“Keeping the Ancient Art of Rogan Silk Painting Alive”
(PhD, MSc, BSc, MM, ACP)
As a cultural heritage landscape the Buddhist Monastic settlement in Bamiyan, Afghanistan was one of many functional dwellings and creative workspaces occupied by Buddhist Sangha. Traces of resin, plant oils and ochres were found, resembling any modern-day artist's studio. It is believed that these Buddhist artists applied paint to walls but also to textiles and other materials during experimentation and the development of the first oil paints and subsequently made their way into local tribal arts. Today, we can view the techniques used in the earliest oil paintings in the ancient city of Peshawar, Pakistan. Here, one remaining family practices an artistic technique called 'Rogan Silk Painting.' Rogan is the Persian word for ‘Oil.’ In the tribal region that straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pathan people point to Rogan Silk Painting as the earliest form of oil based art that dates back to a time before Islam and at the peak of trade over the Silk Roads. Making plant based oils for decorative arts was once an ancient practice of the Afridi Tribal communities of the Hindu Kush. The art was also known to several families of Hindu origin who became skilled in the free-hand work of Rogan painting. Rogan oil painting has also spread as far East as Gujerat India where the Muslim Khatri family produce handmade and printed Rogan Islamic art tracing back some four hundred years. In Peshawar, Pakistan the eldest son in a long line of Rogan artists, Fayyaz Ahmad, has spent his life struggling to keep this fading art alive, and today his hard work and heritage is gaining recognition once again. Keeping Rogan art alive in Pakistan has been a struggle of persistence, the family burden of tradition but also the love for an ancient traditional meditative practice that still has much to offer the modern world.
Key Words: Intangible Cultural Heritage, Buddhist Heritage, Rogan Silk Painting, Silk Road Arts, Bamiyan, Peshawar, Gandhára
Oil painting is undoubtedly at the apex of the art world in terms of artistic value in the modern day, yet little is known about its true origins. The emergence of oil painting has been widely misunderstood and misattributed throughout history. While it is often identified as an art form of the European renaissance period, its true origin is rarely well-communicated with Asia being the birthplace of oil painting long before Europe. Oil paintings originated in Afghanistan as far back as the 7th century, with the first evidence being documented in Buddhist Bamiyan. The Buddhist cave paintings, murals and sculptures featured natural pigments bound in plant-based oil, gums and saps. Techniques of thinning and blending oils to create varied hues characteristic of oil painting were mastered through the hybridisation of Asian and Persian styles over time. Throughout the centuries, the art form has evolved into what we know today as oil painting, gradually spreading to Europe through the myriad of trade routes. The lessons that local Asian artists drew from their surroundings including the forest, mountains, nature and spiritual world views set oil painting in Asia and Europe on different trajectories. What is central to knowledge is that the arts of Asia and Europe have developed with differing centres of attention. European art focuses on real life, the object, the sense of the artist and time, and detailed and individual expression of moods and emotions. Whereas the focus of Asian art is on a transcendent spirit and movement without constraint and ego. Shade and shadow was not the central concept. Asian arts offers a different space in the painting that provides depth and complexity; it is the emptiness of the real world. It is not designed to be seen through the artist's eyes at a specific time.
Over 700 years of oil-based art in Asia remains untold, and much more remains to be uncovered. This chapter takes us on a journey through time, revealing part of the story of oil painting through the ancient plant-based oil painting techniques of "Rogan Silk Painting." "Rogan" being the Persian word for oil. We begin in the Buddhist Monastic Sanctuaries of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where the first known plant-based oil paintings were discovered as recent as 2008. These paintings dated to approximately 650 CE, but even more significant is the site itself which is not simply caves but art studios. The 600 CE period was the peak of the Silk Roads trade and the emergence of globalisation through a network of trade routes. Until more recent times, a return journey from China to Europe could take as long as nine years.
