Persian-Punjabi/Urdu Identities of Traditional Geometrical Patterns Lost During the Colonial Rule of the Punjab (1849–1947)

Keywords: Lahore, mistrī, craftsmen, illustrated manuals, colonial rule


Annexation of the Punjab by the British in 1849 brought about major modifications to the local visual culture. Expecting Indian crafts to remain frozen in time (for several reasons), the colonial administrators and art critics disapproved the changes employed by the craftsmen in their wares to cater to the new ruling class. Among the corrective measures adopted by the government to revive the ‘dying’ Indian art and craft, art schools were set up and surveys were conducted to publish illustrated monographs on individual crafts bringing once strictly guarded trade secrets out in the public. By the late nineteenth century, the ‘native craftsmen’ or mistrīs themselves emerged as authors of illustrated craft manuals carrying instructions in all three important vernaculars, Gurmukhi, Urdu and Sanskrit mixed with some English terms and designs. The most interesting among these publications are a few woodcarver’s manuals that laboriously enumerate a wide range of geometric designs for both architecture and furniture. Each shape, its construction methods and titles are given in an interesting mix of the three vernaculars. These terms were also mentioned by John Lockwood Kipling, the first Principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Art (1876-1893) in his essay on wood carving but abandoned by the time Percy Brown (1897-1909) took over. Except for some, today most of these terms and construction methods are unknown even to the traditional craftsmen of the Punjab. This paper aims to trace the history of traditional geometrical patterns going as far back as Mughal times (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), their references in manuals published by local craftsmen during the colonial rule and the role of British art educators on social memory. 


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Author Biography

Nadhra Shahbaz Khan, Lahore University of Management Sciences

Nadhra Shahbaz Khan is associate professor of art history and director of the Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan. A specialist in the history of art and architecture of the Punjab from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, her research covers the visual and material culture of this region during the Mughal, Sikh, and colonial periods. Her interest lies in investigating levels of human agency behind artefacts and architectural spaces, both as creators and consumers, to understand their political, religious and socio-economic ambitions at different historical intersections. She is the author of The Samādhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore: A Summation of Sikh Architectural and Decorative Practices, a monograph published as the University of Bonn’s SAAC series in 2018 and several articles published in peer-reviewed international journals. Khan has held research fellowships at SOAS, London (Charles Wallace 2010/11), INHA Paris (2015), Princeton University (Fulbright 2014/15), and Oxford University (Barakat Trust 2014/15). She has been awarded CAA-Getty International Program travel grants thrice (2012, 2019 and 2022). She has been working with the Aga Khan Cultural Service-Pakistan (AKCS-P) as Consultant Historian for their Lahore Fort project since 2016. She is currently working on documenting the Sikh collections of the Lahore Fort Museum and the Lahore Museum’s Sikh Gallery for an exclusively designed website and an accompanying catalogue. 

How to Cite
Shahbaz Khan, N. (2022). Persian-Punjabi/Urdu Identities of Traditional Geometrical Patterns Lost During the Colonial Rule of the Punjab (1849–1947). Manazir Journal, 3, 45–63.