Meet Muhammed Ilyas, a slate carver from Pakistan, whose works of art have progressed from the grave to the drawing room.
Muhammed Ilyas is often asked about his visiting card. It says ‘chitarkar’. “It means artist in Hindi, doesn’t it?” he asks. His glasses perched at the end of his nose, he bends over a slate square hammering out a design with an iron pencil at a gallery in a five-star hotel in Islamabad. His equipment is simple but his designs can be intricate and they can take from a few hours up to many days to carve out. He and some of his family could be part of the dying group of slate carvers from a village near Haripur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It’s a century-old family tradition which he inherited and originally the rather dull grey slate was used for tombstones before the marble explosion took over. Now 55, Ilyas has been carving since he was a child and learnt the trade from his father and grandfather. “Our gravestones of slate were works of art. We could represent some of the characteristics of the dead person and if it was a woman we could depict her favourite jewellery or something the family wanted to remember her by,” he says. The art of the gravestones has now made it into drawing rooms and Ilyas has innovated over the years to make items of everyday use such as coasters, trays, tables and even a very impressive dressing table with slate carving. Carved slate squares are also modified into unusual clocks with the simple addition of some needles and a battery. He has even created slate souvenirs which he feels are better gifts than plastic mementos. In his native village, he is probably one of the few slate carvers who remain. One of his sons has learnt the art but the rest are not interested.
Ilyas is a keen calligrapher, and while religious inscriptions were favoured earlier, he uses the chisel to recreate nature, old colonial buildings and floral designs. “People didn’t work for money in the past. We lived in a mountainous area and my grandfather used to walk 80 km to sell something he had made out of slate for Re 1. Sometimes if people were happy they would add 25 annas more. Then some women would feel sorry since he had walked so much and give him food stuff like lentils. He walked five days for Re. 1. That’s how it was,” he recalls. Those were leisurely times when people spent time carving doors and then someone else used to see it and want the same thing. Art was spread by word of mouth, he says. There was also the problem of the zamindars who wanted exclusivity and often the artist paid with his life so he wouldn’t create another masterpiece. In the absence of strong support for craftsmen like him, there is a risk they fall a prey to unscrupulous art lovers and middlemen.
Ilyas was no exception and he yearns for a shop or an outlet where he can sell his work. “Even now such heinous practices exist — they may not take away someone’s life or cut off hands but they do destroy you in many ways,” he says. There are many who do business in the name of handicrafts and one such woman ordered work worth over Rs. one lakh from him and didn’t share any of the profits. “I heard she earned over Rs. one crore from my work but I got nothing. I was so distressed that I gave up carving for a whole year. But then I realised that people can cheat me of money but they cannot steal my art from me,” he says. Once again he was duped by the same woman who made him bring his work to Karachi. “She said she would organise an exhibition. I spent Rs. 70,000 to transport my stuff there and finally I had to leave the work in the house of a well-wisher where it still lies. There was no sale or exhibition as promised,” he says helplessly. “We have our craft, but sometimes I feel it is of no use to me. Without education we are easily duped,” he adds.
He tells the story of a man who found a bright shining stone and hung it around his donkey. A foreigner came and bought the stone for Rs. 100 but made millions of it. He said things haven’t changed much. He dropped out of school after Std. V to learn the trade and has taught it to two of his four sons as well. He doubts if they can take it forward without government support; also young people are not interested since they don’t see a future for this craft. “Sometimes I feel all this work is pure foolishness. It took me two years to make all this and I keep trying to improve and find new designs,” he smiles.