Allun Fakir and Muhammad Jumman.