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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > How much needed citizen initiatives are helping restore Kashmirs heritage

How much-needed citizen initiatives are helping restore Kashmir's heritage

Updated on: 17 April,2023 07:35 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Fiona Fernandez |

Even in the face of logistic challenges and administrative hurdles, resilient citizen initiatives backed by funding, are paving the way to revive Kashmir’s precious built and natural heritage

How much-needed citizen initiatives are helping restore Kashmir's heritage

A Srinagar resident walks on the Zainakadal Bridge. INTACH Kashmir has prepared a detailed report on the rejuvenation of the old markets around the bridge that forms a part of the Srinagar Smart City project’s heritage revival programme. Pic/Getty Images

Fifty kilometres from Srinagar, in Sopore–the Apple town of Kashmir–Meeras Mahal (Urdu: Heritage Palace) Museum is brimming with restorative activity, aided by support from Delhi as well as Switzerland. The brain behind this community museum, late Atiqa Bano (1940-2017) was an educationist, activist and conservationist. She dedicated her life to preserving the heritage of her land in what experts call an extraordinary effort, perhaps the only one of its kind in Kashmir. When Bano wasn’t teaching, she would identify and collect objects—from agricultural implements to kitchen utensils and items of everyday use, art objects, and manuscripts. This collection was built over the years, from personal contributions, recovered artefacts and even door-to-door contributions. The 7,000-plus objects in her collection were assigned to the museum which she registered as a trust. While the museum was being overseen by a surviving relative, M Saleem Beg, Honorary Convener, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH, Kashmir Chapter), felt the need for expertise to step in.

“We’ve been facing hurdles, budgetary and otherwise, after the Abrogation of Article 370. For a typical administrator, the idea of a cultural heritage project is a music, dance or storytelling programme. And, there is nothing wrong with it, but it’s not the real deal. Culture doesn’t develop in isolation,” says Beg over a phone call from Srinagar. “If an administrator from UP or any other place is posted here, you cannot expect the same engagement to improve on-ground development. Having said this, we must look forward. Things have to move on…” Beg’s years as former Director General-Tourism, Jammu &Kashmir, justify his reading of the situation. 

Members of INTACH have been conducting fortnightly heritage walks in SrinagarMembers of INTACH have been conducting fortnightly heritage walks in Srinagar

ALIPH, a non-profit based in Châtelaine, Switzerland, emerged as the first guardian angel for Bano’s labour of love. With a focus on supporting global cultural organisations that were affected by the pandemic, they offered a grant of $14,930 after being impressed with her private collection’s historic significance. It felt that even a small museum like Meeras Mahal is directly connected to the community and has the potential to instill a sense of pride in local traditions and customs. “With this funding, we were able to commence inventory work; we began developing a website, as well as kick off community engagement to stir a sense of ownership around her effort,” Beg shares. 

In fact, last month, on Bano’s death anniversary, a commemorative event was held in Sopore to felicitate citizens who had helped in Meeras Mahal’s conservation programmes.

A collection of utilitarian willow work items from the gallery of Meeras Mahal MuseumA collection of utilitarian willow work items from the gallery of Meeras Mahal Museum

Besides ALIPH, Delhi-based Span Foundation also stepped in to fund the renovation of the building earlier this year. Urban planner and managing trustee, Jaspreet Kaur, played a key role in steering the project that included remodelling the site into a small museum and holding outreach programmes with Sopore’s residents. Beg proudly shares that local architects have been collaborating with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts [IGNCA], to piece Bano’s dream together.

Back in Srinagar, there is more to be done. “We have to inventorise heritage properties and identify their architectural features and condition. A basic survey of unprotected sites was previously conducted, where 800 properties were identified. Now, we need a detailed list since we’ve only been able to correctly identify 300 Grade A properties,” he shares. 

Quran with Persian translation and commentary, Tafseer-i-Hussani, front page, illuminated (19th century)Quran with Persian translation and commentary, Tafseer-i-Hussani, front page, illuminated (19th century)

Protecting Srinagar’s traditional marketplaces is another project that INTACH has been invested in. “We need to retain the city’s historicity. Façades have been distorted due to rampant commercialisation,” Beg rues. The Zainakadal market known for its carved copper ware; Maharaj Ganj, the oldest trading centre dating back to the 19th century, and the Ali Kadal, a heritage precinct along the Jhelum River, famous for its vernacular designed homes, have all been singled out for immediate conservation efforts.

INTACH’s outreach programmes, including the educational tours and heritage walks, have met with success. “We organise walks once a fortnight,” he shares. Participants are introduced to the diversity of Srinagar, from its mosques, temples and gurudwaras, to its famed riverfronts. The mix is fascinating; “Architects, students, teachers apart from tourists, especially from South India, have signed up for our walks,” he adds, quickly recalling a visit by a Mumbai NGO, Disom Foundation that fosters future leaders. “They said it was an enriching experience.”

Saleem BegSaleem Beg

While the Sopore project is in safe hands, Beg is aware that a sustained effort is what’s needed to protect Srinagar’s heritage. “It is a Smart City, yet for nearly three years, due to the pandemic, there was little progress. Now, things are picking up. If we don’t move quickly, its original character will be lost forever. It used to be a pedestrian city, and already, walkability is a problem with rapid urbanisation. Next year, we plan to focus on our waterfronts,” he reveals. INTACH has tabled a proposal to introduce a law that grants protection to the heritage properties in Srinagar and Kashmir. Beg is keen that the youth take things forward, “We will concentrate on schools. Let’s hope the state can introduce art history in school curriculum. I hope that the next elected government accepts this proposal.” 

Beg with the INTACH Kashmir team. Pics/Saleem BegBeg with the INTACH Kashmir team. Pics/Saleem Beg

His words from earlier resonate, “Clicking a photograph against a scenic backdrop in Gulmarg doesn’t mean this is ‘Naya Kashmir.” It’s Beg’s gentle reminder that paradise cannot be rebuilt in a day.

Crafting glory for Srinagar

As part of UNESCO’s Great Cities Network Programme, INTACH prepared a dossier to nominate Srinagar, which won the Creative City in Craft and Folk Arts, 2021. “It didn’t win the honour because INTACH made the dossier but because even amidst an Internet ban and countless curfews, our craftspeople managed to keep their heritage alive. UNESCO hailed that this community was able to relay the living nature of their craft; craft acted like a link that connected people. We now organise craft-themed tours across Srinagar that are supported by the Department of Handicrafts,” elaborates Beg, about Srinagar’s prestigious tag. To explore @intachkashmirchapter

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