In an ideal world

Published October 10, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

ABOUT a week ago, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Archaeology and Museums finally came to the end of its years-long quest to restore and preserve the ancestral homes of Bollywood legends Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. In doing so, it embarked on a new leg of a journey that is likely to be as agonisingly long.

It was reported that the directorate began the conservation and restoration work on the two estates, located in the old walled city area of Peshawar, starting with documenting details including the homes’ current conditions (terrible), an estimate of the work that needs to be done, expertise and the funds required, and the chalking out of an initial plan. The goal is to eventually turn the properties into museums.

The first hurdle was the acquisition of the estates, an effort that stretches nearly 10 years into the past when, during its 2013-18 tenure, the then ANP provincial government focused its attention on acquiring Kumar’s ancestral home. Disputes over the value of the property, leading to extensive litigation, led to the effort coming to naught. In October 2015, the PTI-led provincial government informed the Peshawar High Court that it had dropped the plan to acquire the property but declared it a protected site.

In 2016, the Kapoor haveli was found to be badly damaged as a consequence of the then owner having initiated demolition work. This was halted when the archaeology department intervened. Finally, in June this year, the Kapoor and Kumar estates were taken control of by the provincial government through a colonial-era land-acquisition law.

Now begins the thankless process of conservation.

Now begins the terribly painstaking process of conservation and restoration — no mean challenge for a field of work that is provincially and nationally beset with formidable challenges such as the lack of state interest (notwithstanding the current government’s avowed concern for conservation and the environment), underfunding, the paucity of technical expertise, and the temptation to take the road well-travelled.

A recent illustration of this last point, and the fact that the problem spans the country, is that of the fate of the façade and main entrance of Sindh’s historic Pucca Qila. A month ago, the masonry collapsed under circumstances that can only be understood as confusing.

The provincial culture department said that the collapse occurred whilst labour was shoring up the foundations of the walls, which had been visibly listing for quite some time. But observers subsequently gave press accounts of workmen on the ramparts undertaking demolition work. The question we were left with concerned heavy tools such as sledgehammers that are not easily transported. Neither does the labour force undertake any work without a specific go-ahead. Where were the department’s oversight mechanisms while this was happening?

A clue is to be found in a comment made by Sindh Minister for Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities Syed Sardar Shah in July, when he was in Hyderabad to inaugurate as a museum the century-old Mukhi House. “I will not beg for alms from the federal heritage ministry,” he said bitterly, accusing the latter of having overlooked Sindh in the release funds for the conservation of over 3,000 heritage sites across the province.

As I researched the Pucca Qila façade collapse, one of the points a source made was this: given the resource constraints that conservation and heritage projects face, not just in terms of the Pucca Qila but in general, there is too often the temptation to tear down ageing remains and initiate new construction work instead. Conservation is a painstaking and a thankless task. The preservation and conservation that is achieved is quite often overlooked — or, at least, not given its due share of appreciation — by an unaware public.

It is a reality, after all, that several sites of antiquity have been desecrated if not outright vandalised by a populace heedless of their importance and the fact that they are irreplaceable. The examples of the decades-long plundering-by-attrition of sites such as Taxila, Makli and Chowkandi come to mind. Some such behaviour is born of the lack of perceived alternatives, such as the fact that in the wake of the 2010 floods, the Makli necropolis ended up becoming de facto host to thousands affected by the floods, ruining forever pieces of antiquity.

The lesson, then, is quite obvious: not only has the ship of state got to provide funding and resources (including incentives for young people to pursue careers in, for example, archaeology and conservation), but it must also educate the public at large about the concrete links of this geographical landmass to a fascinating and tapestried past.

This is no mere hifalutin concept, but a reality that requires urgent attention before it is too late.

The writer is a journalist.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2021

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