The author was part of a recent programme aimed at exploring shared cultural histories of the United Kingdom and South Asia; she shares her experience thus far. All photos courtesy of the author.
Our Shared Cultural Histories (OSCH) is a youth-led programme organised by the British Council in collaboration with the National College of Arts (NCA), Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) and Glasgow Life Museums to investigate the shared cultures and histories of the United Kingdom and South Asia and to bridge the gaps between them. A group of young artists were chosen to be a part of the four-month long cross-cultural collaborative project, in which participants from Lahore and Glasgow participated in three workshops over the course of four weeks, exploring traditional craft practices represented in the collections and sites of the walled city of Lahore, the NCA and the Glasgow Life Museums. The workshop included labour-intensive fresco painting and mirror-work workshops, as well as mentally stimulating Scottish and Punjabi dastaangoi (storytelling) workshops. The OSCH project aims to make cultural connections to generate and understand histories centred around craft and oral storytelling traditions.
For the purpose of this essay, I recount the fresco and mirror-work workshops. The first workshop was held in the Royal Kitchens of the historic Lahore Fort, close to the fresco and mirror-work sites. Upon entering the Royal Kitchens, a serene silence engulfs and transports you to a different era. The workshop delved into the mechanics of traditional fresco painting with Ustaad Irshad. Derived from the Italian term affresco or fresco, which means fresh, fresco is a process of painting an image on wet plaster on walls or ceilings.
Ustaad Irshad illustrated a process of surface-making and his approach to fresco painting focused on laying down a strong foundation. The entire process of surface-making was laborious, and he developed each layer with precision. Once he prepared the surface, he began tracing with a potli (small pouch) filled with blue pigment, which looked like ground lapis lazuli.
[From Top Left Clockwise: 1) The initial sketch; 2) Preparing the lime surface; 3) All set for tracing; 4) Preparing lime plaster surface; 5) Poking holes through the tracing paper; 6) Blue pigment wrapped in a cheesecloth for pouncing]
He prepared his surface using lime and plaster on gypsum board. He then made an initial sketch for tracing paper and transferred it from the paper to the plate using the pouncing method. Pouncing is the process of pricking holes through the edges of an image so that it can be traced to another surface. He used a blue pigment to dab onto the pricked holes. He painted the entire image and, once dry, he burnished it twice using a trowel and a polythene sheet until it was as smooth as a porcelain tile.
[From Left to Right: 1) Applying paint over the prepared surface; 2) Rendering and final touches; 3) Burnishing the plate]
Ustaad Irshad had an easy familiarity with the Lahore Fort, and with his keen eye he helped us identify several hidden treasures of fresco in the Sheesh Mahal (see images below). The stratified walls of the Lahore Fort are testimony to the various interventions that occurred in the past few centuries. Lahore Fort was built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1631; later Maharaja Ranjit Singh assimilated various decorative elements in Fort after he occupied Lahore in 1799. You can see each cultural influence stacked on each other in terms of aesthetics, colours, and symbols. A fresco from the Mughal Empire can be seen beneath the mirror-work, which was created during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The tour around the fort was an enlightening experience that altered many perceptions regarding these frescos.
Part of the workshop included instruction by Professor Muhammad Asif Sharif, who is well-versed in the centuries-old technique of making frescos and provided a thorough historical description of the fresco tradition in South Asia during the workshop. In contrast to Ustaad Irshad, Professor Sharif’s method for creating frescos was distinctively modern, which not only made me re-evaluate traditional techniques and their contemporary application methods, but also gave the participants the confidence to juxtapose their contemporary creative skills with traditional techniques of fresco. Just as humans adapt to changes around them, similarly artists transform ancient techniques as per the requirements of time.
The second workshop with Ustaad Shafaqat demonstrated conventional approaches to crafting mirror-work, also known as ainakari. Mirror-work originated in Persia in the 13th century and travelled to India during the Mughal Empire. It was used to create the Sheesh Mahal in the Lahore Fort, the crown jewel of skilled craftsmanship of the Mughal court. Built between 1631 and 1632 during the reign of the emperor Shah Jahan, the white marble pavilion is ornately designed and embellished with exquisite mirror work. Glass was being used differently in Europe; between 1150 and 1500, churches featured ornamental mosaics composed of translucent coloured glass, not mirror.
[Mirror-work inside the Sheesh Mahal]
There are two kinds of glass used in ainakari: reflective, and transparent. It’s tricky to understand the intricacies of working with glass as splintery and curvaceous as the one utilised in the mirror-work workshop. We had to acquire a very particular glass for the mirror workshop, which is only made in interior Sindh.
The ainakari workshop required a different kind of dedication and was more time-consuming and labour-intensive compared to the fresco workshop. All the participants had a pattern to follow, which they traced over their glass. A diamond cutter was utilised to shape the glass to fit into complex patterns. Because of its fragile nature and the fact that it curved inwards, cutting the glass without shattering it proved to be a challenge. After carving out all the shapes, each form was then glued together using a joinery made of Plaster of Paris paste. Another compelling feature of concave reflective glass is its optical illusion; if you stand at a particular spot, you can see your image multiply.
[From Top Left Clockwise: 1) A globe of curved glass; 2) Difference between the two types of glass; 3) Progress from Lahore; 4) Progress from Glasgow; 5) Curved glass; 6) Applying plaster under the glass; 7) Placing the glass over a gypsum board; 8) Applying paster paste joinery over the glass; 9) Final touches]
The ainakari workshop was live-streamed with the Burrell Museum, Glasgow. The Ustaads took great care to ensure that the young participants followed the instructions and did not injure themselves throughout the process. Whether it was a lime-plaster surface or the constant risk of injury when working with jagged glass fragments, everyone was cautious to avoid any potential danger. The Glasgow and Lahore participants followed every instruction to a T and soon grasped the nuggets of wisdom they got via the online and in-person meetings.
The project is still ongoing, and it will culminate in an exhibition at the end of September 2023. The participants are still working on their individual and collective responses, and it will be part of the final exhibition, which will take place at the National College of Arts, Walled City Authority Lahore and the Burrell Museum. The OSCH-Lahore project sought to introduce people of different heritages to each other's cultures and histories creating room for discourse regarding points of common understanding of the shared fabric of human experience. This collaborative project aims to re-evaluate histories through a personal lens.
Tooba Ashraf is a visual artist and researcher currently based in Lahore, Pakistan. Tooba is working at OSCH, Lahore, as a project assistant and also as an art educator at various institutions, including as visiting faculty member at the National College of Arts, Lahore. She completed her BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore and recently completed her M.Phil in Cultural Studies from her alma mater. Since 2016, Tooba’s work has been displayed and published in galleries and publications across the country.