Aesthetics of the Urban Poor
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Aesthetics of the Urban Poor

We have a unique vernacular urban heritage, and in this context, Karachi’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural identity needs to be understood and appreciated for its diversity, richness, and pride in their living environment. Aesthetics is a universal trait of human culture that appears in all human societies around the globe, and I am attempting to explore the aesthetics through art and material culture of the underprivileged segment of this city’s citizens: their tastes, perceptions, interests, and activities.

In a Monograph by Michael Wesch, The Art of Being Human: A Textbook for Cultural Anthropology1 (Kansas State University, New Prairie Press), he writes about the ‘art of seeing’, and says, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”  Wesch further says that we’re so immersed in our own ideas and assumptions that we can’t see others. “It can be useful to jump out of the water now and then. This is one of the great virtues of encountering someone or some place that is radically different from what we know. We see the contrast between how we do things and how they do things, and we can then see ourselves in a new light”, he says.

Poverty has a look. An aesthetic. During the decade of the 60s and 70s there was an Art Povera (art for the poor) movement across Europe. It was geared towards blurring the line between the aesthetic realm of art and the realities of living a life with perseverance. Through a handful of biographical interviews, I have tried to situate my subjects in the specific social context of this sprawling metropolis. This brings me to a slight deviation from the focus towards the aesthetics of Karachi’s urban poor to the ongoing misery faced by the climate catastrophe of 2022 in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan and Sindh provinces in the shape of monstrous floods. The victims who were forced to leave their rural and semi-urban homes to move to the metropolis in order to cling to the savage game of survival, but despite death and disease, have their own aesthetic.

From clothes, accessories, decorative items, transport and housing, the aesthetic of the underprivileged is one that has to do with poverty. It is about making do with what is available, or something old and/or something used or even shabby. It is ironic as well as comical that there’s been an approach to fashion that plugs the more financially privileged world by making some things deliberately made to look old or worn. Like most trends, which come back into style every 20-or-so years, the ‘Homeless chic’ that became popular in the 1980s is back again in the West. Baggy clothes with unfinished hems, gaping holes in the tops and the lowers, and garbage bags that can double as waterproof boots when it rains (the poor aren’t trying to be fashionable though, they’re trying to survive), the style has been trending in Karachi as well, claiming its place under the sun by the wealthy and all those who want to be noticed. Poverty’s ‘homeless chic’, on the other hand, remains unnoticed.

Our most intimate bodily needs such as cooking, feeding, eating, dressing, cleaning, washing, resting, sleeping, etc. are a part of our everyday life. Loving as well.  These take place inside the four walls of the house, but one can equally see the makeshift walls, the vehicles used, the clothes worn, the accessories and more, outside the homes as well. They can make art through improvisation. For example, painting the walls of their homes with any bright color that they could find, or using old printed and colored bedsheets combined with keekar branches or palm leaves for creating a vibrant shelter for themselves. Basically, getting hold of whatever is available to make the most from it.

The danger of poverty aesthetics lies in the glamorization or romanticization of poverty. Often times one hears that there is a certain poetry to it, or that they are poor-but-happy. These comments are perhaps meant to justify the system of complete inequality instead of inquiring into it or questioning it. On the other hand, the poor are living life with few resources representing a more natural world.

A decorative arch for a residence in a loft of the Sheetala Mata temple complex. 2009

Religion too has a strong part to play in the aesthetics of the urban poor. Today Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam have the largest populations among world religions, and these three have made monumental contributions in shaping the visual arts of human civilization. Structural elements of the Hindu temples include the base, covered sanctum, and tower superstructure. Temples are elaborately carved with friezes of animals and vegetation as well as decorative arches and frames. A fraction of those elements are sometimes carried into people’s homes, such as a poor Maheshwari man’s abode at the Sheetala Mata Mandir complex in Bhimpura, a poor and old area of Karachi. The religion of the Maheshwari Hindus is known as Maheshpanth. Walking through the complex, where several families reside in their humble dwellings, I came upon this loft where a ladder takes one up to a cramped residence. However, the decorative arch, if seen in isolation, does not in the least present the predicament of the inhabitants living just under and behind it.

