By: Tom Cole
The market in and the study of Baluch carpets have evolved dramatically over the past decade. Even a symposium dedicated to these pile rugs and flatweaves from eastern Iran and western Afghanistan has recently taken place, an unimaginable event a few years ago when Baluch rugs were often given by dealers to buyers of costlier weavings. But many specialist collectors still demonstrate an undemanding level of aesthetic awareness, paying lip service to the quality of affordable but pedestrian examples of the genre.
My first Baluch encounters occurred in the early 1980s at Adraskand, Inc. in Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. At that time, Anne Halley was assembling her acclaimed collection of Baluch rugs and Michael Craycraft was engaged in creative Hajji Faizullah and his brothers manned a small shop in Quetta’s Suraj Gunj Bazaar. Their association with one of the groups confronting the Kabul regime was well known, and the huge amounts of cash at their disposal led to talk that they had been given license to operate with impunity, using the rug trade as a front for their activities, which offered material support to the fundamentalist resistance to the communist puppet government in Kabul and the coalition regime which followed.
Their tiny cement cubicle with rugs piled up along the walls and a dim light bulb hanging from the peeling whitewashed ceiling was hardly an ideal atmosphere for rug appreciation. A Pashtun tribesman from Kandahar, with no background in the art trade and addicted to opium, Hajji was always huddled on a cushionin the corner beside an electric heater, a blanket wrapped around his hunched shoulders, drinking tea. His appreciation of tribal rugs was minimal, preferring ornate Safe home a few weeks later I realised that this was a carpet I had to have. But I was unable to return to Baluchistan for another six months. In the meantime, rumours had spread throughout the market in Pakistan. Dealers in the Peshawar bazaar whispered about a fantastic rug of great size and beauty, and a few foreigners had ventured to Quetta to see it. But none had pulled the trigger. So I paid Hajji the money and with some difficulty carried the carpet to Peshawar and shipped it back to California.
Even then I did not appreciate the true magnitude of the rug. Its sheer size was obvious, but its history, and the composition of the design remained enigmatic. Special circumstances accounted for its entering the market. Originally belonging to a Khan’s family in the Chakhansur region of western Afghanistan, south of Herat and close to the Persian border, and in their hands since it was woven, it was first taken to a small Baluchistan village between Quetta and Nushki, where the Khan and his family sought refuge, then on to Quetta.
Rugs of this type have been referred to in Afghan marketplace vernacular as “Taimani”, an attempt to indicate their unmistakeable Afghan provenance, but an inadequate attribution based solely upon a slightly coarser weave type. The palette of the true Afghan Baluch weaves (including the Taimani) is never so saturated, nor as diverse as those from Chakhansur, while the mainly dark red and blue tones of Khorasan pale beside similarly patterned rugs from this region.
The people of Chakhansur are said to be ‘cousins’ of the Sistan tribes. musings on tribal rug classification. My initial interest was kindled there, but my real initiation into the world of Baluch rugs occured a little later in Baluchistan in southwest Pakistan.
Unusual circumstances dictated the direction that the region’s rug trade was to follow during the 1980s and 1990s. War raged in Afghanistan, and Baluchistan’s villages, towns and its only city, the provincial capital Quetta, overflowed with refugees. Trade in arms, financed by the parallel trade in drugs, flourished, financing the struggle in Afghanistan against the Soviet invaders and their communist vassals. As the refugees’ need for cash increased, a trade in antique rugs and textiles also developed. But only those with cash could participate, and the only people with cash were drug dealers and gun runners.
Persian town carpets to the coarser weavings of the peoples of Central Asia, but some of the best Baluch rugs in Pakistan passed through his hands. One day in December 1994 he took me up to the roof to look at a carpet which could not be properly seen within the confines of the shop. We climbed the crumbling stairs to the top of the one-storey building. The cold, clear winter air and views of the city and the surrounding snow-capped mountains were refreshing, but any preconceptions of what I might see were immediately dashed. There lay a rug of unimaginable size, unbelievable colour and unexpected design. My senses reeled as my mind struggled to assimilate the information when, in response to my enquiry in Farsi, “Chan ast?”, Hajji uttered what seemed to be an unbelievable, certainly unprecedented, price. No one had ever asked such a sum in Pakistan for any rug, and few Baluch weavings in the international marketplace had ever achieved such a level.
The Chakhansur origin is important in understanding the rug in art historical terms. The so-called ‘crab’ border is a ‘classic’ configuration depicting a convergence of animal heads around a central motif, often an ashik device or floral element. This scrolling dragon head/serrated leaf border also occurs in Transcaucasian rugs, and within the Baluch context is often associated with ‘Timuri’ weavings from Khorasan.
The field design incorporates both Timuri ‘shield palmette’ elements and the hooked forms of west Afghan rugs generally known as ‘Mushwani’. Such synthesis defies conventional wisdom. The more formal, evolved aesthetics of the Chakhansur weavers’ northern neighbours, with ‘classic’ themes executed true to the Khorasan prototype, are combined with the aesthetic and chromatic sensibilities of their tribal cousins from Sistan in the west. Their use of colour is less restrained than in Khorasan. Indeed, the total embrace of a diverse palette is a distinguishing characteristic of this group of rugs.
A study of their weavings, including flatweaves, supports this suggestion, as they show shared tastes in palette and design, albeit with some divergent traits as well. In this carpet we find a true confluence of traditions, with ‘Timuri’ themes in conjunction with the striking palette of Sistan and the boldly articulated hooked medallions of the ‘Mushwani’. This has produced a true masterpiece of woven art, transcending the Baluch aesthetic as it is generally understood. Such a grand and beautiful carpet raises the bar for our evaluation of Baluch weavings as a whole.