Light and shade in Multan Part 2

The handicrafts of Multan match its cultural and agricultural richness. In addition to the ceramics, tilework and lamps mentioned previously, furniture and embroidered women’s shoes (khussa) are also famous, but the chief glory of Multan is derived from the ‘white gold’ of its rich cotton crop.

Bleached cotton yarn drying in Multan

Multan is celebrated for its traditional cloth-making and embroidery, particularly of the intricately worked women’s shawls known as dupattas. AI has imported large numbers of these in the past. In more tolerant times, the same ‘lacework’ technique used for these diaphanous shawls was used to produce Italian-designed beach dresses.

 

Detail of hand-embroidered dupatta

This traditional industry remains based on outwork. The workshop owner makes or buys in the plain cloth, which, together with the sewing thread, is then sent out to village women in the surrounding districts to finish at home. They return with the finished goods and are paid on a piece-work basis. The income derived by women from piecework embroidery often forms a very important contribution to the family budget.

The southern Punjab, like neighbouring Sindh, is afflicted by severe rural poverty despite its agricultural wealth. This is due to the persistence of a feudal land tenure system in which a small number of families own huge estates, upon which the peasant population work as either day-labourers or share-croppers, for what amounts to a bare subsistence wage..

The evils of this system have long been recognised, and Pakistani history since Partition is littered with frustrated attempts at land reform, which invariably founder on the power of the ‘zamindar’ lobby, and their dominance over the leadership of the main political parties. (The normal practice amongst feudal families is for one son to run the estate, one son to go into politics, and for a third to go into the army. All bases are thus nicely covered.)         In the patronage politics of Pakistan it is an unwise peasant who votes against the wishes of his landlord.

Popular discontent with this system takes the form of persistent banditry, (dacoity), which make some roads in the region unsafe at night, and the growing popularity of fundamentalist movements. These derive their appeal from the natural socialism implied by Sharia law, and could be reasonably characterised as peasant revolts in a religious guise.

Such militancy tends to be concentated in towns where radical madressehs have been allowed to establish themselves.  A notable example on the road to Multan from the north is the rather moody and depressing little town of Jhang, which I can assure readers from personal experience is not a place where you’d necessarily want your car to break down after dark.

In a further cynical twist, it would also seem that both fundamentalist and dacoit gangs are frequently bought and co-opted by local landowners to instil fear and docility amongst the local population.

A handy analogy is the partnership between the Church, the Christian Democrats and the Mafia that ran Sicily for many years.

The cotton industry is the mainstay of the Pakistani economy. Multan is only one major mill-town in a swathe of country which runs from Lahore in the north-east down to Karachi in the south.  Multan vies with Faisalabad as its major centre. (Faisalabad was formerly known as Lawrencepur, but, as an Army officer once spluttered to me, ‘we had to change its name to please the bloody Arabs!’ ie, after another king-size subsidy from the Saudis).

Hand-loom in Multan. With continual electricity outages in Pakistan, there has been a significant rise in interest in traditional handlooms.

The majority of the industry comprises of factories with vast arrays of highly sophisticated power-looms, financed by serious foreign investment and orientated largely toward export. Australian readers may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of their sheets and towels are actually made in Pakistan.

While cotton textile manufacturing is usually associated with India, the fact is that a large proportion of Indian production uses Pakistani cotton. The price of cotton on the Indian market rose 50% between 2009 and 2010 due to the widespread floods in Pakistan.

These factories are an impressive sight. Sometimes over a kilometre long, with high protective walls and watch-towers, they loom out of the flat green landscape like great white battleships. No-one is admitted unless it’s for a minimum order of 50,000 metres.

Sadly however, these major concerns are beginning to hoist anchor and disappear. The increasing unreliability of the national power supply as a result of Pakistan’s endemic corruption is causing a growing number to move production to places like Thailand and Bangladesh.

Cotton weaver making hand-woven bedspreads for the international market.

Afghan Interiors has long been interested in expanding its existing experience in hand-made textiles into new production, not least as part of FDS’s charitable activities.

However, up till now, AI has been unable to find the happy medium between the extremely small-scale hand-weavers in Charsadda, who fill our present orders, and these foreign-owned behemoths.

Happily, that gap has now been filled, thanks to a fortunate and recent set of introductions made through old acquaintances. We have been lucky enough to gain access to a traditional cotton mill in Multan which has over 200 handlooms in operation. It also covers the full sequence of production from bleaching raw yarn, dyeing, weaving, hand-block and screen-printing, finishing and packing. Most importantly, it employs hundreds of women outworkers to hand-embroider and finish all its products.

Dyed yarns, Multan

The owners and their friends through whom the introduction was made are representative of that respectable middle section of Pakistani society, small landowners and agriculturalists, professionals, bazaar entrepreneurs and industrialists, who are as equally alienated by the current ruling kleptocracy as by the proponents of religious extremism.

Instead, they perform a considerable amount of quiet charitable activity, providing schooling, medical and other facilities for the poor, but always, as perhaps befits citizens of the City of Sufis, on condition of complete anonymity.

Block printing cotton cushion covers

We look forward to working with this concern. Its fostering of traditional crafts, which are by their very nature labour-intensive, is very timely at a stage when the mechanised section of Pakistan’s textile industry is losing jobs, and when the overall need for youth employment increases every year, and as the Western market attaches increasing value to forms of capitalist enterprise that promote social progress for the majority.

Technical experience gained by Afghan Interiors here will, in turn, aid FDS in the development of a business model which can be applied and brought to scale in other areas of Pakistan, particularly the north west, where peculiarly difficult conditions have defied the international aid community’s conventional attempts at top-down development for years.

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