Entrance door with hearts, entrance to a house in Junagadh Gali, Korangi. 2008

The hearts on the entrance door of a house belonging to a Kathiawadi Muslim family, who migrated to Karachi and live in Korangi, have been painted red, while the rest of the patterned iron door is in white. This mohalla is known as Junagadh Gali – Junagadh being the name of the state in Kathiawad, India that most of the families living here originate from. The clean and well-organized lane has its own appeal. There are some three hundred houses in Korangi that belong to Kathiawadi families, and a third of these are located in this particular area. Each family was initially allotted a 120-yard plot with one room and a toilet. The structure, including the floor, was katcha at the time, improved and built upon later on as people got employed as either house-maids, labourers or small shop owners. Beautifying the entrance door or façade of the house is not uncommon anywhere, but these red hearts have a special appeal.

Façade of a house photographed in 2019 and 2022. Commune Artist Colony, Miskeen Gali.

Another house, located right across the Commune Artist Colony in Miskeen Gali, off Old Queen’s Road is an eye-catching example, decorated incrementally over a period of time. Since the Commune opened in Sadiq Godown, I have visited it a number of times, and over my subsequent visits there, I saw the façade of this particular house being transformed. It was initially decorated with squares painted at its base in red, yellow and black, and later on more squares were added all over; painted in ivory, pink, blue and green colours. The owner/resident must be adding to the design whenever he or she acquired enough money to spare and buy paint. I have also wondered if the art activities of the Commune has had any impact on the decision or the design? This Gali or lane named as Miskeen (pauper or mendicant) is itself quite telling, with warehouses (or godowns as they are known in South Asia) lining one side of the lane, and a motley line-up of houses of the poor facing those.

Decorative pieces in a home in E.I. Lines. 2022

A Catholic Christian family live in E.I. Lines. There’s an elderly couple and their eight children. The head of the family has been living here for more than half a century. He works as a labourer and is employed by the government. He lays drainage pipes, and lifts and removes cement sacks and construction debris. The family attends the Filadelfia Church and the Awami Church as they are both in the vicinity. The house is located in an extremely narrow but relatively clean lane. It has two rooms on the ground floor with a small courtyard in the middle. The house has been freshly painted although there was no special event that necessitated it. The drawing room has a sofa and a fridge, and the floor has a linoleum covering. There are two entrances from the lane: one leading directly into the room, which is used as the baithak, and the second that leads into the courtyard. A badaam tree, yielding red juicy fruit, grows in the courtyard and has been allowed to break through the concrete floor of the terrace above, to rise into it. Besides the sparse furniture, there are trinkets sold at Christmas fairs that adorn the house here and there. A few bric-a-bracs such as heart-shaped glass baubles with a small-sized ceramic bride and a groom standing in one corner, and a flower basket in the other, are placed on a shelf that holds some crockery. Right above the two glass baubles are kept a ceramic mug and a small vase, and an image or two of Jesus Christ, printed on card-paper, peek out from behind the teacups.

Islam, on the other hand, is strictly aniconic, and images of the Prophet or his kin are prohibited, therefore the emphasis has been on surface decoration. Embellishment on textiles by all economic classes in Pakistan is done with fervour. The well-known Sindhi Rilli can be found in the homes of all economic, linguistic or political backgrounds. In their home the two transgenders offered me a prime place to sit on: a Rilli appliqued with big, bold motifs. This room, in their modest two-room flat in a narrow lane in Mahmoodabad, had one other piece of decoration in the shape of a large vase replete with paper flowers.

Rilli in a house in Mahmoodabad. 2007 (left) and an Iranian Baloch woman seen embroidering floral motifs to embellish clothes, Old Golimar. 2009 (right).

On the other hand, embroidered flowers adorn the dopatta of the Iranian Baloch lady I met, while she was busy embroidering yet another one for herself. She lives in a maze of narrow lanes behind a semi-open area in a low-income settlement called the Hasan Aulia Village in Old Golimar; a stone’s throw from Lyari River. This village is over two hundred years old. The Iranian Balochs who live here see themselves as heirs of an ancient and proud tradition, distinct from Iran’s ethnic Persian population and other groups that comprise the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iranian Baloch often identify with the larger Baloch community that resides in Pakistan and Afghanistan in what is referred to as ‘Greater Balochistan’ because tribal and family lines traverse all three countries. These women perform daily chores of cooking, washing, and cleaning, and in their free time, they either like to sleep or read the Quran, or watch television. Sewing and embroidery are their other pastimes.

