Handicrafts of Pakistan's Cholistan struggling to survive

By Imran Mehr   |   Aug. 30, 2013 at 5:17 PM   |   Comments

CHOLISTAN, Pakistan, Aug. 14 (UPI Next) -- Ghulan Fareed spins camel hair on a hand loom six days a week to make thick Falasi blankets, traditionally given to brides in Cholistan, a small desert city in Pakistan's Punjab province, to protect them from evil.

Like others practicing traditional artisanship, though, he is facing the grim reality that these handicrafts could fade away.

Using traditional tools and techniques, it takes Fareed, 55, two months to complete a single blanket. The price he gets, however, is not enough to feed his family. Young people are now taking other jobs, jeopardizing the future of the textile arts.

Falasi blankets are the traditional response to Cholistan's desert cold and have come to symbolize the region. Other traditional arts, such as weaving and embroidery, are also struggling to survive.

Cholistani craftsmen say investment and credit would allow them to improve their work and send their goods elsewhere to sell for better prices.

"Some investment could be good for my business," Fareed told UPI Next. "I could use a new loom, I need money to take my products to the city to sell. But it's hard to even feed my family with the income that I make. I wish that there were some government support for our crafts, but it seems nobody cares for the poor here."

The State Bank of Pakistan recently estimated exports of all handicrafts have dropped to $261,000 this year from $883,000 in 2010. The root of this sharp decline lies mainly in the absence of government support to cottage industries, the report found. Inadequate labor protection laws and exclusion from labor statistics, meaning that the work is not quantified, contribute to the craftsmen's marginalized lives, the report said.

Cholistan's cottage industries are in critical need of government support, said Irfan Mehmood, a former project coordinator of the Cholistan Development Authority.

"Handicraft is one of the few options available to earn a livelihood. They have been associated with textile production for generations. This is their heritage; however, due to low economic returns their children are no longer seeking the same profession and are migrating to urban areas to find employment," he told UPI Next.

The Cholistan Desert, in southern Punjab province, is one of the largest deserts in Pakistan, and the region has a rich history. About 4000 B.C., it was home to one of the world's earliest civilizations, the Hakra, and its colorful textiles have been famous for centuries: In the early 19th century, Cholistan was producing floral-patterned textiles for royal families, including patterns embroidered on shirts, scarves, shoes, bed sheets and camel skins. Despite the potential for exports, Cholistan remains one of Pakistan's poorest regions

Artisans say they want more access to micro credit, like that extended to other small industries. The state bank report shows microloans to all small industries have fallen for each of the last four years.

"The cottage industries of Cholistan are in critical need of government support," Mehmood said.

"They have been associated with textile production for generations. This is their heritage; however, due to low economic returns, their children are no longer seeking the same profession and are migrating to urban areas to find employment.”

Asia Bibi, an embroiderer and mother of five, told UPI Next her family is very poor and she would not encourage any of her five children to go into the family needlework business.

"Sometimes so many months go by without any work," she said, adding that she would like to move to the city and work as domestic help.

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