By Sonya Rehman
On a cloudy weekday this month, sisters, Afshan Ejaz and Noshi Ejaz are putting together a modern-looking clay pot at Shehrezade Alam’s workshop in Lahore. Alam, Pakistan’s acclaimed female potter is not in at the moment, but Afshan (the older of the two) chirpily tells me that she’ll be joining us shortly.
The sisters, both trained artists, work together, methodically, precisely, gently. One kneads the clay; the other carves a design on a wet slab. They work as a team, respectfully, carefully. They’re in the zone right now and it’s a pleasure watching them work amidst drying clay pots, gorgeous glazed pots (lined up on shelves), paintbrushes, tools and canisters, pigments, paints, etc.
Born and bred in Lohari and Bhatti in the walled city of Lahore, the girls began studying at Syed Babar Ali’s well-respected, ‘Naqsh School of Arts,’ in 2003. Their mother had stumbled across the school one day and informed her daughters.
“We always had an interest in art,” Afshan says, “But it was only restricted to doodles and sketches that we’d replicate from digests and magazines. You know, like figures with big noses and large eyes, silly things like that.”
Dressed simply in shalwar kameezes with matching sweaters and matching shoes, the soft-spoken girls tell me that Naqashi and Khatati art form are their forte. While Naqashi focuses on Islamic patterns that are produced by the repetition of geometrical and floral forms, Khatati is the art of Islamic calligraphy.
Given their conventional family set-up, Afshan and Noshi’s Uncle (their mother’s brother) was initially quite perturbed about his nieces wanting to become artists. This was not only because he was religious, but also, shortly before their admission at Naqsh, the girls lost their father, a dye-maker who was working in Sudan at the time. “He was completely against it,” Afshan says while laughing. “Initially when we’d come home, we’d have our sketches rolled up like big degrees in our hands. We didn’t want our Uncle to see the sketches we’d made at school of shirt-less male models for our live figure drawing classes. Even though he did see our drawings one day, Mama explained to him that we were only just learning how to sketch.”
“The only real issue we encountered during our first year was drawing men,” Noshi says, turning slightly red in the face, “It used to feel really awkward and embarrassing!”
“Haan the models would be sitting without shirts in their knickers,” Afshan animatedly states, “And our Sir would tell us, don’t draw, first FOCUS! And we’d be like how do we focus, HOW!”
Back then Afshan and Noshi were part of the school’s second batch that comprised of twelve girls from the walled city, apart from their male students. But at the time, Noshi explains, the sisters weren’t very serious. Even though they were enrolled in a three-year diploma program, they didn’t think they were going to stick it out till the end. It was a time pass, a hobby. But then, they passed their first year with flying colours and everything changed.
“We’d get lost in our work,” states Afshan. “We wouldn’t get up for hours unless and until our work was complete.”
Even though their Uncle flipped out when the girls started learning sculpture, they went around the house decorating their living space with little dummies of their sculptures. “We went around telling everyone, look, we made this!” The sisters burst out giggling.
Throughout the interview, the girls speak with adoration and respect for Mehmood ul Hassan Rumi (“Sir Rumi,” as they address him), Naqsh’s Principal at the time. “Sir Rumi really encouraged us,” Noshi says, “Infact when our mother went to get our admission, he told her; look, at home they are your daughters, but here at school they are my daughters. After that Mama was sold!”
“He’d keep telling us, until and unless art is not in your soul – your spirit – you cannot become an artist.”
“…And also, he’d say that as you keep learning,” Afshan pipes in, “Your interests keep changing, and you keep getting better and better.”
With the completion of their thesis by the end of their program, Sir Rumi told the girls that they ought to start teaching at the school. But the girls were clueless. A job? What did that even entail? Infact none of the women in their family ever had a job. “We didn’t even know what an appointment letter was! Even a salary!” Afshan says, her face lighting up.
“We couldn’t believe it. We were so excited and shocked because we’d been students there and now we were to become teachers. It was incredible,” states Noshi, “We were very encouraged.”
“Our first pay check was of 6,000 rupees,” Afshan says, “But we didn’t have an account!”
“…Nor an ID card!” interrupts Noshi. “It was really funny.”