A Vaghdi woman embroidering a patch for her torn shirt, Lalu Goth, Landhi. 2010

Likewise, even though they are the poorest of the poor, the Vaghdi women love to embroider too. I met them in Lalu Goth beyond the Quaidabad Bridge in Landhi. The community lives in dilapidated hutments surrounded by keekar trees. Their huts are also made of keekar branches, mats, and old bedsheets. The Vaghdis are considered by many to be the gypsies of the subcontinent. They are good mimics and bird trappers, and form part of the so-called ‘Untouchable’ or Dalit Hindu caste. The Vaghdi women dress in brightly coloured garments. They adorn themselves with metallic and bright beaded jewellery and a lot of silver-looking metal ones. Amulets are worn around the necks and karan-phool in the ears. Many Vaghdi women wear beautiful bangdi on their wrists (the name ‘bangle’ must have been derived from this Gujarati/Hindi word) made from ferrous metals and plastics. Toe rings and anklet kadas known as todas and also jhanjris are worn by all women, poverty notwithstanding.

Art on wheels: Truck Art. 2022

Karachi is a major city centre for ‘Truck Art’ – a folk art, also known locally as Phool Patti, literally meaning flowers and leaves. These trucks, started in the 1920s with Bedford trucks that were imported from Great Britain, plying all over the country, carting goods. The art on the trucks represent the inspirations and imagination of the people at large, and they also show the close bond of the truck owner with his vehicle. A website on Truck Art2 states that the truck is “embellished from bumper to bumper with paint and colourful, sculpted metal is expressive and captivating in ways that few other artistic media can duplicate. Decorated Pakistani trucks declare a dazzling, exuberant artistry that is unmatched on vehicles anywhere else in the world”.

These ubiquitous trucks have given rise to similar decorations on mini buses, used mostly by the masses, and to a much lesser extent on rickshaws. Lately, however, the rich have taken to this form of art, and all kinds of products, ranging from kitsch to tasteful ones are being marketed at prices that are unaffordable to the poor.

In her paper The Aesthetics of Poverty and Social Order3 Julie McClure of the University of Warwick writes about the critical links between society and economy, and that aesthetics is an appropriate way to think about it. She states that “Aesthetics is a coming together of space, and experience and ideas. It is the right approach for poverty research, since poverty also exists at the interface of space, experience and ideas. Both are ways of thinking about the whole and the part, the quotidian and the ephemeral.”

The jigsaw puzzle of all manners of aesthetic elements interpret the urban and semi-urban place like Karachi, where all kinds of hints and traces of previous generations are evident. The amount of consistency and the proportion between the planned and inadvertent elements is not established, but varies according to the changing norms of the communities.

I would like to conclude by saying that there is need to further explore this particular topic, as the above is by no means all-inclusive or comprehensive. I would also like to end by quoting from a column by the Karachi-based artist Durriya Kazi, who in turn has quoted a beautiful Arab proverb: “If you have only two pennies, spend the first on bread and the other on hyacinths for your soul.” 4 The urban poor surely hold those hyacinths close to their hearts.

Images courtesy and copyright Rumana Husain 

Endnotes

  1. The Art of Being Human: A Textbook for Cultural Anthropology by Michael Wesch, Kansas State University, USA, New Prairie Press: https://newprairiepress.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1020&context=ebooks
  2. Pakistan Truck Art: https://pakistantruckart.com/
  3. The Aesthetics of Poverty and Social Order, Aesthetics of Poverty Workshop 2016, Julie McClure, University of Warwick, UK: https://www.academia.edu/27563422/The_Aesthetics_of_Poverty_and_Social_Order
  4. The Aesthetics of Everyday by Durriya Kazi, Dawn newspaper, February 26, 2017

Rumana Husain is a writer, artist and educator. She is the author of two coffee-table books on Karachi, and has authored and illustrated over 60 children’s books. Four of her books have won awards in Pakistan, Nepal and India. She has been a contributor to various newspapers and magazines, and written hundreds of articles, travelogues, art and book reviews, and has also conducted numerous interviews in the print and electronic media.

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