March issue 2009

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Society | Published 15 years ago

Artist, designer and author, Noorjehan Bilgrami’s workshop, Koel, was recently reborn as a gallery space. The gallery will provide a meeting ground for the arts and crafts, showcasing works by painters, ceramists and sculptors, while it gives equal time and space to the crafts.

Koel’s first art exhibition, White on White, created quite a splash. There was standing room only around the champa tree in the courtyard, while a huge crowd of art buffs viewed the works of seven senior artists inside the gallery.

The textile exhibition Sindh ji Ajrak followed on its heels, celebrating a craft that has been very close to Noorjehan’s heart. She had written an extensively researched book on the traditional ajrak of Sindh and now this painstakingly produced fabric has been given a new lease of life for urban markets.

The exhibition was an outcome of the Revitalisation of Ajrak project, executed by Noorjehan in collaboration with Aik Hunar Aik Nagar, a SMEDA sponsored non-profit company seeking to revive local craft and make it commercially viable. Noorjehan was already well-versed in the process and had the confidence of local craftsmen. A series of workshops were held in Matiari, Bhitshah and Sehta, the homes of the master craftsmen, to introduce the use of natural dyes and printing on silk and chiffon in addition to cotton.

While the ajrak is very much a living craft, found in every Sindhi home, the use of natural dyes had given way to synthetic colours. There was great wonder and excitement as the indigo plant, pomegranate skins, mehndi, eucalyptus leaves and all kinds of roots and bark were brought back to their rightful place. The craftsmen were enchanted by the delicately hued palette that emerged. All the pieces in the exhibition have been produced in interior Sindh, but guided by Noorjehan’s artistic sensibility.

Ranging from earthy browns and olives, to warm peach and the stunning indigo blue and adorned by intricate block-printing, each piece seems to be a labour of love.

The exhibition had a colourful inauguration, with folk musicians performing and the master craftsmen from Sindh on hand to explain and demonstrate their art. Hopefully, this kind of exposure will give ajrak making the kind of impetus it needs without losing any of its soul.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.