Multan, the cultural centre of southern Punjab famous for its sufi shrines, cotton and sohan halwa, is also a hub for the craft of blue pottery.
The skill for creating this blue pottery, also known as kashi work, was introduced centuries ago by local artisans, whose craft derived influences from Persia, Central Asia and the Mongols. It is widely believed that kashi works originates from Kashgar, a city in western China. But over a period of centuries, kashi work in Multan developed its own unique, indigenous style.
Blue pottery enjoyed patronage of the royalty and was used as utensils, decorative tiles and architecture. The mausoleum of Shah Rukne Alam and the shrines of Shah Ali Akbar and Shah Yousuf Gardezi that are located in Multan, all incorporate tiles exhibiting classic kashi work, conspicuous in blue pottery.
However, currently the craft, which has been an integral part of Multan’s rich heritage, is in decline due to the lack of patrons. Many workshops, which hitherto specialised in the creation of blue pottery, have abandoned production of handcrafted earthenware and instead use mechanisation and artificial paints to create their utensils.
Yet some maestros of the craft, like Ustad Muhammad Alam, continue to preserve and promote blue pottery due to its historical and cultural significance for the City of Saints.
Alam, who recently won the Pride of Performance award, has trained 500 students, including his six sons, in the last 50 years. Over the decades, Alam has bagged numerous awards lauding his superior craftsmanship, including awards from UNESCO India. He has also played host to countless dignitaries, ambassadors, delegations, and royals, who visit his workshop whenever they visit Multan.
Located on the outskirts of the main city, Ustad Alam Institute of Blue Pottery, run by Aslam and his sons, has a workshop for the preservation of blue pottery. The renowned artisan’s institute also offers short courses for students and as well as art and craft enthusiasts interested in learning the skill of producing traditional earthenware.
Inside the institute’s workshop, one encounters a riot of oceanic hues, floral designs and moulds. A plethora of clay pots, vases, lamps, cup and utensils furbished with wax are strewn inside the place. The painstaking stages of producing the beautiful pottery — starting from the arduous process of moulding the clay to baking it and then painting it – is accomplished by professional artisans, student trainees and Alam’s family members.
While talking to The Express Tribune about his craft, the veteran artisan exuberantly expressed his passion for preserving the traditional handicraft of pottery. “Handmade blue pottery needs attention from our people as well as from the government since it represents our national values and norms,” emphasised Aslam. “Our competitor is primarily India because the government there has given subsidies to the industry by providing free electricity and gas. This is why their product is so cheap.”
The pottery maker’s zeal for propagating his craft is bereft of any financial motive. He fondly related an incident when he accompanied an official delegation to Sri Lanka. While his compatriots suggested that he sell his products at a high price to foreign dignitaries, Ustad Alam instead chose to distribute his precious creations gratis.
Yet, the craftsman’s passion is certainly not enough to preserve the tradition of blue pottery in the city. Currently, he financially supports his institute and workshop. This is obviously unsustainable in the long run, due to the products’ low monetary value and slack volume of sales. And unfortunately, it really seems that the craft of blue pottery, just like the dying craft of handmade sterling silverware in Lahore, may soon fade into oblivion.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2011.