Peshawar and its ancient history is central to Buddhism, in the Gandara Civilisation, Sikh and Hindu communities while also being a centre of Pashtu Muslim Society. Plant-based oil paints remained in this region of South Asia, along the Silk Roads from Peshawar to Bamiyan, and can be seen in two distinct textile painting techniques that we explore in this Chapter. One, an oil-based block printing using thickly heated oils on cloth printed in geometric patterns and was the art of the Afridi tribal communities referred to as "Afridi Lac Cloth." The other oil painting on silk uses a traditional freehand technique and is centred on paintings depicting nature, spirituality, plants, dragons, birds, religious deities, Sufi symbols and calligraphy. This was a practice of only a few Peshawari families who created and traded the Rogan artworks in the markets of Peshawar and some who were known to travel, plying their art across Northern India. Unlike Buddhist Bamiyan, which faded as a centre of arts and textiles, Peshawar continued to be a centre of trade and a melting pot of religions, languages and arts, crafts and artisanal practices, that remain today.
Within this chapter, we journey through the link between the Buddhist Bamiyan and the Afridi tribal freehand artists of Peshawar, the Afridi tribal communities. The heritage story of the Afridi tribes also dates back to the pre-Islamic times and the peak of the Silk Roads. The Afridi are the keepers of the Khyber Pass, the main travel route linking Afghanistan with India through modern-day Pakistan. It is said that no trade has ventured through the Khyber Pass without their knowledge and approval. The tribes were and, until recently, remained the suppliers of plant-based oils for Rogan artists such as the Ahmad family. The Afridi were intimate with the alchemy of extraction and creation of the thickened oil base for Rogan silk painting and there one cannot consider Rogan painting without considering the Afridi tribe.
Similarly, the freehand artistic technique of Rogan Silk Painting remains but the skill is retained only by one last artist, Fayyaz Ahmad. The home and workshop of Fayyaz is situated in one of the oldest corners of Peshawar City, inside the Lahori Gate. The Ahmad family's practice of traditional freehand silk painting has been kept alive by a small but steady demand from foreigners in Pakistan. Despite its heritage, this demand has only allowed Fayyaz Ahmad to continue but not to expand his practice. However, the history of Rogan Silk Painting is well worth exploring. What opportunities are there for Rogan Silk Painting to re-emerge? While Rogan Silk Painting is not the luminous monumental wall paintings of the European renaissance, it has a lot to offer the art world in filling a gap in the knowledge of arts. Still, as a practice, it is an intricate, skilful, and meditative art that can add a delicate, elegant feel to the world of modern art.
2. Rogan, the Oils and Ochres
As numerous artists and scholars have pointed out over the years, as a way of telling stories or depicting objects, oil painting is almost outlandishly inefficient. In reality it is a very slow way to perceive and present a figure. Yet, that is what makes it art, it opens up the mind to a story and when we view an art work there are no doubt as many interpretations, ideas and imaginings as there are people who view it. The value of oil painting can be in the story of the art and where it emerged. Beyond this we also note the mesmerising technique use in Rogan Silk Painting.
Along with the oil-based paints identified in the Buddhist Monastic settlements of Bamiyan, there were also traces of resins, plant oils and ochres, and no doubt the same would be found in any modern-day artist studio. From this, we can determine that the Buddhist Monks of this era experimented widely and acquired skills, knowledge and techniques from passing crafts-folk, wayfarers, and traders that ventured through the Monastic settlement along the Silk Roads. While the plant oils of the day were local plant seeds, such as poppyseed, walnuts and perilla oils, the plant-based oils used in Rogan arts today are drawn from the flax seed, which produces linseed oil. For some specific work, such as a block print, castor oil is also used because it is a much easier process to produce painting oil and is more viscous when using a stamping technique. In the past, the resin was also used by traditional shoemakers for shoe repair. Today, Sadat Shah is the only artisan manufacturing oil-based resins from flax seed in Pakistan, and Fayyaz Ahamad, the last Rogan artist is his only customer.
To make the oils in a consistency suitable for Rogan painting, the linseed oil (flax seed extract) is treated at a temperature above 107 degrees Celsius (225º F) in a process that can take from six to eight hours, depending on the attentiveness and skills of the maker. The linseed oil transposes into a resin as it is carefully heated and cooled until the consistency is formed. The process is done by hand and by eye, as Sadat Shah adjusts the heat in an unscientific fashion although producing the oil to the correct consistency is both challenging, laborious, and dangerous. Once the oil reaches a temperature above 150 degrees F (65C), the linseed oil begins to thicken. Once it reaches 225 degrees F (107C), it begins to polymerise. The linseed oil can combust at 548 degrees F (286C), so the resin producer must monitor the oil as it continually transforms throughout the process. It is not difficult to see a more effective mechanised, safe, and efficient method developed to make the Rogan paints. Making the oils is dangerous, and the toxins released require heating in open areas. Fayyaz Ahmad explains that this is why the oil was never produced in Peshawar; his family only bought the oils from the remote tribal areas where they were freely made in quantities.
