Yasmeen Lari poses quite a challenge to any writer who attempts to profile her. She is dynamic, energetic and totally committed to her projects. As someone who has followed her career for two decades, I have been highly impressed with her dedication to many causes that she has espoused but wasn’t aware of her meticulous attention to details until, earlier this month, when I saw her at work at the World Heritage Site, the necropolis in Makli, where under her stewardship The Heritage Foundation (THF) of Pakistan is involved in salvaging some tombs. THF had earlier documented as many as 400 tombs and isolated graves.
That afternoon I saw Lari spending the better part of an hour examining the work that is being done by specially trained staff members. She looked intently at almost all the bricks that are being fixed back in the dilapidated wall of a 500-year-old tomb.
Her unflinching dedication to her work is a trait she seems to have inherited from her father. Lari, who was just a toddler when her father was the Deputy Commissioner of Lahore at the time of Partition, recalls that he had dual responsibilities – to shield the Hindus and Sikhs in Lahore and at the same time to provide food and shelter to the Muslim refugees who had under dangerous circumstances managed to cross the newly created border. Once when he found the highly inflamed refugees from East Punjab, trying to seek revenge over a beleaguered group of unarmed Hindus, he intervened and 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.
Lari had her early education at Queen Mary’s School in Lahore. She later went to Adabistan-e-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, Lari 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.
Lari was no ordinary architect – she was into urban designing as well, which sparked her interest in heritage. After having designed some fine structures like the Finance and Trade Centre on Shahra-e-Faisal Karachi, and the ABN Amro Bank’s building (now Faysal Bank) on Abdulla Haroon Road, she decided to call it a day and spend all her time on research and writing books. That was in 2000. But before that she and her husband had jointly 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 through the heritage preservation act passed by Sindh Assembly in 1994 and through Heritage Foundation’s catalogues that identified over 600 historic buildings of Karachi.
In 2000, with the help of friends, mostly new and renowned in their fields, and volunteers, including students, Lari started cleaning operations of many public buildings in Karachi. The project was called KaravanKarachi to celebrate the violence-stricken, dynamic metropolis, but soon, as UNESCO appointed her National Advisor for Lahore Fort World Heritage Site, she decided to extend the Karavan activities to Lahore. In addition to leading the team that saved the endangered Sheesh Mahal, she found enthusiastic volunteers from schools and colleges of Lahore to help her clean the historic Mughal walls.
Until 2005 The Heritage Foundation’s activities were all about restoring our heritage, but when the devastating earthquake hit northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir the not-for-profit organisation took up the job of rehabilitating the survivors.
It so happened that when she saw harrowing images of destruction on TV, Lari borrowed some money from her husband and 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 how to rebuild their houses, using much of the material salvaged from the shambles. The locals’ lifestyle was not hygienic. She arranged for hand-washing events for children along with creative art activities through numerous young volunteers, many of whom came from other countries.
When the army flushed out terrorists from the picturesque Swat Valley, Lari and her team rushed in to provide help to the displaced women and children. 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 and Upper Sindh. As many as 300 earthquake and flood-resistant houses, made of mud, lime and bamboos, were built with household participation, along with two womens’ centres. The modest, but strong and resilient structures have since then stood the test of heavy snowfall and rains.