Two paintings hang in my bedroom, watercolours by the Hyderabad artist Ali Abbas. His primary subject is the men, women and children who live in the Thar desert in rural Sindh, desert nomads who are both Hindu Dalit and Muslim, all from the vast Kolhi tribe. Abbas has devoted his life to teaching art in Hyderabad, both at Jamshoro University and Mehran University; it was after a breakout exhibition, ‘Sindh Gypsies’, at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi in 2002, that he found critical acclaim both at home in Pakistan and overseas. According to the Pakistan Painters’ Series page on Facebook, Ali Abbas ‘works on location and creates movement in his compositions by depicting scenes of: dance, migration, labour, dramatic winds/breeze and shadows’.

Although I’ve never claimed to know much about art, that intellectual explanation of Ali Abbas’s themes encapsulates what grabbed me viscerally when I saw the first, smaller painting at his solo exhibition, ‘Gurd Baad’ (Bad Wind) at the Chawkundi Gallery in Karachi back in 2005. I stood transfixed in front of the small painting, only 10×14 inches in a simple brown frame and cream mount, while the hubbub of the opening night, always a popular event in the Karachi art scene, whirled around me. It was as if all the noise had died away and the only thing that existed in the world was me and the painting.

In the painting, two women took up almost all the space. They stood at the forefront and trained a fixed gaze on me, while a third sat in the shelter of a thatched tent, a two-year-old-girl in her lap, looking off into the distance. The women were adult, but young, unveiled, all dressed in the traditional brightly-coloured clothing of the Thar women, magenta, royal blue and green kermises and long swirling ghagras, with necklaces and the well-known white bangles from wrist to elbow that the married women of Thar always wear. But it wasn’t the exotica of their clothing and adornments that drew me to the painting. It was the look on their faces, bold, intense, and proud. The woman in magenta had her hand on her hip, the woman in blue rested hers on the pole of the tent. I had never seen a truer representation of a Pakistani woman, unburdened, unafraid, eyes blazing with full knowledge of who they were and what their place was in this most desolate of regions.

I had never bought art before, thinking it the bastion of well-heeled ladies and rich bankers. But I knew I had to have this painting, and I bought it for a fraction of what Abbas’s paintings sell for now. Later, I went back to the gallery to find out if they had any more of his work. This time the gallery was silent, the gaily-dressed and talkative elite of the city had vanished, replaced by a few silent art lovers walking reverentially amongst the paintings of another exhibition that I can’t remember now. I was only interested in Ali Abbas. My efforts didn’t go unrewarded: another watercolour was unearthed for me from the gallery’s colourfully disorganised anteroom. In comparison to the first, this was a giant, 22×30 inches, in the same brown frame and cream mount style. A Thar woman and a girl stood in the front, while a good distance behind, another woman held an infant in her arms protectively. They were all dressed in the same way as the figures in the first; a clay pot, the type that they use to carry water on their heads through miles of desert, lay at the first woman’s feet. But this time, the figures were small. The emphasis was on earth and sky, both portrayed in the same blue-grey tones, the earth captured in choppy brushstrokes that resembled tossing waves, so that it looked more like an ocean than a desert. In the sky above, Abbas had painted the breeze in large, smooth circular strokes, giving the impression of the wind in a storm, but also of the elliptical shape of the entire universe. The women were standing still, withstanding the force of movement in both sky and land, as if they had always existed here and would do so forever.

I bought this second painting without hesitation and took it home to meet its counterpart. I hung them side by side in my room, fascinated by the closeness and intimacy of the first, and the spaciousness and timelessness of the second. They were a doorway to worlds that I had heard of, but never been able to visit. It’s true in Pakistan that we see very little of our own country, but the Thar desert has the reputation of being difficult to access, remote and unwelcoming. Its harsh conditions make the Thar people the hardiest in the world, but they also suffer from underdevelopment and drought, their children dying often in waves of malnutrition that continue to shame successive governments.

Over the next few years, I began to think of the women in Ali Abbas’s paintings as my muses. It felt strange at first to do so: the muse is an artistic concept that I’d always dismissed as slightly pretentious, as well as a tradition which usually sees a male artist or writer entranced and inspired by a young, beautiful woman – and I’d always dismissed that as sexist. But as I sat at my desk, writing, the paintings never too far from my line of sight, the women began to speak to me in the language of emotions, rather than words. If they could stand there with their wind-beaten faces and weather-swept hair, in clothing with holes that had been patched over many times, honest, unapologetic and unyielding, then I could do the same in my writing. In short, they echoed what I had always taken as the most important principle of my writing life: to tell the truth.

