Before the partition of the subcontinent, Hyderabad in Sindh was famous for its educational and social institutions. To this day, many historical buildings in the city stand as testaments to its past academia. But time has mercilessly ruined the splendour of its architecture and cultural heritage.
One such institution is the Nari Sabha, the first ladies’ club of the city, situated near Jail Road. A small single-storey building displaying the architectural features of the pre-Partition era, it contains a hall, a stage and two rooms, with a small ground in front of the building. A long corridor leads to another stage.
The central hall is divided by a partition where today girls attend classes in the same place where some famous women also spent their time in ages past.
Established in 1930, the Nari Sabha in Hyderabad is in danger of being torn down
In the early 1930s, a group of women and social workers wanted to establish an institution that would provide skilled education to women. The idea of a club for Hyderabad’s ladies was materialised by the Hindu community who founded the Nari Sabha, in memory of a Hindu lady named Chattur Bai Advani. Her son had contributed a lion’s share in erecting the building.
It was built by the Amils of Hyderabad, who were the educated elite who mostly lived in Amil Colony in Hirabad, a neighbourhood near Markeet area. Amil in fact means ‘a well-educated person’ and, in the Talpur era, the Amils were part of the bureaucracy. Even after the British had arrived, this class continued working as bureaucrats.
The plot for the club was acquired in 1932. But it took six years to lay the foundation stone. In 1938, Collector U.M. Mirchandi laid the foundation stone for the club, but construction did not begin until 1940. The delay was due to raising adequate funds for construction and some of the funding came in the form of donations.
The idea behind this club was to educate girls and women in religion, ethics and even physical training. Girls from underprivileged backgrounds were granted scholarships. The club was also open for weddings and engagement ceremonies.
Patron, lifetime member, common member and nominees of the donor were included in the organisers’ panel. Among the trustees of Nari Sabha were Prem Singh, Hari Singh Advani, Narain Singh Advani, Pehlaj Singh or Beja Singh. The trust donated 10,000 rupees to the Nari Sabha. After the establishment of Nari Sabha, the first working committee was formed which included Miss Thakry Wali Ram Lakhani as president, Miss Jaswanti Nanik Ram as secretary, and Miss Sawitri Hotchand Advani as the treasurer. Six women members were also part the committee.
After the Hindus fled the city during Partition, the Nari Sabha became defunct. But for the past several years, Khursheed Memon, an educationist and social activist, has been running a school in the Nari Sabha. Approximately 200 girls are receiving education under the umbrella of the Ladies Club. But the future of this school is in peril just like the heritage of the building. “We have tried our level best to make the institution a sanctuary for girls of Hyderabad,” says Memon.
The heritage of old Hyderabad is confronted with modernity and big business as is the case for many cities and towns across the country. In Hirabad specifically, many old houses have been demolished by the local administration for the benefit of the builder/construction mafia who want to build new projects such as plazas or residential schemes.
Since no activities were taking place at the club for some time, the building caught the attention of the builders’ mafia. During the same time Khursheed Memon, with the cooperation of some civil society members and some members of the original body of the club, set up a school in the club’s premises.
When some builders came to take control of the building for themselves, Memon contacted Advocate Jatmal Mal and went to court for a stay order for Nari Sabha’s demolition. The court issued a stay order and the Culture and Antiquities department of Sindh took control of the building.
Perusing the case, Senior Advocate Jhamat Mal is saddened by the crumbling state of the heritage building. “We treat our heritage as a joke,” he says.
He narrates the story of River Danube near Bulgaria. “After a deluge of rain, the Danube had swelled and people wanted to save a seventh-century church [in the area]. They left their homes and constructed an obstacle for saving the ancient church despite their homes being destroyed by the rain. [But] we don’t care for our heritage,” he says. “We are only busy serving our own interests.”
“For years, this building has been devoted to girls’ education, and some poor girls are also getting education here. I want to fight for them till my last breath,” says Memon. “Some educated women are still fighting to save Nari Sabha with me. We receive threats from different people but I still have the courage to face them, as the future of many girls depend on Nari Sabha.”
The writer is a Hyderabad-based reporter
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 4th, 2018