Interesting article from the revert Muslim who did the interior design for the Masjid and how it all came about.
Also check out the pictures from the link
It’s hard to sum up exactly who Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites is with any brevity. He is a respected scholar and his devotion to art from the Indian and Arab worlds has taken him across the globe in a career that has spanned more than 40 years.
“Basically, I am an art historian,” he says by way of introduction, but this is a typically modest description. Since the 1970s, he has been one of the world’s leading forces behind the renaissance of traditional Islamic and Indian craftsmanship, arguing continually for their protection and that of those who practise them.
He and his team have worked on mammoth projects such as the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur and the Al Masjid al Haram mosque in Mecca. Through his company, Saray, he has also been involved with the decoration of private homes, such as those of the late Sir James Goldsmith and Lakshmi Mittal. “What I try to do is bring back Indian and classical art to the level of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal,” he says.
That is exactly what he and his team aimed to do with their work on the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque in 2005. “I went looking for the job. I came to the mosque when they were finalising the design and got my foot in the door, so we were given the contract,” he says.
This contract was a huge undertaking: 232 craftsmen worked for 14 months on the 1,050 columns for the entrance and side arcades. In the end, the project used a total of 1,136,212 semi-precious stones for the floral inlay of the columns: lapis lazuli, amethyst, bloodstone, agate and red onyx among them.
“We did all the cutting work in India and the marble came from Greece, along with a team of special artisans from India who stayed here for almost a year polishing the stone. We sourced materials from everywhere: Africa, Russia, Afghanstan, India,” Crites says. “Definitely not since Shah Jahan has there been such a project. Our work there was without any doubt comparable to the Taj Mahal, with the same attention to detail. Some of my team were even descended from those that built the Taj, so it really was a magnificent thing.”“The other part that we worked on was the tree of life at the main entrance,” he adds. “I was so impressed with the knowledge of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed; he wanted a design that was profoundly Islamic but also truly original and special.” From the commission, Crites went back to his best ornamentalist in India and charged him with the task of the image itself. “I said forget everything you know about Moghul or Persian art, and out came this wonderful, dramatic design, this tree of life,” he says. “Look at it with the morning light and you will see, it really is an accomplishment.”
He talks of it with evident pride. “Yes, indeed, it was a great honour and privilege. My team were especially touched because of the cultural connection between India and the Gulf. They kept saying again and again it reminded them of the Great Friday Mosque in New Delhi, but that was built over 300 years ago. So for them to be involved in such a project here was monumental.”
At first glance, a life steeped in Indian and Islamic design and architecture seems an unlikely path for someone who was born on the banks of the Mississippi and is a direct descendant of Jesse James. How, exactly, did this intense interest in art begin? “Well, actually I’m part American-Indian, and my grandfather was an amateur archaeologist who used to dig around us for arrowheads when I was a kid. But really, when I was 14 and living in Missouri, a friend came back from India, and that was my first exposure to someone who’d been abroad.
“I went to the University of Chicago to study ancient Indian history and then went to India in 1966 to do my thesis in New Delhi. And that was it. I fell in love. I was hooked and I stayed, which was a big decision in those days.”
He has lived there ever since, having met and married an Iranian woman in Delhi and, in 1970, converted to Islam. “I think there were a lot of people searching for enlightenment and a spiritual path and I think it was also partly from the architectural point of view. Because I loved the art, I began to read about the philosophy. Then I read the Quran and became more deeply involved,” he says. Crites is the owner of workshops not only in Delhi but in both Jaipur and Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located.
It was this great love for the iconic Indian building that led to the creation of his company, Saray (which means “palace” in Persian), in the early 1980s. Before then, Crites had an art gallery in London and was travelling between Britain and India, “but it was becoming harder and harder to find antiques”.
Luckily, Goldsmith heard of his expertise and approached him in 1982 for help on a house he was planning in Mexico. Having discussed the project, Goldsmith commissioned 600 hand-carved red sandstone jali screens and 400 teak window screens for his new beachfront house in the south-western part of the country. “It took 10 months and was my first big project,” says Crites, who doesn’t specialise in the work itself but in the design. It was a big task to drum up the right talent for the job. “I went to the motorway between Jaipur and Agra where there were two workshops and handed out hundreds of photocopies of designs, asking anybody else there if they carved.” It led to a renaissance of the area, or as Crites puts it: “a sandstorm garden”. Now, there are more than 700 workshops in that stretch and a whole, new and thriving community.
