This Pakistan-Based Design Collective Is Preserving An Ancient Art

BY Aisha Zaman / Jan 28 2018 / 15:18 PM

Lél, a mother and daughter’s design collective located in the city of Peshawar is redefining stereotypes by preserving the ancient art of Pietra Dura with a contemporary twist, writes Aisha Zaman

This Pakistan-Based Design Collective Is Preserving An Ancient Art
Photography by Mehlum Sadriwala
Lel's Toucan miniature tile featuring agate, lapis, jade, and marble pietra dura

Peshawar, a mythical name that enchants visitors with it vibrancy and 2,500-year-old history, also alarms by its recent political upheaval. It was once celebrated as the city of artisans. More than six centuries after it was built, the city’s finest mosque, the Mahabat Khan Mosque, constructed by the governor of Peshawar under the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, still enthrals through its wonder and beauty. People run their hands over its marble walls and wonder at the incredibly detailed and intricate designs carved within.

Painting in Stone

Mahabat Khan Mosque's ceiling is embellished with elegant frescoes in geometric and floral motifs made with pietra dura technique

The art of pietra dura, or stone inlay also referred to as parchin kari (‘driven-in’ work) in South Asia, is the technique of inlaying semi-precious stones in marble. Devised from the ancient Roman opus sectile technique, which found its revival and highest pinnacle of development with the Florentines during the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century, this act of meticulous cutting and fitting of stones into intricate and exquisite forms was synonymous with the act of painting – ‘painting in stone’. During the same century, the pietra dura technique would extend to Russia, Iran, and under the patronage of the Mughals, journey across to South Asia into Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. The impressions of this beautiful art can be seen today on the Taj Mahal in Agra, Sheesh Mahal and Jahangir’s tomb in Lahore, to name a few. In contemporary Pakistan, Lél (which is the Persian word for mountain) draws upon these trajectories and heritage to fashionable works of art in stone.

Painting in Stone

Lél's Bird of Paradise decorative object made in pietra dura tile and rosewood, price upon request

Over two decades ago, the collective’s founder Farhana Asad was trawling through the antique bazaar in the heart of Peshawar’s Walled City. The old quarter is a labyrinth of narrow streets skirted by colonial houses lined with enticing market stalls, which are also characterised by the Afghan refugees who poured into the city in vast numbers following the Soviet invasion and subsequent war in Afghanistan. A small marble box with a gleaming mosaic lapis eagle caught Farhana’s eye at one of the stalls. Upon inquiring about its fabricator, she was guided to the home of an old Afghan man and a tiny studio bursting with exhilarating works in stone inlay. The craft, he acknowledged, had been passed down his family through generations.

Painting in Stone

A stone workshop in Peshawar

For Farhana, who had trained in stained glass techniques, this proved to be a transformative moment and the beginning of an exciting artisan-designer relationship that would span decades. The chance discovery of a handcrafted box served as impetus for her to begin learning techniques of pietra dura with the master artisan. In a largely male-dominated field, due to the tough conditions of managing heavy stones, she broke barriers and continued to evolve her passion and in the following years, set up a workshop in one of the oldest living cities in South Asia, Peshawar. There, she formed a collaborative liaison of learning from the master artisans and training local craftsmen and Afghan artisans escaping the war across the border.

Painting in Stone

'Sar-e-sand' accent table made with Lapis mosaic and rosewood, Dhs 6,600

“To create works of beauty, to conserve a centuries-old art in extremely violent times in perhaps one of the most insecure settings in the world, is a therapeutic experience,” acknowledges Meherunnisa Asad, the other half and creative director of Lél. Farhana and Meherunnisa, both from Peshawar, view this undertaking of the preservation of an ancient cultural tradition as a healing mechanism, a way to sustain belief in something that goes beyond the devastation of the region’s sustained conflict, war and migration. To the Afghan refugees who Lél works with, “it [the project] goes beyond the simple security of employment – it is a craft rooted in what they call home, that which is familiar, the mountains – the heart of stone,” claims Meherunnisa,  “where so much is lost in movements and migrations, there is yet something of history, of culture, and of home, to which they are able to hold onto.”

Painting in Stone

Founders Meherunnisa Asad and Farhana Asad

After graduating with BAs in Architectural Design from the National College of Arts (Lahore), Meherunnisa studied at the Pratt Institute’s Graduate School of Digital Arts (New York) and received an MFA in 2007. After a stint in a Manhattan architectural firm, she returned to Pakistan as a senior conservation architect on the Conservation of the Lahore Walled City project at the Aga Khan Foundation’s Historic Cities Programme. She fondly recalls, ‘While growing up, I often watched my mother source semi-precious stones from merchants in the Walled City and use them to create the most intricate inlay patterns. I often thought to myself, ‘Why does she choose to work in such a difficult medium?’ 20 years later, I find myself doing the same!’ Having been inspired with working in conservation, Meherunnisa realised the importance of preserving traditional arts, and began training with her mother to learn pietra dura.

Painting in Stone

Marble lined entrance to the Mahabat Khan Mosque 

“You can’t help but be inspired by the general creativity of the city; it’s the energy, history and craftsmanship,” with Meherunnisa elaborating that the unique national treasure housed within the old city, Sethi Mohalla (‘Sethi Residences’), has been a monumental source of inspiration. Ever since childhood, she used to visit the area and to this day, it stands as a testament to days gone by when stories of distant lands were narrated over cups of green tea, when caravans of traders stopped in the city while travelling from the Central Asian grasslands to the Indian plains. The embellished residences of one of the most powerful mercantile families of the city, the Sethis. They were famous for their abundant riches and were deeply influenced by the architecture of Central Asia, transmitting their impressions as they adorned their abodes as the epitome of Peshawar’s residential architecture.

Painting in Stone

Lél's modular tables made in a serpentine pietra dura and scaglioli with silver cloisonne, Dhs 16,500

“Cutting and placing stone to the precision of a hair’s breadth is no simple task,” states Meherunnisa. Materials used include semiprecious stones such as onyx, jasper, agate, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, malachite, serpentine, sandstone, and locally-sourced coloured marble such as Mardan pink and luminous Ziarat white. Generally, new artisans train as apprentices for a year, working on simple designs and progressing from there. Such delicacy and drive is required with pietra dura. And, she adds after some musing, “They have a very natural, intuitive way of cutting stones. Every detail is a movement of someone’s hands. Revealing beauty in the rough façade of stone is a poetic process. The artisanal work gives our products more personality than precisely-cut flawless stones.”

Painting in Stone

The mosque was built in the 17th century and is named after Mahabat Khan, governer of Peshwar. The facade is embellished with floral and Arabesque motifs in marble

One of the most important and interesting aspects of Lél’s vision is its view of the future. In many ways, its eclectic mix of contemporary designs with ancient craft accurately reflects the brand itself. With determined spirit over the years, Lél has cultivated a product line that ranges from ancient Florentine patterns, Iznik and Islamic motifs, to modern florals and geometrics. Meherunnisa has introduced semi-precious jewellery and a contemporary line of inlaid objects and decorative surfaces; lamps, bowls, boxes, bookends, coasters and other objects. A vivid new energy is also being drawn towards the team’s practice through international presentations of their work at design shows in Italy, Turkey and the UK. Meherunnisa has introduced semi-precious jewellery and a contemporary line of inlaid objects and decorative surfaces. The main philosophy of the brand is to savour the process of the work, the exceptional material and craftsmanship of the region. 

Painting in Stone

Lél's creative director Meherunnisa Asad; photographed in the atmospheric 'Sethi Mohalla' area within Peshawar's Old City. Wardrobe courtesy of Generation Pakistan


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