16 June 2021

Wall Paintings of Sindh by Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro

Secret treasures

In India, Sindhis are most often seen as a mercantile community – hardworking and enterprising, but almost entirely focussed on material gain and pursuits, with limited interest in art and culture. Sindh itself, the ancestral homeland which the Hindus left after Partition took place in 1947 and to which they have almost no access today, is seen as a hot and dusty place of limited opportunity. So this book is a real eye-opener which showcases a very unexpected dimension for Indian Sindhis to understand something about their lost heritage.

In 1998, early in anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro’s career, a field visit took him to the necropolis of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro, where he saw many beautiful paintings on the exterior and interior walls of its monuments. He could see that they were crumbling and in urgent need of restoration. Feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the art around him, feeling equally disturbed that it would all soon be lost, Zulfiqar resolved that he was going to travel all across Sindh to seek out every other similar site he could find, and record whatever he saw in them. This book is a result of many fulfilling journeys the author made over more than 20 years, to do so – and a great gift to people who are interested in the history of art, and in particular the history of the art of Sindh.

What I learnt from this book is that Sindh is strewn with monuments of many kinds and these include tombs, places of worship, and palaces. Most of these are filled with works of art, and besides architectural flourishes, ceramic embellishments and tiling, many of the walls are covered with paintings too.

In many places, Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro noticed that in the process of maintenance of the tombs by their followers, they were whitewashed on the inside, and the paintings were damaged. For example, in the tomb of Mian Yar Muhammad Kalhoro in Khudabad, Zulfiqar found it all whitewashed except for some paintings which may have required too much effort to reach. From these traces, he deduces that

“the whole interior of the tomb was adorned with stylized flower vases, fruit dishes and a variety of flowers covering every panel, soffit, niche, squinch and arch recess of the tomb.” 

His research indicates that the art was a tradition of long-standing, but very little of what was created before the seventeenth century remains and this book largely covers art of the Kalhora, Talpur and British periods of Sindh’s history. Many of the previous era, glimpses of which sometimes pop up in historical records, no longer exist.

Zulfiqar has covered tombs of rulers and tribal chiefs, as well as the tombs of Sufi saints, and the book has excellent illustrations of the structures as well as of the art inside them. 

Royal tombs, Zulfiqar points out, are not embellished with figural motifs, except for birds. They carry gilded Quranic verses in striking calligraphy; traditional geometric patterns; and floral, vegetal, plant and tree motifs. The lily flower, Zulfiqar points out, is a favourite motif of the Kalhora artists in both paintings and glazed tiles. Zulfiqar also explains the symbolism of other favoured motifs such as the cypress tree, and varieties of birds and flowers. Monuments of other rulers and saints, however, carry all kinds of figural depictions including scenes of a bird feeding its offspring, rooster fight, mourning scene in a tomb, action-packed animal fight scenes, hunting scenes and battle scenes, as well as representations of cultural activities, such as dance, music and sports, and many romantic folk scenes. In all, they provide a rich illustration of the social and political life of Sindh. There are even tombs which also show domestic activities such as dancing, cooking and churning, such as the tomb of Othwal Faqir, located south of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro’s shrine. In fact, locations of each monument have been meticulously provided – a poignant resource for the many who may want to visit but are unlikely to ever be able to do so.

Through Zulfiqar’s commentary, and through the rich colour schemes of the illustrations, we get a sense of the people of Sindh and their daily occupations through history. He has also linked these paintings with recognized schools of other neighbouring regions, and compares their features. All these give us a rich visualisation of various historical events as well as folk stories and together they bring alive folk romances, battle scenes, and a broad spectrum of social life in eighteenth-century Sindh.

Zulfiqar has detoured with extensive coverage of the folk tales he found illustrated, sometimes two or three adjacent inside a single monument. Along with the commentary and symbolism, he has also recounted some of the most loved folk tales to accompany the illustrations, and these add depth to his book.

We also learn from this book that Mihrab, the arched niche on the qibla wall that indicates the direction of prayer in every mosque, is also seen in the monuments of Sindh. It was a common feature in the tombs, and evolved into the depiction of actual mosques. Many tombs carry these and most tombs built during the Kalhora, Talpur and British periods also depict Makkah and Medina.

I was also intrigued to observe the presence of Khudabadi on some of the monuments, because this was a script thought to have been developed and used by the Hindu traders of the province.

Most of these art treasures, Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro reports, are in sad repair. In the twenty years of his quest, he has seen them decay before his eyes, under the ravages of extreme climate. It is sad to think that in the decades to come, most will vanish, unrestored, and live on only in the pages of this book. It’s not just the government which is responsible for the neglect – but who can blame needy peasants who till the protected land close the beautiful monuments to fulfil their simple needs?

What I learnt from this book moved me deeply. What I saw and read made me feel connected with a precious and distinctive heritage which has been frittered away and is only saved from complete obliteration by books like this one.

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