Pakistanis struggle with the reality of balancing multiple identities throughout their lives: A Pakistani may be, at the same time, a Sunni or Shia (sectarian identity), a Jat or a Mastoi, (tribal affiliation), a Baloch or a Punjabi (ethnic belonging), as well as negotiating the socially constructed roles of gender (male or female or transgender) and the rules of the family. These allegiances can also shift with major life transitions: birth, marriage, death. While such a myriad of identity has its benefits, making the fabric of Pakistani society richer and more diverse, it is stressful and confusing when the demands of each identity conflict within the self or with others in society. Divisions of loyalty between the needs of the individual self and the role that a Pakistani plays in each of the collective identities, has been a source of angst for many Pakistanis, myself amongst them.

By giving me this anchoring image, Ali Abbas had helped me negotiate my own identity. I too am a Sindhi woman, from the province that holds the Thar desert, but also thousands of acres of fertile farmland, nurtures the Indus River, formed the cradle of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the fan of the Indus delta, and the scores of villages, towns and cities where millions of men, women and children flourish under the watchful gaze of the Sufi saints. The women in the paintings, my muses, told me that we all originate from the land of Sindhu, ancient and that its mysteries are the blood that runs in our veins. They told me about who I was and what this land had given to me, as it gives generously and openly to all who make it their home.

I had come across, some years previously, a poem called ‘Sindhi Woman,’ by Jon Stallworthy, a New Zealand poet and academic. While working at Oxford University Press in Karachi in the 1970s, Stallworthy had found similar inspiration from the sight of Sindhi women, and captured them thus:

Barefoot through the bazaar,

and with the same undulant grace

as the cloth blown back from her face,

she glides with a stone jar

high on her head

and not a ripple in her tread.

Watching her cross erect

stones, garbage, excrement, and crumbs

of glass in the Karachi slums,

I, with my stoop, reflect

they stand most straight

who learn to walk beneath a weight.

As a writer, I longed to tell their stories. Not the individual stories of the women of Thar, but of the women of Sindh, and of Sindh itself. I had always seen Sindh misrepresented in the media, reduced to its simplest denominators: cruel landlords, helpless peasants. But I had also seen much cruelty done to men and women: karo-kari (honour killing), bonded labour, child marriage. How to bust the myths while also telling the truth? Out of this conundrum, I began to write short stories about Sindh and Sindhi women: ‘The Wedding of Sundri,’ about a child marriage that ended with an honour killing; ‘Snakebite,’ about a peasant child on the farm facing kidnapping by unknown men; and ‘Mai Jeandi Faces the Cyclone,’ about a village woman who refused to evacuate her village in the face of a storm, preferring instead to bargain with God for her life. And then in 2008 I wrote A Season For Martyrs, a novel which weaves the history of Sindh with the retelling of the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life and death. I included a chapter on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, the Shakespeare of Sindh, imagining a journey he undertook all the way from Bhit Shah in Hala to the Thar desert and beyond, to Jaisalmir, a city in the Indian state of Rajhastan:

Then one day he climbed a small hill and came down the other side onto a sand dune that ran parallel to the winds, rows of undulating ridges rubbed into the sand like the lines on the roof of his mouth. Nearby, he saw a group of women dressed in the bright colours of the desert, their arms covered in white bangles up to their elbows. They were cutting at a small scrub tree with hand-axes, and singing as they worked.

Next, I quoted from Latif’s Sur Sarang: ‘In deserts, wastes and Jessalmir it has rained, Clouds and lightning have come to Thar’s plains; Lone, needy women are now free from care, Fragrant are the paths, happy herdsmen’s wives all this share’.

When I wrote this, I had the feeling that my journey with art had all come full circle. Ali Abbas’s art had inspired me to create my own art. I could not have written the description of the Thar women without his paintings in my room, my muses enjoining me to portray their lives with honesty and humility, rather than the exoticism of the city-dweller towards the desert nomad. Yet as much as I needed Abbas’s art, I couldn’t help but believe that his art needed me as well, in order to give voice to his vision. It struck me, finally, the very thing that I had been trying to grasp about art all along: all art is storytelling. All storytelling is art.