Once the resin is prepared, colours can either be mixed with ochre before painting, creating a pallet of colours or the painting is mixed with the natural oil and the ochres infused with the oil in the hours before the oil is completely dry and hard. The colours used in Rogan art in previous times would have been vast, through a range stemming from various hand-ground earthy coloured ochres. Fayyaz remembers that some of the colours he used in the early times of his apprenticeship came from Afghan travellers. The yellow, red, sienna (a reddish-brown natural clay containing iron, manganese and clay), black ochre (a natural black clay containing iron oxide) to Persian green. Today, Fayyaz Ahmad has passed through phases of popular modern paint colourings in powder form that are imported from China before returning to hunt for hand-ground local ochres. His Rogan work also includes stone sediments from the Jeweller's Bazar in Peshawar (Namak mandi), allowing him to experiment with the past traditions of using semi-precious and precious ground stones to colour the oils including Lapis Lazuli, jade, emerald and ruby.
The oil used in Rogan Silk Painting is heated and thickened to prevent the oil from running in the cloth. The oil paint dries by oxidation, which occurs once oil meets oxygen and produces a chemical reaction. Still, when the oil is polymerised, the artist has a greater opportunity to work with colours. The oil has already transformed from liquid to gel in the heating process and can be worked with as it continues to harden completely. Oil paint has a much slower drying process, allowing the painter to spend more time on detail and colour. How the technique of thickening the oil developed was likely an evolution stemming from making plant-based resins for myriad other uses beyond painting. As oil paint reacts when brushed onto silk, the only technique imaginable without a primer or resist is polymerising the oil and applying it as is seen in Rogan. The alternative is the printing method, as seen in the Afridi style of Lac Cloth production. If the oil is not polymerised, then painting the silk with a brush with any detail would require a type of resist or Gutta to form a barrier on the outline of the oil paint, preventing it from bleeding. Fayyaz and the Afridi traditionally use a brush, but this is to colour the oil after the neutral paint design is applied. The use of brushes and resists are a modern addition to the process of oil painting and one that arrived much later through the introduction of the Gutta plant from Indonesia around 1400 CE.
There is likely much that has been lost from Rogan Silk Painting over the years, but we can also see that the limits of Rogan Silk Painting are yet to be fully realised in a modern artistic context. For example, we see some changes occur as the art of Rogan migrated to Gujerat, India. Due to its availability in Gujerat, the Khatris family use castor oil instead of linseed oils. In contrast to Ahmad and the Afridi, the Rogan artists of Gujerat mostly colour their oils before application. Their style is centred on geometric patterns with a basis in their Islamic heritage, and they use a mixture of handwork and pressed prints. Although it is possible, across all the Rogan painters in South Asia, Rogan painting lends itself best to thin lines and not broad strokes or highly textured patterns. While the oil is thickened, it can easily be loosened or thinned by adding a touch of lime powder; it can be heated and returned to liquid, coloured, and applied with various tools.
3. The Journey of Rogan, the Painting Oils
In 1935 Walter Benjamin criticised mechanical reproduction for devaluing "the aura of an object d'art." He proposed that the unique value of the "authentic" work of art has its basis in ritual and the location of its original use. Despite their authenticity, many artisanal practices have failed to find an enthusiastic space in the modern day with rapidly changing globalised markets. Yet, a few authentic ancient skills miraculously remain in rare pockets across the globe. In many parts of the world, traditional crafts are being revived from what we presume are their most authentic selves. When we start putting ourselves in the paduka sandals of the people of the past, we find that "authentic", as Walter Benjamin proposed, is, in fact, a challenging term in the context of intangible cultural heritage. What is authentic when we consider the historical context of arts such as oil paints that are developed and displayed in various, times, places and ways.
