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During the early 1980s, Farhana Asad was travelling through the antique bazaar of Peshawar’s Walled City. The market lanes teemed with all kinds of ware…
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“Da Karin kar ta da Karin zre pakar de.”

(You need a heart of stone to work stone)

 

This statement was made to Meherunnisa Asad (part of the mother-daughter duo behind Lél, and also its Creative Director) by one of the artisans who work within this collaborative space between artisan and designer, founded by her mother Farhana Asad almost two decades ago. In the translation of languages, the nuances that are often responsible for the conferring of poignancy are often lost. However the power and beauty of these words was not lost on Meherunnisa, who understood in that moment the connection between his words and his craft, one that requires not only the nimble, cajoling touch of the artisan, but also the endless patience and perseverance (the unrelenting heart, consistent as stone), that is necessary to see it through to its end.

The art of pietra dura, or stone inlay – also referred to as parchinkari in South Asia – originated out of the ancient Roman opus sectile technique, later finding not only its revival but also reaching its highest pinnacle of development in the hands of the Florentines during the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century. To them, this act of the meticulous cutting and fitting of stones (opere di commessi) into intricate and exquisite forms was synonymous with the act of painting – ‘painting in stone’. Within the century, pietra dura would find its spread extending to Russia, Iran and across the South Asian region, into Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, under the patronage of the Mughals.

In the early 1980s, Farhana Asad found herself mesmerized by a small box that she found in the antique bazaar in the city of Peshawar. It was this box that would lead her to a master artisan, from whom she would learn the skill of pietra dura, and develop her passion for its preservation, simultaneously viewing it as a bridge between the past and the present, both through the exploration of traditional and modern design, as well as through the artisans from Afghanistan and Peshawar that she would subsequently train. Themselves originating from Peshawar, both Farhana and Meherunnisa also see this act of the preservation of an ancient cultural tradition as a healing mechanism, a way to sustain belief in that which is older than (and beyond) the devastation of the region’s sustained conflict, war and migration. To the Afghan refugees that Lél works with, it provides more than the simple security of paid work – it is a craft rooted in that which they call home, that which is familiar, the mountains – the heart of stone. Where so much is lost in movements and migrations, there is yet something of history, of culture, and of home to which they are able to hold on.

It seems ironic, or in some way contradictory, that matters of the heart and of the spirit should arise out of and be addressed by an art form that is rooted in a material such rigid, as hard, as stone. However this is the same contradiction that arises when viewing the physical form that these works take – soft and beautiful floral patterns somewhere, in which the intermingling of color and form make clear why the Florentines called it ‘painting in stone’. Whether modern or traditional (Lél’s collections are broken into ‘Heritage’, ‘Contemporary’ and ‘Lazhward’, the last of which does involve the act of painting within the inlay technique, there is a softness here, an organic nature that is carefully considered and meticulously rendered. Pieces are left unfinished until the perfect stone reveals itself, with its perfect tones and hues bringing the piece to completion. The creator is thus as much at the mercy of the stone as it is to his touch. It is no wonder that this becomes a labor of love, more than anything else. Love, by its very nature, holds within it this very same beauty of discovery, and an infinite patience.

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