Then, in early 2015, I found myself at a photography and cultural exhibition called ‘Tharparkar: Beautiful and Misunderstood’, hosted by the Alliance Française in Karachi. Curious to see more of this world, I went to the exhibition, organised by the Green Crescent Trust, a small NGO which does development work in the region. The trust had sent eight photographers and three filmmakers to capture the lives of the people there, mired in hardship and trapped at the subsistence level, in order to attract Karachi’s philanthropists to invest in their projects.

In the generous gardens of the French Cultural Centre, photographs were displayed on black scaffolding next to drawings by the children of the Hilal Schools that GCT runs in Tharparkar. The digital representations of the women in Ali Abbas’s paintings stood in front of round mud huts with thatched roofs, whose exact duplicate are found in parts of West Africa, though nobody knows why this same architectural style has shown up in two vastly disparate places on earth.

A documentary on the photography expedition played on a loop to the music of the Thari folk musician Sabhago Khashkehli, who played plaintive tunes on a stringed instrument very similar to a violin. Another Hindu tribe, called Manghaniars, play music all around the region, performing under trees or at mosques, or Hindu or Jain temples; they might sing the verses of Shah Abdul Latif or folksongs about the beauty of the rains and how the rainy season transforms the desert into a land of abundance, a dazzling multi-coloured carpet of blooming flowers and fruiting trees.

One of the Thar women’s daily tasks is to bring drinking water back to the settlements from whatever water sources they can find; they walk three to four kilometres there and back with clay pots balanced on their heads, the ‘heavy weight’ of Stallworthy’s poem. But often the water is contaminated and their children are prone to diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases. The Green Crescent Trust is working to bring hand pumps and submersible pumps with concrete water tanks to the villages and settlements, but the suffering of the Thar people, especially their children, will take years and billions of rupees to alleviate.

In the middle of the exhibition was a crafts station. Two men, Nandlaal and Varseen, had set up a standing loom and were weaving a portion of cotton khes, an intricate cloth made by interweaving contrasting threads in a double twill technique. The geometric patterns that result are beautiful, giving the khes its density and texture; typically, women arrange the warp threads on the loom but men do the actual weaving, as was being demonstrated in front of us. Khes is traditionally used in clothing, or as blankets and other household accessories, and was one of the Mughal Empire’s major exports. In recent years, khes, like most of Pakistan’s traditional textiles, has been spotlighted by fashion designers who have been integrating it into their designs, to critical acclaim domestically and internationally.

Similarly, the rili, the vibrant patchwork quilt that has been produced by women since the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, has been incorporated into fashion collections by Pakistani designers over the last several years. The word ‘rili’ comes from the Sindhi word ‘ralanna,’ which means ‘to mix’ or ‘to connect’. Women in Sindh, Baluchistan, and the Cholistan Desert in Punjab collect scraps of cotton from discarded shawls, ajraks and tie-dyed cloth, dye them into bright colours — white, black, red, yellow and orange to contrast with green, dark blue and purple. Cutting them into squares and triangles, then appliquéing patterns onto the base cloth results in a myriad of patterns, each one uniquely different from the next. Sandwiched between the colourful top layers are several layers of thick, warm cotton, making the rili into a warm duvet for winter, or a ground covering on which children can play in the winter sun.

At the exhibition, a group of Thar women relaxed on rilis spread out on the ground, next to the men weaving the khes. They were all of childbearing age – a baby crawled between their laps, while a young boy sat cross-legged on the ground in front of them. He was clearly the pride of their lives; their eyes gleamed when I sat down next to them and inquired about his age, and their names. Sita Bai and Taju gestured to a pile of rilis in front of them; all were for sale. My eyes fell on a medium-sized quilt that was unusually monotone: navy blue with white patchwork. I bought it immediately, enjoying the conversation with the women too much to try and bargain the meagre price down.

The ubiquitous presence of rilis, ajraks, khes and khaddar on the bodies of Pakistani men and women, living and working in the fields and villages and towns and cities, has always ensured that art in Pakistan is a living and breathing tradition, not a curiosity relegated to a museum or gallery. Yet in the new millennium, savvy young designers who had grown up with these textiles in their homes and villages, wanted to take them to a new, urban and cosmopolitan market, both at home and abroad, in order to support and preserve the crafts and artisan tradition which has been endangered by rapid industrialisation and mass production.

