During my Carnatic music classes, I had occasionally heard of theories that suggested commonalities between Indian classical music and Middle Eastern music. In fact, some musicologists also told me that Hindustani classical music and Arabic music had influenced each other.
Whatever the theories, I had always found music of the Arab world beautiful and mellifluous.
So it was with delight and much interest that I watched Sami Al Malood, a well-known musician and musical-instrument maker at work when I visited Bahrain recently.
He was bent over his tools and carefully crafting a musical instrument when we entered his workshop at Al Jasra Handicraft Centre in Bahrain. This is the place to get a quick view of authentic Bahrain crafts, ranging from musical instruments to traditional weaving, pottery, paintings, and so on in the row of rooms each dedicated to one craft.
He was so intent on his work that it was a few minutes before he looked up and acknowledged our presence. He was reluctant to speak but after I told him about how I had been informed of the connections between Indian classical music and Arabic melodies, he became interested and not only talked about Bahrain’s art and culture but also his own work.
I learnt from him and the other craftspersons I encountered as I passed from one room to another at Al Jasra Handicraft Centre that Bahrain has a thriving art scene. The traditional forms survive and the contemporary arts too have many platforms and much patronage, they told us. Over the next few days, as I met other citizens and wandered through the souqs, museums and traditional houses I gathered some details of this kingdom’s rich heritage of art and culture.
Pottery, sculpture, crafting of jewellery particularly related to pearls, products in iron and wood, doll-making, gypsum inscriptions, crochet-work, weaving and embroidery, highly artistic calligraphy...there was such a wealth of art and craft in this country. Given that Bahrain is a cluster of islands, it is natural that this country began to excel in crafts like shipbuilding, pearl-related jewellery and showpieces. Miniature ships are sold all over Bahrain’s souqs and handicrafts centres. There are craftsmen who specialise in making ship models of a large variety.
For over 2,000 years, Bahrain has been recognised as one of the world’s greatest centres for natural pearls. In fact, pearls are often called the country’s national treasure. So, you will still see the most exquisite pearl jewellery and decor items embellished with pearls in the jewellery stores and upmarket stores.
You will also find gorgeous textiles in the souqs. The crochet work is of the highest quality and the embroidery that one sees on fabrics is amazingly beautiful. Pillows and pillowcases with pretty embroidery were aplenty in general markets and boutiques. We saw superbly crafted pitchers and lamps of all kinds as well as wooden boxes and chests (some with several drawers) artistically embellished with metal-work. Figures of camels in all kinds of sizes with many of them sporting richly brocaded cloth on their humps are a popular sight in stores. Perfumes and incense of various kinds are also made and sold all over the country. Artistic representations of various gates like the Bahrain Fort Gate or facades of famous buildings are among the typical Bahraini souveniers you can take home for yourself or as gifts for people back home. How about a bookmark or book index embellished with pearls? This would make for a small, simple, rather expensive but elegant gift. Bookmarks are also decorated in other ways and I saw a profusion of them in malls and boutiques.
Bahraini craftsmen also specialise in the field of gypsum inscriptions. They prepare gypsum moulds and draw minute motifs on them with meticulous care. Pottery has a tradition of thousands of years in this region and is still flourishing and you can find a vast variety of products in the country. In the interiors, you will encounter artisans and can watch them make pottery in the very traditional way by mixing mud and water and using a revolving wheel to shape their products. Bahrain excels in ceramic products and the government encourages this industry, we were told. From incense-dispensers to desktop items and wall-plates, we found a large variety of excellent handmade ceramic creations wherever we went.
Baskets woven from palm leaves are also popular in the country and these products are both highly durable as well as attractive in design. The profusion of palm trees in the country keeps this art flourishing. Along with palm leaves, cloth and beads are used as additional elements to create a variety of baskets. Some of these were so artistic that I thought they were more fit for a showcase than daily use.
The making of rugs and mats is another traditional occupation around Bahrain. These skillfully created products are used extensively to cover the floors in homes, mosques, restaurants, etc.
I was told that in earlier days, markets which sold traditional handmade products scattered all over Bahrain. They would be known sometimes by the names of the specific artisans whose work was on view and sale. So you had the goldsmith market, blacksmith market, and so on. Also, since these sales by a group were held once a week, they would also be known by the day of the week on which they were held. Hence, the Tuesday Market or Thursday market for example. Also, different villages of the islands of the country gradually became distinguished for a certain art or craft. There is a flourishing culture of modern art too, in Bahrain. We saw plenty of these in different media like sculpture and paintings in public places and interiors of homes, restaurants and hotels. There are several modern-art galleries and the few museums of the country also make space for modern art exhibitions.
Today, if you want to explore the art and craft of the country, these are several places you must visit. The easiest option, of course, is the souqs and malls where traditional Bahraini products are widely sold.
Another way to get insights in Bahrain’s art and crafts scene is to visit the old and renovated houses in Muharraq. This was where we saw women engaged in traditional arts. On display in niches in walls were exquisite handcrafted items. We learnt that Bahraini women in traditional families excel in weaving and stitching clothes. They also make artistic dolls of all kinds. The well-known Al Jasra Handicraft Centre is a popular stop for tourists and art enthusiasts. The row of workshops in this much-visited complex has artisans at work as well as finished products on display. From musical instruments and pottery to handcrafted wooden and iron cases and calligraphy (the pride of the Arabian Gulf countries), you can find a wide range here.
An art enthusiast indeed has plenty to see, do and buy in Bahrain.