Hazara’s ‘Flower Craft’ craftsman


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Throughout his life, Naseem Akhtar had a natural penchant for hand embroidery. As a young woman, she sewed beautiful cushion covers in her spare time, while experimenting with crochet work.

However, when she got married, Akhtar and her husband struggled to make ends meet. It was around this time that she discovered the craft of phulkari – an ancient craft that some experts say originated in the Punjab in the 15the century.

Using striking geometric and floral designs, traditionally embroidered with shiny silk thread against a solid, thick fabric, phulkari – meaning ‘flower craft’ – was once an important part of a bride’s trousseau in South Asia.

Based in Haripur, a town in Hazara (in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Akhtar says she felt compelled to learn phulkari sewing because the patterns and colors fascinated her. After learning the trade in a center in her region within a month, Akhtar started embroidering clothes that she would then sell to friends and women in the neighborhood.

While raising six children (five girls and one boy), Akhtar worked hours, between chores, to create more pieces to sell. Over time, the enterprising artisan began exhibiting her work at local festivals and exhibitions, in addition to taking orders for custom pieces for clients.

“A single tunic can sometimes take a month to embroider,” she says, “and a shawl filled with phulkari needlework can take anywhere from six months to a year. As this craft is made by hand, unlike machine embroidery, it is a very slow and methodical process.

Today, having educated all of her children, one of whom is studying for a degree in China, Akhtar is among a very small percentage of artisans allowed to pursue careers and employment opportunities. Due to rigid cultural norms, many women are confined to their homes and therefore have no hope of financial independence.

Currently working with around 300 women artisans from poor communities in Haripur, Akhtar says she was driven to visit villages to recruit women who urgently needed a source of income.

“I could understand what they were going through because I had experienced the same fear and desolation that comes with being poor in the land,” she says.

But Akhtar attributes his success to sheer luck.

“I am a phulkari craftsman and I will always to be one, ”she proudly declares. “Even though I am not educated and my family and I have had very difficult days, my husband has always supported me and encouraged my work. I realize how privileged I am compared to countless other women in Pakistan.

After exhibiting his shawls, clothing and home textiles locally, over the course of two decades Akhtar has also taken his work abroad; in India, Malaysia and Dubai.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would be possible,” she says, recalling her travels, “God has given me so much and I feel so privileged to be able to do what I am passionate about. This job is my identity.

Currently in preparation for an online exhibition for Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, a local non-profit organization, Akhtar enjoys using social media to reach a wider network of customers.

With herself Instagram and Facebook page, the artisan even has a profile on Vceela, an online portal for Pakistani artisans to sell their work. She even loves using WhatsApp – as her phulkari pieces are finished, Akhtar is wasting no time sending enthusiastic photos and voice notes to her customers about her new stock.

This is the new normal for Akhtar during COVID-19: using technology to support his work and his job.

However, the threat that hand embroidery will be completely erased by machine work and fast fashion worries Akhtar from time to time.

“Machine embroidery is pushing our trades into bankruptcy,” she said, “There needs to be more awareness, including opportunities that advance Pakistani artisans. We must give them a platform, otherwise our professions risk disappearing. “


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Rosalie M. Dehner