NON-FICTION: CRUMBLING HERITAGE

Published March 18, 2018
Government High School 2 in Shikarpur is a heritage building constructed at the beginning of the 20th century | White Star
Government High School 2 in Shikarpur is a heritage building constructed at the beginning of the 20th century | White Star

In addition to prominent World Heritage Sites such as Moenjodaro and the Rohtas Fort, Pakistan has some underrated architectural treasures. In her book, Urban Traditions and Historic Environments in Sindh: A Fading Legacy of Shikarpoor Historic City, Professor Anila Naeem, co-chairperson of the Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University of Engineering and Technology, has made an attempt to document just one of these rapidly degenerating heritage sites.

The first chapter presents a chronological overview of Shikarpoor’s (also spelled Shikarpur) administrative history and existing socio-demographic constitution. From the Daudpotas — an offshoot dynasty of the Abbasids — through incoming Afghans and contesting Talpurs, up to colonial British annexation and subsequent post-Partition institutions, this detailed historical account sets the stage for exploring the deeply embedded cultural and institutional particularities of the local context.

Until a few centuries ago, Shikarpoor enjoyed a particular geographic and economic significance not just for the province of Sindh, but also the broader dynamics of the region. Today it sits on the border of Sindh and Punjab, which connects it to other secondary urban centres. It has historically been part of the trade routes that linked Central Asia and Persia to the Indian subcontinent, and its significance as a node in this medieval trans-Asiatic economic corridor is documented in richly annotated maps. Over the years, these economic networks led to the development of a particular urban morphology for the city as a whole, determining the relative positioning, scale and connections within and amongst markets, residential spaces and public amenities.

Shikarpur no longer enjoys the geographic and economic significance it did a few centuries ago. In her book, Prof Anila Naeem explores further avenues of heritage research that can elevate the city’s status

Chapters 2 to 5 provide a detailed inventory of this built fabric of the city. In Chapter 2, Naeem lists existing urban structures such as public parks and gardens, the city’s archways and gates (dars), graves, shrines and a lone pedestrian bridge. Discussions on the various building materials and construction techniques are accompanied by a collection of full-colour maps marking the locations of several of these features. Chapter 3 categorises the dominant building typologies: havelis, bazaars, temples and mosques, as well as landmarks and open spaces. Chapter 4 describes individual architectural elements and motifs used in the construction of the built fabric, from simple terminologies such as columns and courtyards, to more technical descriptions of cornices and cupolas. This chapter is perhaps most useful for students and practitioners within the domains of architectural history and heritage conservation. Chapter 5 presents an original categorisation and analysis of the city’s built form, with comprehensible nomenclature and classification schemes.

The methodical documentation of these chapters leads to Chapter 6, which lists threats to the conservation efforts. These range from neglect and disrepair to commercial encroachment and planned demolitions in favour of new development — sometimes with the complicity of local authorities entrusted with safeguarding those very properties. Here, Naeem also highlights some potential surgical interventions that could be undertaken immediately to mitigate the ongoing destruction or neglect of heritage properties. Chapter 7 then suggests workable opportunities for sustainable approaches to conservation that also engage the local community. It is this chapter that provides the most critical engagement for the reader.

Naeem suggests preparation of master plans and administrative-level inputs to enhance economic growth and address regional inequalities. This might seem a good idea on paper, but master planning has seldom helped resolve extant urban issues. Urban and peri-urban scenarios today are more complex, inter-subjectively and inter-discursively created and contested, rather than being managed top-down in a smooth manner. In fact, large-scale planning methods often fall prey to technical inefficiencies and bureaucratic hurdles in implementation where jurisdictions collide.

Another proposal by Naeem is the procurement of international funds or corporate funding for certain activities housed within renovated premises. Although this can be adopted in the short term, extended application can lead to commercial development that might be detrimental to the authenticity of the Shikarpoor experience. Gentrification within the walled city would be just one immediate outcome. Over a longer term, contemporary neo-liberalism’s logic of the commodification of culture through volatile flows of global capital within heritage sites can lead to a culturally flat ambience of advertisements, brand icons and taglines that would make Shikarpoor indistinguishable from other ‘places’. Urban geographers and sociologists such as David Harvey and Manuel Castells have specifically critiqued this trap of cultural homogenisation, that would make Shikarpoor visually and experientially no different than, say, Islamabad’s Saidpur.

Naeem also suggests assistance funding and tax reliefs for property owners to help them maintain legal ownership without incurring additional financial upkeep or losses in their personal and professional lives. This is similar to what many European heritage conservation initiatives have aimed for, leading in theory to a more grass-roots awareness of the cultural significance of these assets. However, the property owners’ subjective rationalities come into play here. How would any heritage conservation effort negotiate the discursive terrain where properties cease to possess merely symbolic/nostalgic/cultural value, and the owners’ rationalities focus on the properties’ more immediate and tangible exchange value on the real estate market?

Nevertheless, Naeem has developed a rich and categorically clear database which can be employed as a template for extensive secondary analysis and as a base for exploring further avenues of historical and heritage research. Her book signifies an academically substantiated and thematically consistent attempt at contextually grounded knowledge generation, which is the objective of any scientific enquiry.

From its achaar [pickles] industry to its historical architecture, Shikarpoor presents diverse opportunities for local development as well as cultural tourism. It is up to the authorities concerned, researchers and practitioners to use Naeem’s database as a springboard for the region’s enhancement so that Shikarpoor would one day become popular for more than just its achaar.

The reviewer is an architect currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Urban Traditions and
Historic Environments in
Sindh: A Fading Legacy of
Shikarpoor, Historic City
By Anila Naeem
Amsterdam University
Press, Netherlands
ISBN: 978-9462981591
284pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 18th, 2018

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