Unmindful of the many unkind glances that come his way Zahid Hussain silently continues to do what he is best at – carve idols of gods and goddesses -- in an otherwise famous art and culture address of Islamabad.
A man of few words Hussain hardly every looks up when the holier-than-thou visitors shower him with unholy looks and tap their cheeks with a “tauba-tauba”.
Thirty-something Hussain is one of the four proponents of the ancient Gandhara art in the country. He learnt the art of making idols twelve years ago and now retails his wares from Lok Virsa.
It is difficult to get Hussain talking. “I carve on Schist stone. I get it from Swat Valley,” he tells me reluctantly.
I wonder if he has ever been threatened or attacked for making ‘murtis’. I wonder if his family approves of his art. I wonder if he will teach his children his art. I wonder who his clients are.
I bargain for two beautifully etched Gandhara boxes and soon Hussain decides to talk. “The stone is available in three shades -- green, gray and black. It’s not easy to carve on stone. Even little details take up an entire day,” he offers showing me a chipped nail and his slightly gnarled fingers.
I notice the many Buddhas and other gods and goddesses forming an interesting backdrop in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. “I get the stone cut and set in the quarry and then I start work on minute details. It is a tedious process,” he explains.
“There are only four of us in the entire country who practice this art,” Hussain informs. Not surprisingly a little box embellished with Gandhara art costs up to Rs 1000. The bigger ones can cost up to Rs 2000-Rs 3000. A small Buddha bust costs about the same, and the idols are priced at Rs 5000 upwards. Apart from idols, Hussain also makes vases and wall hangings.
Hussain’s thin and haggard frame suggests that the going has not been good for him. “There are hardly any buyers from amongst locals. Very rarely I get a Pakistani customer who takes interest in the idols,” he said.
Yet there is no dearth of people who raise an eyebrow at his art and lecture him on what awaits him in the Hereafter. “Sometimes they try and argue with me that this is against Islam. It is difficult to convince them that practising this art is not against the spirit of Islam,” he said.
What about his family? Do they lecture him too? “They have accepted me, but they are not happy. I seem to have embarrassed them.”
Has he ever been threatened for making idols? “No. My seniors in Lok Virsa appreciate my art. No one can threaten me here,” he said.
The silver lining in Hussain’s career is the fact that he retails from Lok Virsa and his clients are primarily foreigners. They adore his Buddhas and also other idols. “It’s mostly the foreigners who buy the idols. They love Gandhara art,” he declares.
By now Hussain and I are friends. He leaves his seat and shows me his “good” pieces explaining why they were his favourites. He also agrees to be photographed -- posing with all his exquisite pieces.