SHIKARPUR: To allow our cities, and by default our cultures, to undergo transformation at the cost of historical significance is a reality widely accepted in popular discourse. However, there are several individuals and organisations that are striving to halt this type of development. For instance, in Shikarpur a community meeting was held on Wednesday to advocate for the city’s lost heritage, as well as that which is under threat.

Organised by the department of architecture and planning, NED University, and the Endowment Fund Trust (EFT), the idyllic city of Shikarpur witnessed much hustle and bustle that was translated into concrete measures to secure the city’s heritage. The venue of the meeting was the C&S Government Degree College, where scores of students were present to take pride in and participate in the efforts to document and preserve the centuries-old built environments and landscapes.

In 1998, the department of culture, government of Sindh, declared Shikarpur a historic town. However, the city is still witnessing degradations on multiple fronts. Rapid destruction of historical structures which have existed for more than a century and are a testament to the country’s pre-partition era is fast changing the landscape of the city.

Old architecture is being stripped bare to make way for more modern constructions while their artefacts are sold to those willing to purchase a slice of history. And in the absence of regulation or legislation, or any form of accountability, Shikarpur is facing the threat of an irreparable loss of its historical significance.

At this year’s meeting the aim was to hand over much of the responsibility of the preservation efforts to the local community, and so EFT trustee Hameed Akhund asked for volunteers from the locals. Several put forth their names pledging support to the cause, and a committee was set up.

Mr Akhund also spoke about how taking pride in one’s own culture and heritage was a prerequisite to social activism. According to him, regardless of how many delegations and committees come forth from other cities to help save Shikarpur’s heritage, not much can be achieved unless the locals fight collectively. He also pledged full support of the EFT to any such project the locals came up with, and called for regular meetings to keep abreast of all developments.

Anila Naeem, who teaches at the department of architecture and planning, NED University, has over years galvanised resources and support towards mapping the city of Shikarpur and updating inventories. “Documenting the city has been among the first steps taken to salvage the legacy of Shikarpur. However, since 2008, each time we return to the city with our students, we find out that more buildings have been lost.”

To rectify this, a new strategy has been put into action. “We decided to approach the owners of such historic buildings and gather their support in the project. We found out that property owners were very interested in preserving and protecting their properties, but they lacked the technical knowledge or in some cases the financial means to do so.”

And so in the homes of those owners who actively participated in the preservation process over the past many years, wooden plaques were put up that claim the property to be part of protected heritage under the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act, 1994. These plaques have also been put up in public spaces such as the Shahi Bagh, Shikarpur Clock Tower, Lakhi Dar Archway, TMC Buddha Asharam and the RBUT Hospital.

Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at Karachi University, took the thread forward and gave a more practicable interpretation to the documentation that has been done and the path forward. “A committee should be formed of those craftsmen who are masters of their art.” She proposed the idea of improving accessibility of such craftsmen by distributing flyers so that all home owners and residents who wished to protect their current historic structures could contact them.

She also questioned if enough was being done to preserve the intangible and soft elements of these structures, from their lineage, where the different elements making up these structures come from, and overall the symbolism behind the facts and figures.

Several students and architects part of the documentation process also shared their experiences of Shikarpur hospitality and how their hosts went out of their way to facilitate their work. Several homeowners who were part of the preservation and documentation were also present and inspired other locals to become part of this project. Buildings owned by Hasan Ali Soomro and Ahmed Ali Mangi, among others, were carefully documented and their drawings displayed for all to see.

Mazhar ul Haq Siddiqui, former vice chancellor of Sindh University, and Akbar Laghari, commissioner of Larkana, also spoke at the meeting.

The first day ended with volunteers, students and participants in the community meeting going on a walk to Shahi Bagh, where pupils of the Shah Latif School sang patriotic songs, danced to traditional Sindhi songs and presented a play.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2016