February issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Published 11 years ago

Though militant forces are destroying the seats of learning, peace and harmony with a vengeance and silencing all forms of liberal expression in the picturesque Swat valley of north-western Pakistan, a whole village of cotton weavers and artisans in the lap of the legendary Murghzar mountains is bent upon keeping its centuries-old artistic tradition alive in the face of this fierce onslaught.

Today, when the rest of the Swat valley is being torn asunder by the raging conflict between Pakistani security forces and Maulana Fazlullah’s band of militants, residents of Islampur, a small village located at a distance of 8km from main Mingora Town, are determined to prove that art and creativity cannot be subjugated by the forces of obscurantism.

Though militant forces are destroying the seats of learning, peace and harmony with a vengeance and silencing all forms of liberal expression in the picturesque Swat valley of north-western Pakistan, a whole village of cotton weavers and artisans in the lap of the legendary Murghzar mountains is bent upon keeping its centuries-old artistic tradition alive in the face of this fierce onslaught.

Today, when the rest of the Swat valley is being torn asunder by the raging conflict between Pakistani security forces and Maulana Fazlullah’s band of militants, residents of Islampur, a small village located at a distance of 8km from main Mingora Town, are determined to prove that art and creativity cannot be subjugated by the forces of obscurantism.

“When Asoka realised the value of human life after fighting a series of deadly wars, he became a messenger of peace and humanity. The tradition of tolerance and harmony mixed with local aesthetics, is displayed in their art and customs. Islampur is a classic example of bridging the gap between the East and the West,” observes Sharar. Patterns with Greek motifs are also indicative of the strong influence of Hellenic art that once flourished in the blissful valleys of the region.

According to Roshan Khan, professor of history at the Government Post-Graduate Jehanzeb College, this craft is not only a source of income for the people of the village, but it signifies a continuation of their history and is a symbol of their romanticism.

Among the total population of 16,000 people in Islampur village, 4,000 (both male and female) are masters of their craft; they weave shawls, woollen cloth and scarves. The remaining 12,000 are related to the business in one way or another.

In their spare time, the village women apply their embroidering skills on the woollen shawls and scarves. Their strong aesthetic sense, coupled with their mastery of the craft, is visible in Islampur’s handicrafts. These artisans, spread across the entire village, work day and night on their hand-operated looms to transform the colours of their imagination and the serene beauty of their surroundings into mesmerising patterns on the woollen fabric.

The production of a single shawl is an activity that involves the entire family. From the selection of cotton to weaving and washing the final product, every member of the family, including women and children, contributes to the production. However, they do not have direct access to the market and are left at the mercy of the middlemen, who purchase their products at heavily discounted prices. They then sell them in the national and international markets for exorbitant sums, raking in a hefty profit. The craftsmen say that a high quality pashmina shawl is available in Islampur for Rs 300-500, whereas it is being sold for Rs 1,000-1,500 in the big commercial markets of Sindh and Punjab.

Western tourists, who visited the area before the trouble started and in the times of the benevolent former Wali of Swat, took a keen interest in Islampur’s shawls and scarves, and were enamoured with their soft textures and the rich and artistic weaves. But the tourist traffic has halted following the upsurge in violence in the Swat valley. However, these products are still largely popular in the Central Asian states and countries of Eastern Europe. And Islampur’s artisans continue to produce for this market.

But how has Islampur managed to steer clear of the wave of Talibanisation?

Hazer Gul, a cotton weaver and an NGO worker, says that as the majority of the people in his village are skilled and self-employed, it is hard to mislead them in the name of religion. “Talibanisation feeds on economic deprivation, ignorance and the inner fears of a certain community or people,” he observes. “You establish a just and an equitable system, educate the people and provide them with job opportunities, and you will notice a visible decrease in militant tendencies.”

Fighting terror with terror will not yield positive fruitful results, says Gul, and it is clear from the current situation in the Swat valley. Development could go a long way towards alleviating the problem. The socio-economic conditions in Islampur are appalling. Presently, there is only one high school for boys, while girls have to travel 10km to reach their schools in Mingora city. There are no health facilities, nor a proper water and sanitation system.

The present ANP-led government in the province has approved 100 kanals of land for establishing a “Weavers Village,” with standard health and educational facilities for the children of the workers. It has also allocated Rs 2 crores to develop a partnership between the weavers and the small industrial board. The project is at the PC-1 level but the ongoing insurgency in the region has pushed it into cold storage.

In July 2007, when Maulana Fazlullah embarked on a violent mission to enforce a strict Islamic order in Swat valley by delivering sermons through his illegal FM radio station, the whole valley, including Islampur, witnessed an intensified Taliban campaign against girls’ education, and any form of musical or artistic activity.

“I wouldn’t say that Islampur has not been affected by Taliban activities,” says Professor Roshan Khan. “Certain elements within the village have been recruited by Taliban commanders, but no one is really attracted to their brand of Shariah. They are least interested in whether the system is Islamic or secular, they just want to be left in peace to earn bread for their families.” Up to now, the Islampur valley has remained peaceful and unaffected by the ongoing wave of militancy. However, if concrete measures are not taken by the government to stem the tide of militancy and improve the living conditions of its residents, this beautiful valley of cotton weavers and artisans may soon be devoured by the menace of terrorism.