Tuesday August 16, 2022

A people’s history

By Editorial Board
June 28, 2022

Heritage, architecture, art, poetry and culture do not just translate into buildings or festivals; cultural heritage is the preservation of a people’s history beyond the textbook. Unfortunately, over the years Pakistan’s rulers have across the board failed to protect heritage sites across the country. The latest example of this was seen at Karachi’s Frere Hall with the city administration apparently deciding to construct bizarre arches and entry gateways in front of the colonial-era building whose ceilings are covered with Sadequain’s art. Citizens and conservationists have protested the move as an attempt to keep regular people away from a space that has traditionally been open to all – one of the few spaces left in a city that has increasingly become a signal-free concrete jungle. The Sindh High Court has agreed and termed any such construction as illegal.

While Frere Hall is a recent example of what is happening, the problem exists across the country. In Lahore, important architectural sites were damaged by the Orange Line train and other projects, again depriving citizens of access to sites that they should have complete access to. The same problem came up in Peshawar with the new bus rapid transport system. The issue is two-fold: an utter lack of respect for history and an elitist attitude towards the idea of public spaces. When heritage sites become the purview of only a few, it is all of society that pays the price: whole generations growing up without access to, or awareness of, a history rich in cultural and artistic diversity. From Frere Hall to the Sheesh Mahal, if such spaces are used only to cater to the well-heeled and not to people from all sections of society, the already vast class disparities in the country become even more pronounced. Pakistan is already a country that takes gatekeeping far too seriously: parks not open to all of the public, ticketed beyond most people’s means, heritage sites used by the rich for private events; even Unesco-designated historical sites left to the discretion of whoever is in power in every city.

It is important to remember that preservation of cultural sites – buildings, artists, public spaces – should not just be taken as isolated projects funded by aid agencies. Unless the state and government take an active role in understanding that such preservation is what ties today’s generation with those that are long gone, a bond with history that cannot be replaced by lectures or textbooks, our current generations will not only lose their sense of identity but also the character and colour that makes an civilization unique in its own way. Whether tangible monuments or intangible legacies of language and poetry, those that protest state-sanctioned encroachment and gatekeeping of culture are really protesting for a richer future for coming generations.