Artistic practices have many variables, and even the simplest of traditional skills can be littered with new technologies that change and develop a craft from an artisanal technique to the arts either incrementally or through great leaps of change. We see inputs vary as an artistic practice moves across new cultural or environmental boundaries and is used for spiritual practice, leisure or work. Materials such as ochres, pigments and dyes often change with the natural geological landscape and biology. Likewise, textile patterns and colours change with cultural and economic factors. Demand and exposure to other cultures result in different styles and fashions as unique designs influence creators of arts and new patterns emerge. As change occurs, new technologies are introduced, old practices fade out, and cultural links to the past disappear. Much like languages, numerous arts, crafts, and artisanal traditions fade with little trace of their existence. This was almost the case for Rogan Silk Painting. From what is known and understood, this mesmerising oil painting "technique" had remained relatively close to its original state over the centuries. This is primarily due to its cultural use and isolation within Pathan, Muslim, and tribal societies.
Despite its long history in South Asia, Rogan Silk Painting as an oil-based art is not well known or understood outside of the western areas of South Asia, encompassing Peshawar, Pakistan and the region of Gujerat in India. Recently in India, Rogan Silk Art returned to favour with the attention of President Modi of India. President Modi offered a gift of Rogan Art to the American President, Barak Obama, during his trip to India in 2015 thus raising the local profile of this fading art. Despite this recognition, Rogan Silk Painting has been perceived less as a form of 'oil painting' and more as a textile art with its geometric patterns and motifs that are largely representative of its Persian heritage. A heritage representative of the early times of oil painting styles but differing significantly from that of the Ahmad arts of Pakistan that reveal many Buddhist, Hindu and Peshawari elements.
Until recently, art history linked the origins of oil paints to the artist Jan Van Eyck in the early Renaissance period of Europe 1410. Until recently, Van Eyck was considered the inventor of oil-based paints, but now we more correctly refer to him as; the artist that developed modern oil painting techniques within Europe. In the "Lives of the Artists", Giorgio Vasari originally credited Jan Van Eyck as the inventor of oil painting. Vasari also invented the term "Renaissance," as he outlined the progression of the arts in Europe through Giotto, Brunelleschi, to Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci. However, Vasari gave too much credit to Europe and his Renaissance period. In fact, oil-based paints were well documented before Van Eyck by the Theophilus Presbyter (1070–1125) in the "Theory and Practice of Medieval Arts." Theophilus Presbyter compiled detailed descriptions of various medieval arts in the "Schedula diversarum atrium" (the List of various arts: likely collected between 1100 to 1120).
Theophilus Presbyter was a 12th-century German monk who referred to linseed oil as the basis of Monastic arts. He primarily documented its use for painting as a tough waterproof cover for exposed woodwork, especially for protecting wood exposed to the outdoors. In all he highlights this the longevity of oil paints, lasting centuries without corrosion. Oil painting and other artistic techniques were well known to the early Christian Monks, and a great deal of art was practised within Christian Monastic settlements. While Theophilus documents the modes and parameters of making "Art" from learning various techniques to the creation of form, he had little to offer on the origins of such arts; thus, our knowledge of oil painting production remained limited. For Monks, these arts were clearly a spiritual activity, and not simply static elements or exercises to be employed thoughtlessly.The link from the Monastic spiritual practice of oil painting may have been passed from Buddhism to Christian Monks, but this remains to be explored.
The writing of Theophilus on arts and oil paints was largely unknown until the author and poet Gotthold Lessing highlighted his work in the 1800s. This led to a string of additional writers linking the origins of oil painting to the 12th Century. Numerous researchers have highlighted how oil was used to detail tempera paintings, for example, Cennino Cennini, described the painting technique of tempera, where light layers of oil were used as early as the 13th Century. He too underlines how the slow-drying properties of organic oils were known by early artists, but they were not the preferred medium, as oil paints were difficult to master, which meant a scarcity of supply for those wishing to pursue the arts in oil. Before the 12th century CE, we needed to look further East than Europe; to the complex interactions and dialogues that flowed from east to west along the Silk Roads. We now know that this is where much of the credit for the arts, culture, and philosophy we directly associate with the European Monastic knowledge originated. The eastern contribution and artistic perspective are primarily absent when documenting the roots of cultural heritage of Europe. When we do so, we fail to acknowledge much of the story of humanity and the arts. In "Re-Writing the Renaissance", Brotton (2016) argued that much of what we admire in the renaissance is owed to Islamic cultures of the east and beyond. In fact, all of Europe once looked to the east to define itself, both artistically and culturally. This is evident in the proliferation of Islamic artefacts in the interiors (sculpted, crafted and painted) of European churches and grand European homes and estates. Elaborate Afghan rugs containing Persian motifs are seen in Renaissance paintings and elude to a constant stream of material goods and technical skills that were imported via the ancient Silk Roads and into Europe, which underpinned the Achievements of the age.
