The fading decor of ‘Kanas’ (cornice)

Reminiscing the memories of days gone by

It all started with a simple human need for shelter, providing protection from weather conditions or some possible security threat. It evolved from simplest mud houses or caves to modern architecture which caters to both the needs and desires of human life. Besides being the most rational beings of the animal kingdom, humans are also the most aesthetic beings. They even painted and decorated the walls of their caves. Having your living environment beautified is almost an instinct.  House decor and accessories have developed as a significant industry and business sector. Thinking of availing the summer vacation for some innovations in my home decor, I was reminded of the most decorative feature of simple houses in many parts of rural Pakistan including my ancestral valley of Soon Sakaisar. Architecture here was generally very simple. A standard house had barely one room  or may be two big ones depending on the financial status of the owners. Most of the day was spent in the courtyard where a small kitchenette was built in a corner. Not much furniture was needed in this simple lifestyle, except for a few charpais or stools. The affluent land-owning families had some chairs and tables also. Being a barani (rain irrigated) land, the life of inhabitants was a real tough one. They literally grew wheat and other crops from stones as the land was  rocky and was made cultivable only through years long ploughing toil. There weren’t many employment opportunities available due to absence of any industry (till date) and development. The British colonisers utilised the genetically strong physical structure of the valley men and recruited them in the Royal Indian Army. These soldiers were perhaps the first ‘modernising’ agents who brought back some simple items like some crockery and a bit of an acquaintance with the western culture through their interaction with British officers. No one is precisely sure about the origins of ‘kanas’ as a part of lifestyle but it seems the word shaped in native accent is derived from the English word ‘cornice’. To cope with the severe winter conditions a fire place was built in that only room of the house and above that an extra molding was built for mainly decorative purpose which also served as a shelf for utensils not in regular use. The decoration accessories on display were brass and bronze utensils. It included big and small pans, plates, glasses, pitchers etc. They were placed in a row on that molding which was covered by a hand embroidered cloth. The most popular ‘brand’ of embroidery was the Sindhi stitch, which it seems was introduced to one of the ladies who lived in cantonment residential area and made friends with a neighbour lady from Sindh. This stitch then became the standard one for embroidery on pillow covers, bed sheets and particularly the kanas cover. Interestingly the cloth was almost always a bright red one. Red is considered in this region as the colour of happiness, festivity and marriage. In apparently dismal and toughest of living conditions humans still think of adding some color to their life. The bride always wore red and girls’ preparations for their married life included preparing bed spreads and kanas covers with embroidery. Another popular pattern used for embroidery was birds. Women are instinctively close to nature and its manifestations. May be in a predominantly patriarchal social system, birds represented freedom, songs and free will. When the cage bird embroiders, it fascinates freedom.
The ladies in our rural regions have to take care of cattle, perform regular kitchen chores, bring water, cut firewood for domestic use, rear children. In short, they are an invisible, unpaid, uncounted integral part of rural economy, but still referred to as the ‘weak’ gender. Their constant labour gives them a unique complexion
A lady’ s most precious assets included some jewellery , these brass and bronze utensils and some beddings, gifted on her wedding by her parents, quality and quantity depending on their financial status. Since women were ‘culturally’ not given their legal share in land and property, these assets defined their economic stature. They would proudly display their dowry utensils on the molding called kanas and will keep on referring to them as their precious assets till their last breath. These utensils were symbols of security for the most insecure stratum of socio-economic structure, the women.  Maintaining these ‘symbols of pride’ wasn’t an easy task. They looked beautiful when they were new but with time their shine faded away. They needed to be polished but there were no professional polishing services in the rural setup. The ladies would take down these heavy objects from the molding for cleaning at least once in a year, normally after the wheat harvest since most of the family events were planned around the harvest season. Farmers are generally in a good mood at this time of the year. When women are happy, they try to express it through putting in even more effort into their daily laborious routine. They would gather lemon peels and would keep curd aside to become sour enough to be used as a polishing agent. Water was already a scarce resource in this region and it was the women who had to bring it from long distances many a time. They would gather rain water in some extra pitchers as a precious resource to be used for chores like cleaning floors or polishing utensils. They took the practice of cleaning the kanas objects almost religiously.
The scarcity of resources had to be filled by putting in some more manual effort. They would keep on rubbing their utensils till they shined as good as new. In this pursuit, their hands which were once soft and tender, would become coarse and rough. In harsh weather regions, it’s only the hearts that can retain their tenderness. The ladies in our rural regions have to take care of cattle, perform regular kitchen chores, bring water, cut firewood for domestic use, rear children. In short, they are an invisible, unpaid, uncounted integral part of rural economy though still referred to as the ‘weak’ gender. Their constant labour gives them a unique complexion and skin texture. They are no doubt the strongest and the most beautiful women. This brass and bronze dish washing had been yet another of their responsibilities. There was in fact a sort of a competition for being the best at shining the utensils. Some of them even prepared a home-made wall paint called “choona” and would do the wall painting themselves. Having their only room all cleaned up, covering the kanas with a freshly washed, red embroidered cloth and placing the shining utensils back meant a house renovation done, with very little finances consumed except a lot of human (female) labor and love for your family. That one sentence by someone to appreciate that it all looked clean was enough a reward. I asked someone from my village to send me some photos of kanas and I was told that it would be difficult to get them as people have stopped making them anymore. Some older houses still had them and one photo I received showed plastic plates and dishes placed on kanas. I was rather disappointed as kanas meant those shining metallic accessories. I was told that it is becoming more and more difficult for modern day girls to maintain a kanas and those heavy utensils. Most of them have been sold out and villagers have moved to stainless and plastic kitchen accessories. In fact some non-stick pans and cookers also have been introduced thanks to many of the workforce now working in urban areas and many being migrated to Canada, some European states and Gulf. One of the old ladies was critical, as per practice, about the changes in lifestyle, accusing young girls of wasting a lot of time on watching television and self-grooming, therefore kanas was now out of fashion. She thought that those old heavy pans were like ‘gold’, which was now replaced with ‘iron’, and the way now cooks cook food quickly, the food just couldn’t taste as good as the one cooked on a slow fire. She thought that all values old were gold as compared to modern day cheap ones like iron. I didn’t challenge her, sometimes it’s better not to question some last fantasies. I am happy for girls of my valley are now studying and becoming more enlightened and empowered in economic and political arenas. I understand they don’t have the time for so much of the work their grandmothers and mothers did. Technology has facilitated kitchen work as well. I confess, I will miss the kanas as a decoration in my village houses. I have my mother’s metallic pans that I have placed in a kitchen shelf. I don’t use them because they are not very handy, and I have better choices available. I am perhaps the last generation that still can’t dispose them off, for not everything in life is to be judged for its practical value, sometimes it’s the emotional value that matters.

The writer is an assistant professor of Political Science at Kinnaird College. Her email is ahawan99@gmail.com

Published in Daily Times, June 23rd 2018.