Peshawar: Muhammad Ali inherited a trade and a craft from his forefathers. Now in his fifties, Ali has worked to create brass and bronzeware in his shop in Peshawar’s old city ever since he was a teenager.
Like Ali, his sons who help him at the shop will inherit a trade that they have known and mastered for generations, much like the other residents and shopkeepers of the old Bazaar-e-Misgaran – the street of copper sellers.
The prospects for a trade that has kept generations of Ali and others in the bazaar afloat have grown bleak over the years however. Once a major draw for tourists and traders seeking the prized brass and bronzeware immaculately crafted by smiths who have lived and worked in Misgaran for generations, the old bazaar is dying for want of patrons.
“The main reason that has reduced a huge business to just two shops is the consistent slump in sales for the past few years,” Ali told News Lens Pakistan. “The critical situation of peace in the city – indeed the entire country – for the past few years and high prices of brass and copper has contributed to a decline in the business.”
An ancient town falling along the Silk Road trade route, one can still spot ghosts of Peshawar’s old grandeur in decrepit caravanserais where travelers, traders and spies once sipped green tea as they shared tales of travels and intrigues. The old city streets traders engaging in commerce and story-telling as they cooled their heels gave Peshawar its fabled Qissakhawani bazaar – the street of storytellers.
In his poem The Ballad of King’s Jest, Rudyard Kipling – the novelist and poet who is immortalized British-India in works like Kim, Jungle Book and The Man Who Would be King – writes of Peshawar:
When spring-time flushes the desert grass,
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass.
Lean are the camels but fat the frails.
Light are the purses but heavy the bales,
As the snowbound trade of the North comes down,
To the market-square of Peshawur town.
While Qissakhwani was the favourite haunt of trans-Afghanistan traders sojourning in Peshawar before moving on to the Indian subcontinent, the warren of streets fanning out of the storytellers’ bazaar was equally significant in their scheme of things. These streets specialized in merchandize that were the staple of Silk Road trade – silk, spices, copper, silver, iron, dry fruit etc. In time, the streets came to be known after the wares they crafted and specialized in.
Among these streets is the Bazaar-e-Misgaran, a street beginning where the Qisakhwani ends. Established long before the Partition of India, the bazaar in good times had dozens of shops that dealt in sale, manufacture and repair of copper and brass products.
“Not long ago, tourists used to throng this market and would pay handsomely for hand-made brassware and decorated items,” said Ali, recalling the halcyon days when business in the bazaar was good.
For the past ten years, Ali and his sons have been struggling to continue in a business slowly killed by a conflict that has scared away national and international tourists who once came here in droves. Where once an entire market buzzed and echoed with craftsmen sculpting metal into wares that resembled art, Ali’s is one of a couple of shops dealing in brass and bronzeware.
In October 2009, a car bomb in the nearby Mina Bazar killed 137 people. Another bombing in Qissakhwani killed 23 in June 2010 whereas at least 40 persons, including 18 members of a single family, were killed in another bombing in the bazaar in September 2013.
Where Misgaran is now only a shadow of its former self, the outlook for brass and bronze craftsmen working elsewhere is equally dismal. Sher Khan, a mender who has worked at the Afghan Metal Market at Pajaggi Road in Peshawar for over 25 years said there used to be more than 40 workers at the market working once, working round the clock to meet the high demands for their wares.
“We now only have 4 workers as others have switched to more profitable professions,” said Khan.
Khan said the copper and brass items made in Peshawar are of two kinds: Decoration items and household utensils. Customers mainly seek engraved brass bowls, brass angels, food steamers, pots and pans and the all-time favorite Russian Samovar used to brew green tea in the qahwa shops that abound around the old city.
“The brass and copperware made by old artisans of Peshawar could not be matched anywhere in the country,” said Sher Khan, proudly indicating the products at his workshop. “In time, they became synonymous with Peshawar.”
Rukhsana Khan, a customer at Ali’s shop, told News Lens Pakistan that she used to be a regular customer of Ali but the rising prices of copper and brass items have forced her to switch to steel, silver and plastic items for domestic use. To keep up with the market trend, Ali and his sons have been forced to shift to cheaper manufactured items.
“These days our customers ask for silver and steel household utensils,” said Saad Khan, son of Mohammad Ali. “They are now our main source of income. No one asks for brass and copper utensils anymore.”
Khan said prices of copper and brass have surged and are four times as high as the prices of silver and steel, creating a decline in demand.
“I would not let my sons adopt this profession [of manufacturing brass and bronzeware] as at it doesn’t have a bright future,” said Saad, suggesting that what was once a trade and a craft that the family took pride in now stands abandoned in the face of market forces and conflict.
“Back in 1958, we were awarded an honour certificate at the West Pakistan Handicrafts Exhibition in Lahore for the best copper products,” recalls Saad.
He said the government should provide patronage and platform to help exhibit products of skilled craftsmen at national and international level to save their fading art.
“By bringing peace to the country, controlling the prices of brass and bronze and providing platform to exhibit the work of craftsmen, the government could help restore good times to our trade,” said Khan.