Through modern dating technologies, we now understand that oil-based painting was alive and well as early as the 7th Century CE. In 2008, scientists from 'The National Research Institute for Cultural Properties of Tokyo (NRICP)' working with UNESCO, sampled some of the paint that remains on the walls of Bamiyan's labyrinth of caves and corridors. The results were highly significant to our knowledge of art history, Buddhist cultural heritage and this region of South Asia. Far from simply being cave art, they identified traces of resin, plant oils and ochres which lead us to envisage similar rooms to any modern-day artist's studio; rather than primitive cave art. This discovery took our knowledge of the birth of plant-based oil painting back in time from the previously proposed 12th Century Europe to about 650CE at a time of the Gandhára Civilisation and the peak of the Silk Roads.
The Gandhára Civilisation was a relatively small area, being a geographic triangle west of the Indus River and bounded in the north by the Hindukush. However, its influence extended beyond its boundaries to Bamiyan, the most westward reaches of Buddhism some 450km west of Peshawar. The ancient city of Peshawar is Central to Gandhára and no doubt central to the Silk Roads trade as the gated rest stop before the journey through the Khyber pass. The earliest written accounts of Bamiyan were documented in the pilgrimage of Xuanzang, the Buddhist Monk, although he explained that the Gandhára of the 7th Century CE was mainly in decline, he also gave an an impressive description of life, and Buddhism at the time. The dominant influence in Gandhára was Mahayana Buddhism, which focused on a healthy life, a balance of spiritual and social aspects of living, promoting a balance of spiritual and earthly living. The Sangharama were the centre of delivering this healthy life, which included the arts of sculpting and colouring as they created places of prayer, spiritual practice, and great beauty and tranquillity. Xuanzang, wrote about Peshawar in several travel logs, where he highlighted the peacefulness,it’s the Great Bazaar and Caravanserias. He also underscored Peshawar as a centre for manufacturing cloth although he gave little detail on the arts beyond shrines, sculptures and temples throughout his journey.
The artworks and materials discovered inside the Monastic settlements of Bamiyan provide evidence that point to monks being very dedicated to the colour and vibrance of painting; using ochres and oil paints, amongst other artistic pursuits, as a medium to express their religious devotion. For example, we know that the Bamiyan Buddha statues were rich with mural paintings representing Buddha-like figures, bright-coloured persons, ornaments, flowers behind hanging curtains. The Giant Buddhas are undoubtedly the most visible artworks of the 6th to 7th century Buddhist Era. The larger male, referred to as Salsal (light shines through the universe) and the female Shamana (The Queen Mother), featured brightly painted faces and hands as well as robes, that revealed innovative colour experimentation. It has emerged that from the results of these early Buddhist artists and their arts, it is easy to imagine how early plant-based oils developed within textiles, which in turn facilitated easy transportation beyond Bamiyan on woods, bark, and fabrics which were plentiful at the time. In the case of Bamiyan, the plants used for oil extraction are believed to have been derived from walnut or poppy seed; however, oils extracted from other seeds, such as the flax plant, replaced them over time.