Today, Afsheen Junejo, Karachi-based owner of Blocked textiles, is the first Pakistani designer to use rili cloth and its distinctive geometric patterns in her clothing. Omar Rahim, the renowned Pakistani actor and textile designer, sells rilis through his design company in New York City. He has worked with Paul Smith and Tracy Feith to incorporate the rili into upholstery designs; Hollywood A-listers including Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore own rilis that he sells under his Soof Designs brand.

My thoughts returned to the Thar weavers and rili-makers for many days after the exhibition. Here were men and women living extremely rough lives, without many of the basics that we would consider necessary for human happiness. Yet Sita Bai and Taju were as smiling and joyful as anyone could be, intoxicated with the excitement of being in Karachi and selling their wares to city folk who had never come within a hundred miles of Tharparkar. Could their art have something to do with their happiness, their self-esteem?

It had to be. Pakistan’s art is not relegated to the realms of art galleries and art schools, the preserve of the educated and the elite. The tradition of art for the people, democratic art, is as strong as the formal methods of production, exhibition, and commerce. In the small villages of Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the skills and crafts of the people provide them not just with livelihood, but with identity – psychological constructs that are as important as air and food and water if a human being is to self-actualise and achieve her highest potential, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a motivational theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. Maslow theorised that the first four needs – physiological, safety and security, love and belongingness, self-worth and self-esteem needs – were ‘deficiency needs’ that had to be fulfilled before the higher needs of transcendence and self-actualisation could be addressed. But in 1970, he updated his theory to include two needs that hadn’t been addressed in the original model: cognitive needs, or the search for knowledge and meaning; and aesthetic needs, or the appreciation and search for beauty, balance, and form. Yet even Maslow’s updated hierarchy has been criticised for being too rigid: the ‘starving artist’ who must create art even while neglecting his basic needs, for example, doesn’t fit into this model of human motivation.

In Pakistan the prevalence of street art, folk art, and crafts – not high art, but people’s art – show that the drive to fulfil aesthetic needs operates side by side with the drive to fulfil deficiency needs, and seem to also be indelibly tied to self-worth and self-esteem needs. Simply put, the production of art satisfies the Pakistan individual’s need for self-worth and self-esteem. The Pakistani may even derive his or her identity from his art: being known for the best crafts in the village, for example, or being particularly skilled at truck art. The production of art of course has its commercial side; by using art to pay for one’s livelihood, the individual is satisfying the physiological needs as well. And one more aspect: by expressing one’s inner self through one’s art, one is negotiating an individual identity in a collectivist society.

The Indus Valley civilisation, one of the world’s most ancient cultures that is the anthropological and archaeological foundation of Pakistan, has fascinated the modern world with two markers: its writing, unintelligible hieroglyphics, and its sophisticated visual art, found on stamps and sculpture – the Priest-King, the Dancing Girl, the strange ox-like animal that is neither a bull or a zebra. The strange cuneiform that nobody has ever been able to decipher point to a vast pre-Islamic civilisation whose roots stretch over thousands of years and still inform Pakistan and Pakistanis today. What greater evidence that humanity, indeed civilisation, has chosen the arts – writing and visual art – as a way of announcing to the world, ‘We exist’?

Pakistan is a highly artistic society, its people poetic and creative. Ask someone a question, and the answer is as likely to come back to you in the form of a verse from Faiz or Iqbal or even the lyrics of a ghazal, classical rhyming couplets of love, as it is a factual statement. Art and poetry burst and beckon from the backs of trucks and buses and rickshaws, formal verse or colloquial poetry paired with the popular motifs of truck art. Buraq, the mystical winged horse flying to heaven; a pair of beautiful eyes belonging to a houri from paradise; flowers and Kalashnikovs all teeming on their hulking metal frames to tell the story of Pakistan.

Art as life, interwoven into the fabric of many lives and many layers, may come as a surprise to most observers and even most residents of this country, positioned as it is at an eternal crossroads between peace and insecurity, instability and chaos, the stranglehold of conventions and traditions and a rapidly approaching, seductive modernity. When our basic needs remain so unfulfilled, how do we even think of making art?

But it’s precisely this uncomfortable and untenable position that forces Pakistan and its people to go within, seeking from internal sources answers that are not so easily forthcoming from external forces. Even the questions come from within because art raises the exact same questions of identity, self-formation and self-expression that Pakistanis have been confronting since before the inception of the country: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What do I seek to tell the world? Perhaps it is the artisans, the hunarmand, of Pakistan, who tell us, in making their art, exactly who we are.

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