Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan: Restoring Heritage
When asked to write a piece on my work at Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP), and their conservation work at the Lahore Fort, I was riddled with anxiety. What was there to say that hadn’t already been said before? And that too by individuals whose credentials far outweighed mine. As an intern at Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan, my doubts about my own insights had me perturbed. What contribution would my observations constitute in the grander scheme of things?
It didn’t help that during the process of recording a history of interventions at the Fort, I was reminded by my dad of an ancestor of ours whose legendary plundering of the Fort had been immortalized on one of the boards at the entrance gate. For the purpose of maintaining some limited sense of credibility, I won’t name them.
But I digress. For readers who aren’t aware of their work, Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan, part of the Aga Khan Foundation, has been at the head of most major conservation efforts within Pakistan. Their work ranges from restoration of the Baltit and Khaplu Forts in Gilgit-Baltistan to renovation of the Shahi Hamam and Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore. The essence of this conservation is a regeneration of historic sites in ways that spur social, economic and cultural development. It aims to sustainably conserve them through involving the local community, in coalition with the Aga Khan Development Network. This entails not just a preservation of the monuments but also the crafts and craftways of a historic city. Currently, the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan team is situated at the Lahore Fort, where they plan to conserve various monuments, piece by piece.
First on their list is the Picture Wall and the fabled Sheesh Mahal quadrangle.
Let me begin (finally) by taking you through a round of Aga Khan in Pakistan, from their office at the Fort. Upon entrance from the side gate of the fort, one comes across the spectacle of a portable container office, placed opposite a multi-hued glistening Picture Wall, covered with traditional kashi-kari tile-work.
The arched niches with pigeon holes, panels of yellow ochre and lapis blue tile work, and remnants of fresco painting are juxtaposed against a plain white container.
A step inside the enclosed spaces between the containers reveals more. It is bordered with wooden lattice screens, to shield this space from prying eyes. This interior is filled with the sounds of the many different kinds of people who call it their workspace-
Architects, Artists, Chemists, Historians, Engineers and one lone Anthropologist (me).
This eclectic mix of young and old, men and women from different fields, collects within Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan, sits together on table benches to eat freshly-cooked food from the office kitchen. We are periodically joined by guards and policemen stationed at the fort. The simple act of everyone breaking bread together seems to undo any barriers of class, creed, gender and age.
What I see before me isn’t a group of people who merely share the same physical space, and carry out their tasks as atomized wholes. This is a community of individuals who facilitate each other with their varying expertise in fields relating to art and science, brought together by the Aga Khan Cultural Services Pakistan.
What exactly is the scope of their conservation work at the Fort? A chat with Emaan Sheikh, the Head Conservator, reveals that it is an on-going project that began 3 years ago, with Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan and the Walled City Lahore Authority working in tandem. She remarks that their whole conservation ideology is premised on the importance of preservation of the dilapidated monuments before any attempts at restoring the monuments to their original appearance are made. This distinguishes them from the other organisations who’ve carried out conservation work at the fort, who have primarily used conservation for its extractive worth- for attracting hordes of tourists. When asked about the kind of problems they face in Pakistan, she notes that there is a lack of education regarding conservation, even at art colleges, and every insight learned is through their experience at the fort, and through extensive discussions with their foreign consultants.
Zeina Naseer, a chemist who tests the different building materials at the fort, speaks about the detailed documentation required to conserve the tile work on the Picture Wall, and how science merges with art where matters of architectural conservation are concerned. She notes that her work is significantly different from the kind of chemistry that she studied at college – it’s experiential, and isn’t confined to the controlled environment of the lab. It’s different, also in the way that it serves to make you appreciate the scientific genius of architects from the past, rather than scoff at their supposedly ‘crude’ methods.
It lets you break from a linear view of progress, and celebrate the artistic and mechanical prowess of the artisans of the past.
The work for her, eventually, is inter-disciplinary and requires her to practice her work with an appreciation for the historic significance of those materials, and traditional methods of construction.
I also had the opportunity of talking to one of the architects working for Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan. Abdullah Sultan, a graduate from NCA, remarks that his work too, diverges from the kind of work that most architects seem to be doing within the market. He notes that his primary work here wasn’t building but conserving what had already been built. Needless to say, his work involved extensive documentation of the structures. For these purposes, Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan has a retinue of instruments at hand- 3D scanners that detect each and every layer of material within a wall, ‘snake cameras’ that slither through the extensive drainage system at the fort and the standard DSLRs.
The process of writing this piece revealed intricacies about the workings behind Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan of which I was previously unaware, despite my internship with them. Thereby, granting me greater appreciation of the kind of energy that ran through their office- the young and dedicated minds of individuals who strive to restore a collective past, and make the old meaningful again. It also made me mindful of why heritage conservation was important at all, in the first place. While the monetary rewards are there, its importance does not stem from this alone.
It lies in the way it equips us to understand our past, and consequently, our present.
After-all, art is reflective of the society in which it is bred.
Our art is born from our surroundings, and thus links us to them. Many of the intricately frescoed walls of the summer palace were blatantly and ignorantly white-washed by the colonisers. An acceptance and appreciation of local art and architecture, thus, is also a protest against the colonisers’ modernist repression of indigenous art and craft. Of severing this link between our selfhood and our art. It is reclamation of our collective past. A celebration of our history.
Upon exiting their air-conditioned office, I see the Picture Wall- a melange of colours in front of me. It reaffirms the lack of distinction between art and craft in native artistic practices. The whole fort is peppered with specimens of local craftsmanship- from intricately painted walls, meticulously calculated pietra dura inlay work, the multi-hued tile-work on the pictured wall, the perforated marble window screens.
A quick look at the fading honeycomb and mandala-patterned mehndi on the palm of my hand seems to confirm the lasting importance of craft within contemporary life. And the importance of the project Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan was undertaking. Of bringing life to the past. Together with local craftsmen, young architects, engineers, artists.
The sheer amount of work that goes into this is overwhelming, as is the reward it offers.