This Craft Revivalist Is on a Mission to Uphold Heritage and Pluralism

Author and social entrepreneur Mehr F Husain is chronicling and reviving the Subcontinent’s artisanal heritage.

Journalist Mehr F Husain’s life took a turn towards heritage conservation – and especially the crafts and textiles that are indigenous to the Subcontinent – when she began research for a book.

“Why can’t India and Pakistan come together over these ancient fabrics and craft that have stood the test of time?” asks the Lahore-based author and founder of a social enterprise that makes trendy accessories using traditional crafts and fabrics. Indeed, her new book Pakistan: A Fashionable History is a case in point: it includes a foreword by Indian couturier Tarun Tahiliani.

Besides working in prestigious Pakistani publications for 13 years, Mehr’s work was featured and quoted across borders, even in an FPA Award nominated article in The Economist’s 1843 magazine.

After founding Pakistan’s first weekly humour blog whilst living in Saudi Arabia, Mehr decided to branch out into the world of books. Since then, she has had two short stories published, one of which is now part of the English curriculum in Pakistan schools.

A wooden block used for blockprinting

Raised in England and Saudi Arabia, Mehr also had a stint in standup comedy, tackling issues related to desi motherhood. “I feel South Asian women have been suppressed for far too long when it comes to the ‘holy’ topic of childbearing and being a ‘maa’,” smiles the mother of two boys.

In 2014, a mammoth book she edited, Multan: A Spiritual Legacy, was published and presented to Queen Elizabeth. It is the only book that documents all the Islamic, Hindu, Sikh and colonial structures, shrines and temples in Multan, one of the oldest cities of the world.

“The book also features my maternal family shrine in Multan,” adds Mehr, who cites historical evidence to advocate for pluralism and multiculturalism in modern Pakistan, and for Indo-Pak peace.

Next, she took up the task of writing Pakistan’s first book on fashion, published in 2020. “Since a large chunk of the book is about 1990s fashion, it was only fitting that Tarun Tahiliani – the sole Indian designer to have held a fashion show in Pakistan – write the foreword as a poignant reminder of what India and Pakistan had achieved and what we have lost,” says Mehr.

Pakistan: A Fashionable History by Mehr F Husain

In fact, it was after losing two book deals with India due to politics that she decided to set up her own publishing house, Zuka Books. “I’m immensely proud of our authors and the taboo topics they’ve decided to write on. The saddest part is that, though these books will resonate with Indian women, there is no way for them to gain access across the border,” she rues.

Another path also opened up to Mehr while writing her book. She founded a social enterprise working with khadder and mulmul, both homegrown materials in South Asia. Using these along with the ancient craft of blockprint, Mehr works with a local nonprofit that teaches women from minority underprivileged backgrounds how to stitch and embroider.

Her label Zuka Accessories primarily makes mulmul scarves and khadder pouches. “My heart leaps with joy and sinks with sadness when I see the same motifs being used on the other side of the border – I fail to see any difference. We in India and Pakistan must come together and develop our shared heritage,” she says.

Blockprint on mulmul scarves and khadder pouches

Mehr is also media advisor to a nonprofit working towards digital literacy in Pakistan’s rural areas. “These are the same areas where Sikhs and Hindus also worked and embroidered the same patterns, using the same craft of gotta, mukesh or crochet with the same patterns that have been passed down from generations – mother to daughter, sister to sister, friend to friend. We teach them how to use smartphones so they can earn directly, free from exploitation,” she explains.

The 36-year-old is passionate about not only preserving the arts but also using them as a medium to address and eradicate cross-border conflict. “Whether it is craft, the written word, or designing fashion items, what is crystal clear to me is our heritage is the only thing that can enable us to retain sanity and push for a progressive future. Nationally or cross-border, it has always been art, literature, music – everything that forms heritage – that has linked communities and will continue to do so,” she avers.

Mehr goes on, “This past year of Covid has proved to us that we are all interconnected and we will ultimately need to change our way of life if we are to coexist and survive on this planet. We humans will die but heritage will live on.”

First published in eShe’s February 2021 issue

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