KARACHI: “Ancient civilisations such as the Indus Valley Civilisation, Mesopotamia and others settled near rivers had been destroyed with the changing patterns of rivers. Therefore the environment has a big role in history and heritage,” said Dr Asma Ibrahim, archaeologist and director of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Museum during an interesting panel discussion about ‘Heritage and environment’ at the 60th Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) organised by Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi in collaboration with commissioner of Karachi at the Arts Council of Pakistan here on Thursday.

A special addition to the festival this year was the Virsa or heritage strand where learned individuals engaged the young audience while bridging the gap between the old and the new.

“Now archaeologists do excavations for fossils and artefacts. The best finds are displayed in museums. They are your tangible heritage. And there is also your intangible heritage, which you can’t touch like the fossils or artefacts such as your language. You need to speak it to keep it alive over generations,” Dr Ibrahim explained.

She said she had worked at the National Museum for 20 years and she would see the children visiting there during school trips afraid of the artefacts. “If they were not afraid then they were bored. But I have taken special care for this not to happen at the SBP Museum. You will not feel bored there even for a second, I promise,” she said encouraging her audience to visit.

Yasir Qazi, a broadcast journalist, added to the discussion by saying that it was the media’s fault to not engage its listeners, audience or readership in things such as archaeology and heritage. “We have an imbalanced media which is more interested in covering politics instead of history and environment. They prefer to ignore such things,” he said.

Journalist, film-maker and mountain climber Shehrbano Saiyid said that there was a degradation of old buildings and history under way here. “Climate change and glaciers melting have changed the environment turning some 40 to 45 villages into disaster zones,” she said.

To increase awareness and appreciation for the rich cultural heritage of Sindh, CLF also featured many more interactive learning sessions for the children along with a documentary on the Unesco World Heritage site of Makli.

Located 100 kilometres east of Karachi, Makli monuments in Thatta hold the stories of countless dervishes, philosophers, princes, kings, warriors and tyrants from the times of the Samma Dynasty, Arghuns, Turkhans and finally the Mughals. From the 14th to the 17th century and beyond, travellers, scholars and traders from all over Asia and Europe thronged Thatta and benefited from its cultural, intellectual and commercial activities. A depository of irreplaceable cultural heritage, the tombs of Makli and the artefacts of Moenjodaro are stores of wealth filled with unique craftsmanship, artistic prowess and coexistence of diverse communities since the beginning of time.

Artist-in-residency with CLF Pakistan, Salma Habib reflected upon the growing globalisation trends by designing interactive activities for children to communicate the knowledge and skills acquired from the sites of Makli and Moenjodaro through art.

An advocate for helping children develop self-expression through art and art therapy, Ms Habib said that she believed that providing children with tools and knowledge about their culture and heritage helps them in understanding their identity and taking pride in their existence.

The sessions for children began with an appreciation of the creative spirit represented in Sultan Ibrahim Khan’s tomb’s unique architecture and carved stone work with calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic and Persian text. Children painted the facade to gain a deeper understanding of the intricate artistic creation followed by a session on ‘Kashi titles’. Kashi means painting. The children were introduced to the process of tile making, oxidation and glazing as they created their own contemporary takeaway tile.

For entertainment, there was a string puppetry performance by Thespianz Theatre where string puppets danced on many regional songs and tunes. In between each of these dances, information about the culture of the regions was also shared. More musical entertainment came through Asif Sinan’s guitar.

Hub of the earliest civilisation, Moenjodaro created its own language for communication. This interpersonal exchange has been recorded in their artefacts and iconography present there. In another session, the children replicated the iconographic representations in order to learn more about stories from the past.

There was also an audio-visual documentation of the Makli necropolis by Karachi-based artists Beenish Sarfaraz and Salik Abbasi highlighting the importance in regional context to raise awareness amongst public school educators, parents and the youth here.

It also featured iconography on the tombs highlighting text in Persian and Arabic language (ayaat, names of the rulers, chronograms, inscriptions, signatures by the construction workers) with contrasting imagery of etching on the walls along with interviews and discussions with art historians, heritage consultants, local film-makers, journalists from the Thatta Press Club, caretakers of the necropolis and police constables assigned at the place to exchange ideas for further advocacy, policy changes and sustainable solutions for the preservation of space and increasing civic engagement of youth.

There were panel discussions on important subjects such as ‘Popularising libraries as spaces for active learning communities’ and ‘Inclusive learning’ in festivals. There were book launches introducing young authors like Sophia Abid who spoke about her book I Wear a Wig and the 13-year-old Zainab Rashid who said she started penning poetry to vent her frustrations after experiencing bullying at school. More book launches included books such as Edhi Baba by Maria Riaz and Uth Mama Gogroo by Yasir Qazi.

There were also some brilliant storytelling sessions going on at Hakim Said ki Baithak. The volunteers deserve special credit here. They took care to keep rotating audiences throughout so that none of the children got bored during any session anywhere. If they had heard a story, they were taken to another hall to watch a musical performance, or listen to a panel discussion or appreciate an exhibition. This way they also got to experience more of the festival.

CLF’s second and final day also happened to fall on Anita Ghulam Ali’s death anniversary. CLF’s founder and the CEO of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, Baela Raza Jamil’s eyes were moist as she remembered her good friend who had contributed so much for children’s education in the new Ahmed Shah Auditorium, which was labelled the Anita Ghulam Ali Auditorium for the duration of the festival as a tribute to the great lady.

Finally, things wrapped up with a concert at the Sohail Rana Open Air Theatre. Singer Ali Hamza during the concluding ceremony thought it befitting to specially sing ‘Haiya o haiya ...’, a song composed by Sohail Rana with the children.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2019