Karandaaz Stories

Karandaaz WEC2018 Investee: Lel Collection

July 22, 2019

War can never be counted upon to bring beauty in someone’s life, but in a strange way, that is exactly what happened with entrepreneur and founder of Lél, an artistic collective dedicated to preserving, reinterpreting and evolving the ancient art of handcrafted stone inlay. Farhana Asad, a native of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was an artist by training who stumbled upon a small stone in-lay box created by an Afghan refugee in the back alleys of a Peshawar market in the late 1980s. “Those were the days when Pakistan was seeing an influx of Afghan refugees because of Afghan-Russian war”, recalls Farhana.

In the market I saw a small box at a stall which had an American eagle (in stone) on it. I bought it and asked the seller who had made it. He led me to an Afghan Babaji who said he was the maker. He told me that he had collected small stones to piece together the eagle. I asked him if he had any other similar things and he said yes. That simple “yes” led Farhana to the old craftsman’s house where she saw other things made with the same technique and that’s where, for her, a lifelong passion started with stone. Pietra dura is an ancient 16th century Italian art technique through which precious and semi-precious stones are cut by hand to create unique and stunning designs in marble inlay. For Farhana, in the late eighties in Pakistan, this was about catching the fading wisps of a centuries long artistic tradition that had spread from Italy to the rest of Europe, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and the South Asian subcontinent. “This is not your ordinary coloured marble that you cut for flooring”, says Farhana enthusiastically as she explains the art form.

“This is literally painting in stone.” From that earliest discovery, Farhana dedicated her life to learning about the craft. She read extensively and sought references, and through her persistence tracked down a few more Afghan refugee artisans practicing the craft in Peshawar. She had a certain artistic vision inspired by her research for showcasing this art form, but the artisans that she initially contacted worked exclusively on gravestones. “Back in those days, mostly Afghan refugees who knew this craft worked on calligraphy and geometric designs on gravestones. I engaged them and convinced them that this work had more potential beyond gravestones. There used to be a joke among us where I used to tell them ‘leave the dead; try to make the living happy with your craft”.

And so, Farhana started Lél, which means mother stone or mountain in Persian, from her garage. With two or three workers, there was a lot of experimentation in the beginning. Farhana used her background in art as basis of her inspiration, and inspiration came steadily from a plethora of sources, including embroidery patterns, paintings, and even flowers from her garden. “I would pluck a flower and we would start experimenting on the design in stone, discussing the various stones and cuts we could use.”

These early experiments and prototyping started gaining traction. The first customers were her friends and family members. Material sourcing was one of the biggest challenges she faced despite abundance of marble factories and semi-precious stone sellers in Peshawar. It was male territory that she had decided to enter.

In the beginning when I used to go to marble factories they used to think I was a strange woman, wearing my joggers and a shawl in all sorts of difficult weather, showing up to buy scrap. I used to buy the scrap material for most designs by the kilo and the vendors were amazed because only men want to do this kind of work. I did not get intimidated though and slowly they started to respect my persistence. In the end, two or three vendors truly understood my work and appreciated what I was trying to do. Those are the ones I still buy from.

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Farhana was experimenting with stones from Skardu, Gilgit and even Iran and Afghanistan. Her artisans taught her about the possibilities and limitations of working with stones and marble, and she taught them about colour, balance, design and refined palette to appeal to a discerning clientele base. Together with her small but dedicated team of artisans, smaller exhibitions at friends’ houses led to bigger opportunities, especially with support of Farhana’s growing children. Her son helped her through a path of bigger exhibitions and developing a clientele base. Her daughter, Mehrunnisa Asad, who studied architecture at National College of Arts and in America, also returned from her studies to formalize her mother’s business. She had grown up seeing her mother’s artistic struggles and triumphs, and she was ready to lend a hand to take it forward.

With Mehrunnisa’s inclusion as the Creative Director of Lél, the enterprise was formalized as a business with a work and exhibition model that created new opportunities for the mother-daughter duo. They showed their products beyond Pakistan in Italy, Dubai and London and garnered attention of art collectors, buyers and other artists who wanted to collaborate. Expansion for them meant training more artisans, since this dying art had no natural heirs left.

Farhana was clear and adamant about how she wanted to proceed. “This is an ancient, time consuming and laborious craft, which is sadly dying out across the world. Even in Italy there are only two schools teaching this. For us, this is a passion as well as a social enterprise. We don’t just pocket our profits; we share with them equally with our artisans. We pay them by the piece. But procuring raw materials and paying our artisans so they would keep working was a challenge. We needed funds to grow our work. My daughter decided that we should apply for funding and also make a less expensive line because not everyone could buy the premium quality items. We wanted that no one should leave a Lél exhibition empty handed.” Mehrunnisa’s business acumen had infused new life into Lél, but she was aware of hurdles in funding for women led businesses. “The bank interest rates were enough to turn us off,” she recalls. “But I saw an advertisement for Karandaaz and we decided to apply. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Karandaaz Pakistan, promotes access to finance for micro, small and medium – sized businesses through a commercially directed investment platform, and financial inclusion for individuals by employing technology-enabled solutions. The Women’s Entrepreneurship Challenge is an initiative funded by DFID and run under Karandaaz Innovation component. To Farhana and Mehrunnisa’s delight, they were selected to participate in the Challenge.

“It has been an amazing experience. Two months prior to the pitch day we received trainings in business planning, marketing, sales, legal compliance, finance and accounting,” Farhana adds. “A lot of aspects were touched upon that we hadn’t thought of, and we also connected with other participants of the Karandaaz Challenge and learned from them. It was heartening to meet a lot of women from across Pakistan doing such amazing things. We thought during the trainings even if we don’t get the funds the experience itself is brilliant.”

Mehrunnisa shares her mother’s feelings,

The mentorship and trainings were immensely helpful and prepared us to make a viable business pitch to an expert panel. Additionally with Karandaaz, you have to repay the amount you get but the mark-up is very low as compared to a bank. The training also helped us think about our business in new and innovative ways, and that is not something banks would do!

This funding has helped Lél set up a workshop and studio in Islamabad and reach out to a bigger international clientele base but most importantly, it has helped them revive the craft through trainings of both boys and girls from KP. “For far too long this region’s men and boys have been associated with brutality because of the wars that have been fought here,” Frahana adds compassionately. “My optimistic goal for Lél is to show the world that our Pathan boys and girls make beautiful things with their hands.”

And indeed, a look through Lél’s catalogue of work reveals how Farhana and Mehrunnisa’s vision of drawing beauty from stone and from artisans has been a success. Each piece is a work of fine art, created with colours and facets of nature’s oldest art materials: stones. With Karandaaz, their dual mission of running a successful women led enterprise and providing a skill and economic opportunity to young men and women is no longer only a dream.