“Since we’re from the walled city, our life would revolve around school and our home life – that’s it. It was like we were senseless; we didn’t know how things worked in the outside world. We never talked to the boys in our class, infact even after three years of studying in the same classroom we didn’t even know their names,” Afshan laughs.
“Everything changed for us at Naqsh, although it was very shocking for our mother,” Noshi smiles.
For the girls, the only pressure that they ever had to face (and still do) by way of their family was having to adhere to strict timings. During their diploma, they had to be home by 3:15pm maximum, as soon as classes finished. Not a minute late. Traveling out of the city for exhibitions was therefore, completely out of the question.
Reminiscing about this one time when their entire class was taken to Multan for eight days for research work, the sisters had to opt out of the trip even though their names were on the top of the list. When the students and teachers came back, armed with numerous photos of monuments and historical sites, the sisters had no other choice but to select images and work on their project simply by looking at images.
They burned the midnight oil for that project, Afshan tells me. They made a 3×5 panel (within a month) for an exhibition that was to be hosted by the school on Naqashi art from Multan. Everyone said their project was so big, “just like the Titanic,” that it was sure to sink. “We didn’t know what they meant, but later we found out that Titanic was a well-known movie,” chuckles Afshan. Standing as the biggest project in the class, the piece was immediately sold at the exhibition.
After about three years of teaching at Naqsh, the sisters resigned to work on a mammoth independent project that they initiated in 2011. It took a year to complete. Wanting to introduce their subject of Naqashi to the city, the sisters painstakingly visited and researched numerous historical sites in Lahore in great detail. Many monuments had panels missing that had been eroded and damaged over time, that weren’t restored and basically left to rot, but the sisters embarked on an extensive researching spree. Armed with their information, they replicated the panels in the form of paintings, sketches and pottery (with Naqashi). “During our research I used to be in awe,” Afshan says, “I’d look up at some monuments and see geometrical patterns from floor to ceiling, beautifully crafted out. The work was very fine, very precise. And this is exactly what we wanted to emulate for our project.”
By the end of the year, after working day and night, the girls had 92 fully completed art pieces waiting to be sold. “I remember we’d gone to an exhibition where Noshi and I had seen a sketch by Jimmy Engineer. It was quite expensive, but we got so inspired thinking that one day we too would be able to sell our work for as much.”
Their exhibition was held at Nayyar Ali Dada’s Nairang Art Gallery in the city in 2012. Unfortunately, nothing was sold – not a single piece, even though there was immense appreciation.
Just then, the sisters pull out a huge catalogue, a booklet of sorts, featuring work from their project. It is phenomenal, making me realize that the only reason Afshan and Noshi suffered such a huge set-back is simply because of zero media attention and exposure. Why haven’t these girls been interviewed on TV? I wondered. To think what a service they’ve done to the city of Lahore – archiving art, motifs and patterns on fast corroding heritage sites! Unbelievable.
“We ended up gifting the paintings to our family members,” Afshan laughs without a trace of bitterness, “Although, most are in the house. Our mother was quite angry though, because we’d spent so much money on framing etc. But we told her, Mama it’s all yours, and she’d say, what am I going to do with these art pieces, bonk them on my head?!”
For Afshan, the Naqashi art form “speaks to you.” “The colours, the flow the rhythm,” she says dreamily. “There’s a real lack of knowledge of pure, desi art,” she adds, “These days people are into instant gratification – just make it quickly and put it out there.”
Currently teaching Naqashi and Khatati at Alam’s art school for children, Jahan-e-Jahanara, Afshan and Noshi are biding their time teaching and making pottery on the side. But they have big dreams. They really do. It shines through as the girls speak. “Our biggest wish is that we want people to love our heritage, art and culture. We want them to understand it, call it their own,” says Noshi.
“To be an artist,” Afshan states – when I ask her what advice she’d like to give other girls like herself, “Take what your parents have taught you – the values, the morals – and venture out into the world.” “Yes,” Noshi agrees, “The roots only spread when they’re strong and healthy. When you have a strong and supportive background, only then can you move forward. You can’t do it on your own – re-create yourself into a new plant – because just one storm and you’ll fall down.”
The Friday Times