Writing about someone of the calibre of Yasmeen Lari, one is at a loss to choose adjectives. Should one call her dynamic, energetic or totally committed to her projects? One wouldn’t be wrong in choosing all three.
As someone who has followed her career for two decades this writer has been highly impressed with her dedication to her work but wasn’t aware of her meticulous attention to details until, early this month, when I saw her at work at the World Heritage Site, the necropolis in Makli, where under her stewardship the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan is involved in salvaging some tombs.
She spent an hour examining the work that is being done by especially trained staff members, looking intently at almost all the bricks that are being fixed back in the dilapidated 500-year-old walls.
Her unflinching dedication to her work is a trait Lari has inherited from her father. She says that as the Deputy Commissioner of Lahore in 1947, he had dual responsibilities — to shield the Hindus and Sikhs in Lahore and at the same time to provide shelter to Muslim refugees from across the newly created border. Once when he found some highly inflamed Muslims trying to seek revenge over a group of unarmed Hindus, he said sternly, “You have to cut my throat before you can even touch these helpless people.” He later managed to send them safely to India.
He was assistant commissioner of Dera Ghazi Khan when Lari was born in Rajanpur into a family hailing from Gorakhpur in Eastern UP. She had her early education at Queen Mary’s School in Lahore. She later went to Adabistan-i-Soofia because her father wanted her to gain some grounding in Persian and Arabic also. She then went to Kinnaird College before she left for the UK. She got married in 1961 to Suhail Lari, a cousin, and both of them went back to England for studies. While he studied politics, philosophy and economics, she chose architecture, graduating in 1963 from the Oxford School of Architecture, now Oxford Brookes University.
When Lari started practising in Karachi in 1964, she was the first woman architect of Pakistan. Brinda Somaya, a leading practitioner of the discipline in India, claims that her friend is in fact the first woman architect in the subcontinent. She was no ordinary architect; she was into urban designing as well, which sparked her interest in heritage. In 2000, after having designed some fine structures she decided to call it a day and spend all her time on research and writing books. But before that she and her husband had set up a trust called the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan. She fought with a missionary zeal in getting a ban imposed on the demolition of heritage buildings.
In 2000, with the help of friends, mostly new and renowned in their fields, and volunteers, including students, the architect started cleaning operations of many public buildings in Karachi. The movement was called KaravanKarachi but soon, as UNESCO appointed her national advisor for Lahore Fort World Heritage Site, she decided to extend the Karavan activities to Lahore. With her team and some student volunteers, she saved the endangered Sheesh Mahal at the Lahore Fort.
Until 2005, THF’s activities were all about restoring our heritage, but when the devastating earthquake hit northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir the organisation took up the responsibility of rehabilitating the survivors.
It so happened that when she saw harrowing images of destruction on TV, Lari left for Mansehra. She chose to work in a remote place called the Siran Valley. Medical and food aids were pouring in but the people had no shelter. Joined by some volunteers she taught the local people to rebuild their houses, using much of the material salvaged from the debris. With a view to empowering women, the architect encouraged them to start making their traditional embroidery and handicrafts. Over 1200 shelters, 137 toilets, three primary schools, one community resource centre, a health centre, and a museum were eventually built.
When the army flushed out terrorists from Swat, Lari and her team rushed in to provide help to the displaced people. A greater challenge came in 2010 when floods hit the valley badly. Donations came from numerous generous friends, Glasgow University, the Scottish government, Swiss Pakistan Society and The Tides Foundation for work in Swat. As many as 300 earthquake and flood resistant houses, as well as two women’s centres, made of mud, lime and bamboos, were built with household participation. The modest but resilient structures have since then stood the test of heavy snowfall and rains.
At the community centres women were taught to fashion handcrafted products based on their delectable traditional designs. The trained ladies not only began to earn for their families but also took time out to impart training to other women. The experiment has succeeded not just in Swat but also in Mansehra and more recently in Khairpur and Tando Allahyar where THF is building houses that can withstand the floods. These are built on high plinths with strong accessible roofs while schools, health centres and women’s centres are built on stilts.
Recently Lari heard from a woman Safeeyah Moosa in South Africa, who said that an organisation of Muslims, hailing from the subcontinent, wanted to finance building of houses for the poorest of the poor in Sindh. To cut the long story short, as many as 100 eco-friendly houses will soon be built, along with eco-toilets, solar lights and hand pumps. The project will also carry a primary health care centre, a school, and a mosque. The foundation will also build a mandir since half of the selected village’s population comprise low caste Hindus. This project comes in the wake of the success of a larger one, the Karavan EcoVillage Mohak Sharif of Mahmood Nawaz Shah, having been built as a training centre for disaster risk resistant (DRR) eco-building techniques, where 90 per cent of the flood affected people are Hindus.
Among the other projects Lari is involved in is the Khairpur Heritage Centre established through help of MNA Nafisa Shah and Khairpur administration to conserve the district’s rich heritage. Then there is the exquisite Sethi House in Peshawar, which was built on Mughal Foundations in the mid-19th century by an affluent family and was purchased in 2009 by the directorate of archaeology, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Another exciting project that Lari is heading is the archiving and scanning of documents of Karachi Municipality dating back to the 19th century, funded by the Dutch and German embassies.
The architect has quite a few invaluable books to her credit. The first one was the Traditional Houses of Thatta (1989). The second Karachi — The Dual City (1996, 2000) — is about the city during the Raj, co-authored with her son, Mihail. Another book co-authored with her historian husband, is The Jewel of Sindh: Samma Tombs on the Makli Hill (1997). Her heritage guidebooks on Karachi and Lahore have been published along with several conservation guides, conservation reports and manuals on eco-building.
She has also written three sponsored but well-researched books. One is about the Governor’s House in Lahore, the second about the Governor’s House in Quetta, and the third the History of Railways depicting its glorious past contrasts with its current deplorable state.
Yasmeen Lari was awarded Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 2007. Five years earlier she got the UN Recognition Award for the Promotion of Culture and Peace. What matters more to her is that in addition to a highly dedicated team of Heritage Foundation an increasing number of volunteers are joining her. They are motivated by the lady whose enthusiasm is infectious.