How Shikarpur can get its groove back

Updated February 01, 2015

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The Merewether Pavilion, Photos by the writer
The Merewether Pavilion, Photos by the writer

The offer made for the little red brick cottage by the visitor from India seemed rather generous considering it was an old building needing plenty of repairs and renovation. But the simple abode, as the man said, carried many cherished memories of when he was a little boy in Shikarpur during the 1940s. At the time the family didn’t know what to expect after Partition and had fled to India but the son, all grown up now, was back wanting to buy his old family home from its current owners.

With the deal finalised, the visitor brought in his men to begin the renovation work under his supervision. All the painted blue metal bars outside the Teak wood windows were the first to come out. But no sooner than that was done, the visitor put the house back on the market. He wasn’t asking much for it so it sold very quickly allowing him to return to India. It was only after he had left that the reality dawned on the neighbourhood people that all he had really wanted were the old window bars. Painted an ugly shade of blue for so many decades no one even suspected that they were actually made of gold!

The Government School Shikarpur is missing its centuries-old stained glass windows. During some restoration work at the school a few years back, the contractor took out all the glass windowpanes saying that they were unsuitable for a school where children might break them. No one at the time thought of pointing it out to him that why would the windows break now when they had stood the test of time in the same school? When the children studying in the very school earlier hadn’t broken them, why would the children of today break them? And thus the historic school building lost one of its most valuable fixtures.


As this historic city’s heritage is slowly stripped away, a few men aim to restore its long-lost glory


These are just a couple of examples of how the historic city of Shikarpur, once known as the ‘Paris of Sindh’ lost most of its heritage. Pure Teak doors and windows and even wooden balconies or jharokay from old houses in the city are being sold for lacs and millions to antique shops in bigger cities including Karachi where they grace modern villas. Most of those who know their value waste no time in demolishing their property in order to remove the riches and sell them to the highest bidder but in doing so they are also robbing the city of its rich architectural heritage.

Deedar Ahmed Dayo in his workshop
Deedar Ahmed Dayo in his workshop

According to Dr Anila Naeem, author of Shikarpoor — Historic City, Sindh, Pakistan, a two-volume inventory and mapping of heritage properties, Shikarpur or ‘Shikarpoor’, as it was known then, was once the gateway for trade between Afghanistan, Central Asia and India. But all that changed after Karachi became a port and trade routes switched to the sea.

Lal Mohammad Bablani with his calligraphy on wood
Lal Mohammad Bablani with his calligraphy on wood

Reminders of those times include the Hathi Dar, where there is no grand gate per se but people know that once it was a passage used for elephants carrying goods. There is the Merewether Pavilion, built and named after the former commissioner of Sindh Colonel Sir W. Merewether. Though it still has its original green tin roof, the wood grills were stolen and had to be replaced. Then the R.B. Udhawdas Tarachand Hospital, is an example of the philanthropy of its donors, the first of which after whom the hospital has been named, painting his name on the entrance steps for everyone to walk over as a gesture of humbleness and service to the city. There is also a former mandir with missing doors and windows and most of its woodwork gone and blocked by bricks that is now being converted into a haveli. Speaking of the mandirs and gurdwaras in the city, all were built near mosques showing the brotherhood shared between the people from different religions in those days.

Brass bars that have replaced the gold bars
Brass bars that have replaced the gold bars

Some glimpses of the traditions of the bygone days can still be seen. Like in Shah Hussain Mohalla, a neighbourhood once dominated by the Shia community, a little graveyard between the houses is still left pretty much intact even though most of its current residents are Sunnis. Near one of the graves sits Lal Mohammad Bablani, also a Sunni Muslim, who carves Islamic calligraphy on Sindhi Tarri, a local form of Shisham. A huge 100-year-old Teak wood takht that was once used by the Ansaris, who also lived here, as their baithak is still there and the neighbourhood elders and children come out to sit on it sometimes. No amount of sun or rain seems to have had any impact on it.

Mohammad Yasir Baloch, a member of Chief Minister’s Inspection Team and a respected resident of Shah Hussain Mohalla, is trying to do whatever in his power to keep the culture and heritage of that area, if not the entire city, alive. Deedar Ahmed Dayo, another artisan specialising in what Shikarpur is best known for — intricate woodwork — only uses his hands to make doors, windows and even furniture from the Teak wood scrap left behind by people after bringing down their houses. In a bid to keep the art alive, Baloch has hired Dayo to do what he does best.

Teak wood frames and doors pulled out from an old house
Teak wood frames and doors pulled out from an old house

“Teak costs more than Rs8,000 per cubic foot but the scrap can be bought at around Rs100 to Rs120,” Baloch says as Dayo goes about his work. That work is time-consuming and painstaking, but the result is as beautiful as the art the city is being robbed of. He has been working on a child’s swing for 42 months now and says it’s going to take him another 18 months or so to complete.

“The man has 40 years of experience behind him and is the last of his generation doing this work as his children haven’t picked up the art from him and hold regular office jobs after having completed their education. All this will die with him. And right now I have him busy making whatever furniture he desires while I pay him Rs10,000 a month and pay for the material he uses as well. Being a perfectionist, the work takes him long but these artisans are extremely proud people. I’ve seen how hard they work. If I tell him to hurry, he is just going to drop everything and walk away so I bear with him as I lose money,” laughs Baloch. “But I want to revive this dying art by buying his creations for what he deserves and hence generating an interest for it among young wood carvers and carpenters here. People like Dayo and Bablani should be patronised at the government level,” he adds.

The Teak wood takht used as a baithak in Shah Hussain Mohalla
The Teak wood takht used as a baithak in Shah Hussain Mohalla

Baloch also owns a very old house in the neighbourhood built by his grandfather in 1932, which he plans to bring down but, he says, he is not going to do what the others are doing and sell off its original woodwork. “See, the problem in this area is the rise in the water table after the construction of the Sukkur Barrage in the 1930s. As a result, the foundations of several houses here were damaged and the walls, made from mud bricks, have developed many cracks. The house may itself collapse soon so I have decided to have it demolished myself and raise another in its place while reusing all the antique doors and windows from it in the new house. It’s a practical solution,” he says.

Meanwhile, there are organisations at work to help preserve whatever is left of the historical city’s heritage. During a recent conference on ‘Promoting Heritage Awareness’ organised by the Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh and the Heritage Cell, NED University, Karachi, Hameed Akhund, one of the fund trustees, urged the people of Shikarpur to recognise and take care of their heritage. “I know you are well aware of the historic significance of your city. Don’t bring down your houses for a few extra rupees by destroying the riches in them,” he said. “You can get together to form a watch guard society that can approach the people breaking down their houses and other historic buildings and offer to buy the artefacts from those places which can then be housed in a museum,” he said, while adding that they were engaged in talks with the government about turning the old prison building of Shikarpur into a museum where the antiques and artefacts could be housed.

The writer tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 1st, 2015

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