From the technique of extracting plant oils to decorate textiles in Bamiyan the process made its way through Afghanistan to Peshawar via the Khyber Pass. Here we see oils being adopted by the earliest tribal communities of the area, who used Rogan to make elaborate patterns on clothes, including wedding dresses and dowry gifts that were presented to brides. Court historians and Generals of Alexander the Great passed on accounts of the Afridi tribes that inhabited the mountainous regions of the Khyber Pass as far back as the 3rd Century BCE. We can only speculate how the use of oil painting came to be central to the Afridi tribes, perhaps in encounters with Buddhist arts, a technique learnt as guardians of the Khyber Pass, moreover, we cannot rule out the possibility that the tribes of the Khyber region first developed plant based oils themselves. As with Buddhist arts, Afridi’s utilised the brightest colours and developed decoratively designed patterns and motifs. Today, the patterns and bright colours traditional to the Afridi heritage remain but the Rogan painting on the Afridi Lac Cloth has been replaced with embroidery. In Peshawar, Mastan Shah Afridi recently retired from his work in Rogan Lac Cloth decorative painting in 2022. He explained that the demand had all but died in the last two decades. He occasionally returns to his small Rogan arts shop when he receives a rare wedding gift request to produce a decorative shawl or traditional textile. Still, in general, his artisanal work is at an end. His retirement also ends the connection to the supply of Rogan paints although the technique is well known to the Ahmad family. The retirement of Mastan Shah Afridi, also leaves the knowledge of traditional “Rogan Silk Painting techniques, myths and design knowledge in the hands of one remaining artist, Fayyaz Ahmad. Like the Afridi, the Ahmad family have a centuries old heritage of Rogan Masters that persists through the family line of Rajput. Rajput is derived from the Sanskrit “raja-putra,” which means the 'son of a king.' Rajput is a member of one of the clans of western, north and central, India and which prior to 1948 included Pakistan. The Rajput are often posited as the descendants of the Hindu warrior who became prominent during the time of the development of oil paints and the Silk Road trade around the 6th BC onward.
4. The Last Artists of Rogan Silk Painting
Having established the heritage of Rogan Painting from the Bamiyan to the Afridi Tribes and the Ahmad family of Peshawar (the early Rajputs) to the Khatri family of Gujarat, India, we must now consider the future of this form of South Asian art. Over the years, many artists and artisans have moved away, transitioned, or retired from Rogan work, and although a niche market for this kind of art has been created, it has remained limited. It is believed that the decline began in the Peshawar region in the 1980s with the introduction of new techniques in embroidery and modernised production equipment. There is no doubt that this is why many Afridi people moved away from the Rogan painting process at a large scale. Accounts suggest that the demand for traditional Afridi Lac cloth producers declined to so few and only a request for one-off pieces for customers from Peshawar to Kabul and occasionally to areas of Kashmir that this form of livelihood could not continue in the current region's economic climate.
Both retired, Wazir-e-saqafat (Master) Riaz Ahmad and Mastan Shah Afridi of Peshawar point to the old Rogan painters as the most sought-after and highest-paid artists and artisans of their time. In the 1950s, when Riaz was an apprentice, there was a high demand for hand-painted silks and the Afridi tribal Lac Cloth. However, with the influx of modern prints and machine-made embroidery from the East and the ever-changing fashion styles, the demand for Rogan art rapidly declined. Master Riaz emphasises that the value of Rogan art lies as much in its heritage as it does in the production of the art itself. Riaz Ahmad also explains various contributing factors, including the conflict in Afghanistan, which restricted the movement of people and goods across the region. It contributed to their traditional work becoming increasingly endangered. Yet, Pakistan's cultural departments have given Rogan little attention in favour of European painting styles and relegating it to handicrafts. The Ahmad family began marketing their paintings to foreign visitors to ensure the craft remained alive. They centred their work on traditional designs such as the Peacock, the tree of life, and the dragon and traditional Islamic styles from geometric patterns to spiritual scripts and Sufis.
Master Riaz Ahmad, now 76, fondly reminisces when his younger self made the equivalent of USD6 per day as an artist in the 1960s. He is proud that his craft kept his family housed and clothed and remained in the house they inherited from their forefathers. Master Riaz recalls his grandfather's account of 8-10 generations in their family's lineage, although many names now elude him. Miran Mohammad Ahmad, Sher Mohammad Ahmad and Mian Mohammad Ahmad's names persist as part of Ahmad's oral history. Still, he also knows this line through the Rajput, the name printed on the identification documents from colonial times.
