May 08, 2022
Trends and styles are always changing, but one piece of clothing, chunri, continues to have lasting appeal among Pakistani women. Chunri styles are often brightly colored, with recognizable geometric patterns created on dyed cloth. This 5,000-year-old handicraft is worn by women from all social classes and made in localities as small as Kahror Pakka, a tehsil in south Punjab.
Suraya Abdullah, a master artisan from Kahror Pakka, said she has seen the lasting popularity of chunri over the years among Pakistani women of all ages. Abdullah, 55, has been involved in chunri making for decades and speaks about the style as a fashion touchstone in Pakistan.
Abdullah started helping her father make chunri as a teenager and took over his business when he died soon after. As the oldest child in her family, Abdullah was responsible for supporting her siblings and her widowed mother. In Kahror Pakka, the area where she grew up, education levels were low and traditional customs were highly valued.
In the early days of her work, Abdullah said community members used to talk badly about her since she was going against tradition as a young woman working outside of the house. Instead of getting discouraged by these sentiments, Abdullah continued working with the support of her younger brothers.
Honing her craft
In the four decades since then, Abdullah has become a master of the craft — gaining widespread recognition for her designs. At the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage (NIFTH) in Islamabad last year, a large crowd of women gathered around her stall, admiring colorful chunri suits, dupattas, and saris. Abdullah’s stall in the Punjab Pavilion of NIFTH was decorated with colorful and elegant chunri dresses, which she said are an important part of Pakistan’s creative industry.
Abdullah has also been setting up a stall at the annual Folk Heritage Festival since 1990, where she displays her chunri work. Abdullah said her hand-designed chunri garments, dupattas, and sarees are popular in different parts of Pakistan, especially Lahore and Faisalabad. She has also won several awards for her designs and her dedication to preserving the tradition of chunri making.
Abdullah said finding a balance between technology and routine is difficult but essential for artisans who produce traditional crafts. She encourages other artisans to adapt to advances in technology and culture to keep the trdition alive “The first step must be taken for the artisans who are far behind,” she said. “There is nothing more dangerous for any economy than for a large section of its population to be ignorant of technological and social development.”
History and style
Chunri is originally a product of Sindhi culture, but the style is also produced in parts of Punjab. The style is made from plain fabric, which is tied to create different shapes after the material is dyed. The tied fabric is allowed to dry for a few days. Artisans remove the ties from the fabric one by one once it is dry, creating beautiful designs on the fabric. Abdullah said the work done on cotton cloth is more durable and comfortable. However, due to the high cost of cotton, some people substitute other kinds of cloth.
Abdullah said chunri can be worn casually and for formal occasions. She said some women even wear chunri as bridalwear for their mehndi functions. Chunri was previously made using only three colours, but Abdullah said now chunri dresses are available in six different colors. She said chunri designs are sometimes paired with trousers and churidar pajamas to add an extra stylish and colorful touch.
She recalls a training workshop a few years back when a master artisan from Bangladesh visited to train artists on the work of chunri and taught designs in three colors. After that, Abdullah said she started designing dresses and dupattas in six colors, including green, orange, blue, and indigo.
Pakistan’s handicrafts have always had a high level of cultural significance. But for a long time, the sale of these products was limited to the domestic market. According to a 2017 report by The World Bank, only .5 percent of the world’s global handicrafts are made up of Pakistani products.
Although handicrafts are recognized for their cultural importance, many traditional syles have fallen to the wayside as other forms of production take precedent because they are quicker and cheaper to produce.
There has been a resurgence in interest in traditional handcrafts in recent years, facilitated by social media which has allowed local artisans to connect with buyers in different countries. Local initiatives have tried to revive the handicraft market by marketing products to a wider audience. Social enterprises and NGOs have worked to use these platforms to give local artisans more opportunities to make a profit through their work.
Although social media marketing helped increase the reach of certain products, ventures were mostly spearheaded by individuals and were not taken on by the government as a tool for development or cultural conservation. As a result, the economic benefits have been largely contained to certain groups. Such initiatives mostly focused on creating a platform for traditional products but not necessarily finding ways for such crafts to evolve within local communities.
Social enterprises also often market products at higher products than is normal in domestic markets, limiting their reach to people from certain income brackets. Because of increased demand, these initiatives often also focus on environmental sustainability. Some initiatives also work to educate local artisans about starting online businesses, but this market is still developing.
Although chunri garments are available at markets in different parts of Pakistan, the industry has not grown much over the years. Talha Ali Kushvaha, the former executive director of NIFTH said Pakistan can generate millions of dollars from its rich creative industry. But the government’s lack of interest is among the factors stopping this growth. Unlike other countries that are investing heavily in their creative industries, Kushvaha said opportunities for Pakistani creativity are largely limited to events like the annual Loke Mela (folk festival).
Another factor in the stagnation of the craft is the industry’s inability to adapt to the needs of modern times. Abdullah said she wants to transform this industry to help it have more of a reach but lacks the capital to invest in this plan. She believes such investment would help individual artisans and the national economy if someone else was willing to contribute. “We have good designers, artisans, traditional brands, artists, and architects, adding that we can empower the creative sector and add a whole new sector to the labor force,” she said.
Abdullah speaks about her family’s heritage and her culture with pride and affection — despite it being both sweet and bitter for her. She has taught the art of chunri-making to most women in her villages who develop their skills both as a hobby and to make money.
“We have to help the backward classes to improve their lives,” Abdullah said. “There are millions of people here in this country who belong to some creative work, and they have to increase their income.”
Originally published at tribune.com.pk