Graveyard sculptures a dying Kalash art

By Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro

ISLAMABAD, JAN 10, 2010: The tradition of making wooden statues of ancestors to honour the memory of the dead is still observed among some of the Kalash people of Chitral. These statues, locally called Gandao, can be seen standing over the graves in the three Kalash valleys of Birir, Rumbur and Bomboreth.

The practice is on the decline as the Kalash people gradually lose their distinctive culture due to increasing exposure to the outside world.A few families have recently erected gandaos on the graves of their elders. Faizi Kalash has erected two gandaos of his father and uncle in the Brun village, Bumboret valley. One reason for the decline in the old tradition is the shortage of wood carvers who used to carve the statues.

Now among the craftsmen who remain in the profession are Yasir Kalash and Bhai Kalash in Brun village of Bumboret valley and Rehmat Wali Kalash in Rumbur are more well known. Rehmat Wali is renowned for making impressive wooden statues. He lives in Kalashgram village in Rumbur valley which was once home to many wooden statues and Kaundriks (triumphal posts). But today they do not exist and are preserved only in the memories of the people. Rehmat Wali believes that there were more than 40 gandaos in different villages of the Rumbur valley which were stolen and sold to smugglers of antiques.

The most highly prized gandaos were those of Rambur carved by Khush Baig, Amir, Achayak and Mahamurat and his two sons. Those were also taken away as well as the mounted gandaos of Khush Baig and Amir.The frequent theft of these cultural items discouraged the profession as people stopped spending on the old tradition. In the past people used to go to Prasun and Basghal valleys of Nooristan in Afghanistan to make the gandao of their ancestors. Both valleys had celebrated wood carvers.

The father of Rehmat Wali also went to Prasun to learn the art of gandao making.Rehmat Wali Kalash learnt the art of making wooden states from his father who was also a very famous wood carver. Rehmat Wali is handicapped but despite the disability makes gandaos for both commercial and non-commercial purposes. Mostly, foreigners purchase and value his work. They do not pay much yet the wages are sufficient to meet his needs. At present he has nine gandaos in his show room.Rehmat Wali’s distinction as an artist lies in his ability to carve the statues from a single piece of wood. Only the artists of the Prasun and Bashgal valleys have this special talent.

He has brought some innovation in his work. Mostly the mounted or seated gandaos wore turbans which symbolised power, bravery or influence that the deceased exercised over his community in the valley. However, Rehmat Wali has made gandao of horsemen with a cap, a woolen cap that is still worn by the Kalash people. The cap has foldings on the front with slits on the sides. The horse has two heads which is a symbol of power in Kalash culture. One can find depictions of the horse’s head on many sanctuaries of the Kalasha.

The horse retains an important place in Kalash thought, although, it is virtually impossible for the present day Kalash to keep horses owing to scarcity of grazing fodder in the valleys. The presence of the divine is symbolised by wooden heads of this revered animal in the sanctuaries of Sajigor, Mahandeo, Jestak and others. The sanctuary of the Mahandeo is called Malosh. These shrines are located in different villages of Bumboret valley. However, the most prominent is situated in Brun village.

Mahandeo (great god) has a marked character as virile warrior god, who protects the crops, birds, and hunting. He is, in fact, the protector of Kafir villages and Kafir territory as a whole.The Jastak han (the village temple) has on the other hand a feminine personality. She is protector of the home, the family, and the private life, pregnancy, birth, children, love, marriage sickness etc. The ‘kafirs’ hold funeral ceremonies at the Jestak han. As soon as anyone dies in the village, the corpse is placed in a rough wooden coffin and brought to the temple.

The innovation introduced by this artist is a gandao without a turban or cap and with its mouth hung open in awe. This reflects according to the artist the lost Kindom of the Kalash who used to rule over all the present Chitral.At present, there is only one gandao of Pilin Baig which remains standing in the Kalashgrum cemetery. Pilin Baig was the grandfather of Rehmat Wali. There is need to preserve this art and patronise the remaining artists.

The Lok Virsa can do a lot in this respect. The handicapped artist Rehmat Wali and other artists who are keeping the tradition alive need to be helped. An exhibition of their art at the Lok Virsa can go a long way towards the protection of this dying art. —Dawn

To see Rehmat Wali’s Art Click Here


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