Today, Fayyaz Mohammad Ahmad is the last in his family line. He inherited the tradition of Rogan Silk Painting from his father, Master Riaz, and grandfather, Miran, as a child. In 1996, with the ever-declining demand for art in Peshawar and a flood of mass-produced textiles from other parts of Asia, Master Riaz and Fayyaz sought outlets to sell their art. They embarked on a journey to Islamabad in search of opportunities. They were offered a chance to showcase their works at the government-created exhibition space for the arts of Pakistan called "Threadline Gallery." Operated under the Ministry of Industry, beyond art, the gallery was established to preserve and promote Pakistan's history of handicrafts and textiles. Despite its effort, Threadline Gallery, in 2003, terminated its activities after a brief and intermittently successful period. Following this, Master Riaz, with hands not as steady as they once were, returned to Peshawar to re-establish his home studio.
Fayyaz Ahmad explains how his father's small niche in his hometown of Peshawar did not provide enough income to sustain the two artists and Fayyaz's expanding family. Thus he was forced to continue to exist with the small but steady demand from foreigners for his Rogan Silk Paintings in Islamabad. Fayyaz rented a small room and worked as a shop assistant in craft stores during the day while carefully crafting his pieces at night. Although Fayyaz encountered challenges in building a client base for his unique Rogan Art locally, he found that foreigners had a special appreciation for his works. Despite the work turnover, he failed to advance and struggled with creativity while beginning to feel a painful sense of loss for his family heritage. At this time, and with several children of his own, he decided he would be the last in his family to preserve Rogan Silk Painting by declaring that none of his children would bear the burden of his family's heritage as he had.
For Fayyaz, keeping Rogan Silk Painting alive was not exactly intentional. A profoundly religious man, he often posits that it is the will of Allah to both gift him and burden him with Rogan at the same time. Upon reflection, he also knows that he has been involved in Rogan Silk Painting since childhood and knows nothing else. During moments, he also emphasises that he was gifted in art and skill through his family but not a business. In the early 2000s, many Pakistani artists rose in popularity, but Fayyaz went in a slightly different direction rather than joining this society. He began experimenting with cheaper synthetic colours to replace the natural ochres. He moved from quality silk and mixed silk materials to lower quality fabrics and reduced the price, even dabbling in "Truck Art" and painting small works as souvenirs. His focus narrowed, and he moved away from traditional Asian designs to painting anything foreigners in Islamabad requested or found interesting.
However, in 2011, Fayyaz's persistence and growing networks in Islamabad began to come to fruition. He and his artwork were taken in by a Pakistani businessman with a high-end furniture store. The support was not purely altruistic; the businessman admired Fayyaz's art but was equally interested in his grasp of the English language and growing connections with the Islamabad expatriate community. Fayyaz was given ten square feet (1 m2) of floor space to create and display his craft. He used this space to sell his unique Rogan Silk Paintings, but much of his time was spent attending to foreign customers who visited the store. With time, Fayyaz made several connections within the Islamabad diplomatic community. In 2019, this culminated in the wife of a Japanese Diplomat in Islamabad purchasing various works. Impressed by the art's Buddhist elements, cultural comparability with Japanese crafts, and meditative nature of the art itself, the diplomat sponsored Fayyaz to undertake an official visit to Japan. This allowed Fayyaz to share his skill and technique with numerous Japanese artists under "Arts of the Silk Roads."
Unfortunately, the journey to Japan was not to be a door opening to expose Rogan Art to the world as he had imagined. In February 2020, Fayyaz Ahmad travelled to Tokyo, but within days of his arrival, the exhibition was cancelled as he faced COVID-19 and the strict Japanese lockdowns. During the lockdowns, he saw the departure of many foreigners from Pakistan, and Fayyaz lost many of his connections. Within days the last Pakistani Rogan Silk Painter was back in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he was again faced with lockdowns, and the chance to return to Japan was doubtful. However, upon his return from Japan to Pakistan, the "Fading Cultures Project" focused on keeping the art of Rogan Silk Painting alive. The team have since been working with Fayyaz Ahmad supporting his work and researching and documenting the journey of arts and the Silk Roads while he has returned to the traditional techniques of Rogan Silk Painting. In 2023, Fayyaz Ahmad is commissioned to complete a series of traditional works representing the story of oil painting, Rogan Silk Painting, Peshawar, and the Silk Roads. While there is still much to do, Fayyaz can now experience the satisfaction of slowly seeing his art recognised and recorded beyond the gates of Peshawar. Through the Fading Cultures Project, Fayyaz runs workshops, sells artworks and has time to prepare for local and international exhibitions where he can share his cultural heritage. While no one can guarantee the success of an individual artist or assume what success really means in the eyes of an artist, Fading Cultures ensures that gaps in the knowledge of the history and heritage of plant-based oil painting are being stitched together. Further, it provides that the knowledge of ancient artistic techniques is available to other artists to take authentically or in new directions.
