Peetal Gali

Moradabad’s legacy grapples within Karachi’s cramped, sequestered alley

  • 06 Jan - 12 Jan, 2018
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Feature

Named after Prince Murad Baksh, the son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, Moradabad – also known as the Brass City in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, was home to numerous artisans of metallic handicrafts before partition, many of whom migrated to Karachi’s Golimar area, now known for its never-ending trail of sanitary shops. The artisans did not just live here but brought along their centuries-old ancestral craft and kick-started Pakistan’s very own Brass industry with shops scattered throughout the rather cramped alley, producing not just artistic objects but also passing on their skills and heritage to future generations, and named it Peetal Gali. Now home to merely seven shops, one wonders if the metal handicrafts’ industry – dealing with objects from skilfully crafted shiny silver plates to planters and vases to beautiful animal figurines – even exists in the city of lights if you ever pass by the road beside Golimar’s densely populated residential colony.

Rashid Ahmed, owner of Crescent Handicrafts, has been eagerly waiting to greet a customer at his shop. “I’ve been waiting for a customer to show up for many weeks now. Customers hardly show up at the shops here, except for clients dealing in bulk buying and import/ export business of metal handicrafts.” What a heritage buff might find fascinating is merely a burden on this 35-year-old businessman, whose sparkly shop in the otherwise gloomy lane is a treat for sore eyes. “We are now just limited to showing up at exhibitions in China and a few other countries. All we are trying to do is sustain the legacy of our ancestors for the past 40 years.”

MAG spoke to dwellers and shopkeepers of Peetal Gali, dealing in the business of brass and copper objects, as well as a customer who flew from France and discovered the dying business of metal handicrafts in the cosmopolitan.

Ancestral legacy on the edge

Munawwar Ahmed, a 42-year-old brass artisan, has been designing metal objects intricately for the past 30 years and aspires to pass on his exceptional skills to his future generations. He is busy designing a tray on a sheet of brass and is half way through when we interrupt him during his work.

“I have been designing brass and copper items ever since my father taught me. He was the one who continued the legacy of his ancestors from Moradabad here in Karachi and now I am responsible to run the business as well as keep my family’s heritage alive after his death,” says Munawwar who sits under an unlit bulb in his small workshop.

“This tray that I’m working on is yet to be finished. It is in its raw form right now and needs to be hammered, curved and carved into the required design. Five of these plates that I’m making are completed in two days with the help of two people – one artisan and a helper,” he says. Munawwar buys all his raw material from a couple of shops in Peetal Gali, while also informs about a few in Karachi’s Jodia Bazar. Speaking of the heritage he has been forwarded, Munawwar says, “We have learnt this art from our ancestors. As they say gaatey gaatey gawaiyya bun jata hai, our’s is the same case. My son also accompanies me while working on the designs and has learnt by merely seeing me work but has become quite an expert at it.”

Munawwar charges a total of Rs. 1,500 for one such tray and Rs. 500 as labour cost. One can only wonder how these artisans are running their household in this inflation-ridden country.

French photographer strolls through the lane

Oriane Zerah, a French photographer who is quite familiar with Karachi now, has been recently making regular visits to Peetal Gali. She shares her experience of working with a local brass and copper artisan. “I come to Karachi often. I was looking for people working with brass and copper and found out that there was a street in Karachi called Peetal Gali so I came here, met a shopkeeper and explained to him what I wanted. It’s been two weeks that we have been working together. I have asked them to make bangles for me and will take it to France, for I am trying to create jewellery and also work with truck artists.”

Shopkeepers sustain the industry

“I started it as a business 15 years ago. The items that I sell are on wholesale rates and are all made in Golimar, Karachi, and there is no other place where this work is carried on anymore, except in Lahore. We used to have foreigners as customers earlier but not anymore, in fact, now we hardly have local customers,” says Sultan Ahmed, a 55-year-old wholesaler who is seen sitting idle in his tiny shop with no more than 250 pieces of brass and copper decor items.

“The cheapest product I sell is a 6-inched brass horse for Rs. 400, while a few shops here sell items worth lakhs, I sell affordable items and those too have no buyers anymore.”

Manufacturers narrate their woes

Jameel Akhtar, 40, manages his father’s ancestral shop and was earlier doing a private job. He too laments about the lack of interest of local as well as international buyers not just because of the high rates of brass and copper but also the law and order situation of Karachi for the past 20 years. “Our business is that of manufacturing and not designing. We buy products designed by artisans and deal in the manufacturing process which involves, the casting, anodisation, polishing and colouring of brass and copper handicrafts. This business is part of the cottage industry, as every step is done by a different worker, many of which also involve women and children living in the vicinity and other parts of the city.”

Distribution suffers due to inflation

57-year-old Nadeem laments about the rising rates of raw material, one of the reasons behind the almost lifeless brass and copper industry. “This industry suffers due to the high rates of raw material, which is why no artisan, manufacturer or wholesaler buys from distributors. Copper is Rs. 750 per kilo, whereas, brass is Rs. 500 per kilo. Unfortunately, this has a trickle down affect and has destroyed the once profitable business.” •