After that house, thanks to Crites’s relentless enthusiasm for his work, projects snowballed as he approached people with ideas and word spread. In addition to his work on the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, there have been several other large contracts. One of these was the creation of the 28-metre-high entrance gateway for the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, a job which Crites says was particularly enormous and one that he worked hard to get in the late 1990s.
There is a story about him flinging himself under the deputy prime minister’s car to persuade them of his dedication. Crites laughs. “Well, I needed the contract,” he says unapologetically. “I couldn’t get to see him so I found out where his car came to everyday. I didn’t get hit, really. I was just walking along near it.” It was a gamble that payed off.He lists the work on the pulpit of Mecca’s Al Masjid al Haram in 2000 as another great moment. “As a Muslim, of course it was an honour. Some of the craftsmen on the job said to me, ‘I’ve saved up, can I donate a piece of precious stone to it?’ Because they wanted to feel part of it, it was absolutely wonderful.”
With such significant work under his belt, I ask Crites if he has ever had to turn anything down. “No I can’t,” he says. “It’s about getting the work for the craftsmen, it’s about them.”
“Do you feel a huge sense of responsibility then?”
“Yes I really feel it,” he says. And it’s clearly something that he takes very seriously. “I have 50 master craftsmen that I keep in India all the time and you can’t tell them that you’re going to give them work and then dash that on the rocks.” He relates a story he once used by way of encouragement when work on one particular project was running behind schedule. “I told them that Shah Jahan appeared to me in a dream the night before, and that he was very angry with us because our work was better than his. Then out of respect, I said we would say it wasn’t actually better but comparable,” he says, smiling. “See, they didn’t have the confidence, but I encouraged it. Now I say you’re the best; go out and find work. Some are illiterate but they still have their own websites,” he says in a fatherly manner.
It’s a responsibility that he talks fervently about, and which has led him to Afghanistan in his quest to help restore and protect Islamic art. There, he has recently been appointed as a senior adviser to Turquoise Mountain, a non-profit NGO that is based in Kabul that helps not only to regenerate the Murad Khane area but also to fund an institute dedicated to educating Afghan artists in their trade, whether it’s jewellery, woodwork, ceramics or calligraphy.
“I was introduced to it through an English scholar called Dr Thalia Kennedy,” he says. “She had listened to a lecture I had given at the British Museum on Shah Jahan and architecture five years ago. At the end I had told everyone in the audience that it was their responsibility to give work to these people.” Last year, Kennedy approached Crites saying she had never forgotten his message and invited him to Kabul.
The project there was the brainchild of Rory Stewart, a 35-year-old ex-Black Watch soldier with a long CV. He has worked for the British Foreign Office and has also tutored Princes William and Harry. In 2002, he walked across Afghanistan and wrote a best-selling book about the trip. It was through the royal connection that Prince Charles became involved in Turquoise Mountain. It now receives funding from the The Prince’s Trust organisation and last year received $3 million (Dh11m) from the Canadian International Development Agency. “It’s exciting, remarkable work and vital regeneration,” says Crites. “My job there is to help the master craftsmen bring the work at the institute back to classical quality. Afghanistan has been at war for the past 30 years. We’ve got to help them dream again.” The plan, with the work from the different schools, is then to export them for sale to markets across the world.
I wonder if he is worried about the financial situation. “No,” he says emphatically. “I think people still have vision and there is wealth. Particularly here, the Gulf is a natural market. Things might be scaled down but even scaled down projects have a big impact on Turquoise Mountain.”
Meanwhile, Crites has several other projects on the go. A new garden in Jaipur at the Jal Mahal Water Palace is about to open, a project he’s been working on with the British television gardener Monty Don. “It’s probably going to be the most beautiful garden built in the past 20 years in India,” he says.
A few weeks ago, he also met the Sharjah museums department to discuss a possible forthcoming craft exhibition there. “I want to spread the word,” he says when talking of his work and that of his craftsmen. “Without work these people won’t train their kids without them the tradition withers and dies.”
After one hour in Abdul Karim’s company, it feels as if their future is well and truly secure.http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090203/ART/743163573