In conclusion, the ancient art of Rogan Silk Painting has remained alive and vibrant throughout centuries of cultural transitions, the creation of borders, and cultural and economic changes in this ancient corner of the world. There are still many arts, artisanal traditions, and crafts to be rediscovered in the many hidden cultural pockets. By advocating and promoting Rogan Silk Painting through exhibitions, sales and workshops, and passing the skill and knowledge onto others, the culture and the beautiful art form may be preserved and continue influencing artists. Still, we must remember where it came from and the families and crafts-folk who the art represents. The art represents and blends together cultures that have walked the Silk Roads, prayed and dedicated works to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, ranging from Persian, Afghan and Pakistani to Indian and South Asian. There is a responsibility to preserve, continue and expand the beauty and history of this unique art form for generations to come.
5. At the Centre of Rogan Silk Painting
The traditional works highlighted by the artists in this chapter include the “Tree of Life” which is a concept commonly found in many spiritual and religious belief systems, art, and literature. In his study as an apprentice Rogan Silk Painters were taught that it represented the interconnectedness of all life and the cyclical nature of existence. As an important symbol in ancient cultures, the Tree of Life often represented the link between the visible mortal realm and the invisible supernatural realm, connecting all living things within the space between heaven and earth. The symbolism of the Tree of Life is common to their Rogan artistic culture and folklore where the roots and branches representing different aspects of life. The canopy of the Tree of Life can represent protection, food, and shelter; the trunk is seen as a pillar of strength, while the tree's roots symbolize stability. Some stories even tell of a magical “Tree of Life” that can heal all wounds and answer all questions.
“The Peacock” is a popular motif in Islamic art and has become an iconic symbol of the Islamic faith. The Peacock is perceived as a symbol of beauty and royalty, and is commonly used to represent celebration and joy. The Peacock is also associated with immortality and spiritual power, which are important themes in Islamic artwork. Additionally, the Peacock is believed to be a symbol of paradise in Islamic culture. The “Dragon” is a sacred creature, often seen as a symbol of power, strength, and protection in Eastern religious and cultural lore. In Buddhism, the Dragon is particularly important. It is an esoteric, otherworldly being and is believed to be the manifestation of the enlightenment being whose nature surpasses the understanding of humans and possesses miraculous power. In Buddhism, the Dragon is believed to be a manifestation of Dharma, which is the path of spiritual wisdom and enlightenment. The Dragon is seen as a powerful symbol of protection and guidance and well known to Rogan Silk Painting where the Dragon are often depicted in their artwork is a Buddhist symbols of enlightenment, like the lotus flower or a dharma wheel.
“Geometric shapes” and patterns are used in Islamic arts because they represent the unity of God, the belief in one god and the infinite possibilities of existence. They can also symbolize harmony, balance, and beauty. Geometric patterns often occur in nature and this suggests divine creation as well. Additionally, these patterns can illustrate complex geometric theorems and mathematical concepts without the use of words; an alternate way to understand and appreciate science. The geometric shapes on Afridi lac cloth are symbols of fertility and prosperity. They are believed to bring luck and abundance to whoever wears them. They also represent the four classical elements (earth, water, air and fire). The traditional dress of the Afridi people hails from an ancient culture that is found in the mountainous areas of Northern Pakistan. The Afridi wedding dress features brightly coloured and intricate designs, which includes an assortment of symbols and motifs with strong cultural significance. Red is the most prominent colour, symbolising love and joy, while purple, green and yellow are used to express a desire for a warm and prosperous union. Blue is said to be associated with good health, while white and black represent power and protection from bad luck, respectively. The designs also have deep religious meaning, featuring the crescent and star, which represent the Islamic faith, and floral motifs which are associated with the beauty of nature. These symbols, along with vibrant colours and ornate embroidery, create a unique look that is representative of the unique culture and heritage of the Afridi people. The traditional dress is a source of pride for those who wear it and a reminder of the centuries of heritage.
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