Pakistan’s Craft Revivalist

By Sonya Rehman

With pioneering work spanning over four decades, visual artist and textile designer, Noorjehan Bilgrami, has dedicated her life to the preservation of local crafts in Pakistan.

An extraordinary journey of bringing handloom weaving, the use of natural dyes and handblock printing to mainstream fashion through her atelier, Koel, Bilgrami stands as an outlier who has continued to make an impact in the uplift of Pakistan’s indigenous crafts.

Noorjehan Bilgrami at her residence in Karachi. Photo: Malika Abbas Nosherwani

“I have been in total awe of the craftperson’s wisdom and humility since my work as a visual artist discovering our local crafts,” she says, “I began studying and documenting traditional craft practices that were passed down over generations. Gathering this knowledge became an intrinsic part of my life for over 40 years. This involvement altered my daily existence, so to speak.”

Under the tutelage of some of Sindh’s master craftsmen, Bilgrami learnt the art and preparation of the ancient craft of hand blockprinting.

“My atelier began as an initiative to revive traditional crafts that were fast disappearing, to make them more sustainable and relevant for our daily needs. From hand-spun yarn to handloom weaving of cloth using natural fibres, to hand blockprinting using natural dyes obtained from nature (the bark of trees, leaves and flowers). Handwoven fabric or any traditional craft products that are made locally by hand, provide a sustained livelihood to communities. The craftsperson gives a part of his or her soul to create a product. There is a spiritual interconnectedness with the work, and, moreover, the craftsperson works in total harmony with the environment.”

The dyeing process underway at the Koel workshop. Photo: Haya Faruqi

When asked if local consumers are veering towards slow, sustainability-conscious fashion, Bilgrami agrees that she does see a shift on home turf.

“Consumers, locally and globally are becoming aware. But it’s a long way from the understanding and feeling the deeper implications of helping to sustain local crafts. Buyers have to be connected through the process of making mindful purchases. They must feel how their intervention helps empower the craftsperson and also understand how an artisan’s soul is preserved in a handmade craft.”

From standing as a founding member of Karachi’s well-known Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, to authoring books on Pakistan’s crafts, exhibiting at galleries the world over, championing for the restoration of local heritage sites and spearheading countless other projects, Bilgrami was also selected as the Principal Curator for the Pakistan pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 (which concludes this year, in March).

A 1996 photograph of Noorjehan Bilgrami along with a craftsman at her Koel workshop in Karachi. Photo: Koel

Titled, ‘Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure,’ the pavilion – under Bilgrami’s direction – has received immense praise for its exquisite art installations. Featuring eight different spaces which bring to light the country’s ancient heritage, and rich cultural and religious diversity, Bilgrami spent over two years identifying and working with local artists, craftsmen, filmmakers, scholars, musicians and historians to produce a breathtaking sensory experience.

Utilizing 40 years of research and experience on home turf, Bilgrami states that the title of the pavilion was kept to “illuminate” some of Pakistan’s unseen and overlooked jewels.

“In curating the [pavilion], I employed this philosophy to design with our traditional knowledge, to have things made by hand, to bring in the spirituality that our artisans’ precious hands create. We were competing with 192 countries with incredible resources and budgets, but by the grace of God, the public’s response has been overwhelming. The aura created at the Pakistan pavilion is deeply spiritual, invoking all senses – hence the experience stays with you long after you’ve left.”

Noorjehan Bilgrami. Photo: Malika Abbas Nosherwani

Currently spearheading a retrospective on Mussarat Mirza, a senior artist from Sukkur, Sindh, Bilgrami reveals that she wanted to honor Mirza and her work because she doesn’t believe the artist has been given her “due recognition.”

To be held at Bilgrami’s own Koel Gallery, this year in March, she’s also thrilled about working on an environmental project with her husband. This will be the first time in forty years that Bilgrami and her husband will be collaborating on an outdoor project that will incorporate sounds, plants and a “meditative space.”

An institution in her own right, Bilgrami knows that her life’s work is not an independent, solitary journey and that it was, and has always been, that of service and an indefatigable will to give back to her community and her country.

A model dons a hand blockprinted ensemble by Koel. Photo: Umar Riaz

For Bilgrami, the process and the journey itself, is not one to be rushed. And it is this that she sometimes worries about when reflecting on today’s current crop of artists. While she mentions that the new generation is experimenting with their craft in the most exciting of ways, she feels that the rush to reach the end goal supersedes the necessary stage of ideation from thought to the final piece.

“What troubles me is that we’re losing patience and a sense of observation,” she says, “The hurry to complete and move on to what’s next…I think in the process you stop looking at details and dull the curiosity to learn more about something.”

For the years ahead, Bilgrami states that her vision for her work has gotten strengthened over time. She has more clarity now too.

“I want to continue with my craft journey to save our heritage, to revive what is fast disappearing and to make it more meaningful, sustainable and relevant. I would also like to consciously streamline Koel’s pieces to be sustainable and remain as a slow fashion label – something with complete awareness to the needs of the present, yet always remaining timeless,” she says. “The world, in its own way, is also looking at timelessness as it faces the adverse effects of disasters (some man-made), Covid, climate change, heedless consumerism and so forth. I feel they are teaching us one basic lesson: that we must nurture our land and its people.”


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