Dated 2019-04-23

A Heritage Crusader Who Never Got Her Due

In a conservative society where a woman has to show exemplary courage and conviction to strike out on her own, even while initiating a collective cause, a committed,  persevering woman from Sopore did something that, perhaps, doesn’t have a parallel in Kashmir.

Situated in the heart of the pristine Sopore town and away from the clamor of the city life is an incredible treasure trove called Meeras Mahal (‘heritage palace’). Established in 2001 and registered as a public trust, the museum is housed in an extremely modest building; it is an abode to numerous artifacts of historical and cultural importance that are yet to be disseminated to the outside world. The material collected over more than three decades of relentless efforts by a contemporary legend, Ateeqa Bano (with the honorific ‘ji’ added to her first name).

Born in 1940 in the same town, Ateeqaji spent most of her adult life serving as an educator and collecting and curating cultural artifacts of a myriad kind. Before her retirement from government services, she served as the Director of Libraries and Joint-Director Education (Jammu & Kashmir). Among the various aims of the museum listed on a proposed documentation and upgradation effort is an aim to “enhance the sense of belonging and pride among the local communities.”

It was a pleasant morning in January 2015 when I set out for the historic town of Sopore to discuss the plans for a proposal to seek funding for a capacity building effort towards documentation, digitization, cataloguing and preservation with an aim to digitize the manuscript collection at Meeras Mehal and some other private collections. The meeting was arranged by personnel at INTACH Kashmir, my collaborators on the proposed project. Ateeqa Ji’s eyes glimmered with joy when I arrived with three more companions. She greeted us with great fervor and high expectations. Wearing her usual burqa coat over a green pheran while a light cotton dupatta lay loose over her head, it seemed she was all set for the meeting.

We started our 3-hour journey around midday in her little compound – a small office space with very modest furnishing. An associate pulled a table from one corner and set it beside another one of slightly different dimensions in front of us. Ateeqaji opened a roll of plastic sheet with golden patterns and spread it over the tables for tea and snacks. Thereafter, she took us for a tour of the museum, from one room to the other, walking us through history and revealing to us an enormous treasure of several generations.
Ateeqa Bano’s Meeras Mahal is a repository of items illustrating Kashmir’s ongoing cultural history in a visual format: rare manuscripts, ornaments, pottery and terracotta utensils, metal works, wood works, stone crafts, traditional dresses and jewelry, a coin collection, some calligraphic works, and different other kinds of tools. Each item in the repository has a name, a story, and Ateeqaji knew it all. Words that have fallen out of use in the language, items no longer seen in the Kashmiri households, are some of the various attractions I was impressed with during my few hours of experience at Meeras Mahal.  Picking up an item in her hands and demonstrating its importance in an exuberant manner, telling its story to the audiences, Ateeqaji had an incredible motivation to explore and a passion to preserve Kashmir’s remarkable past, its rich cultural history. Our next stop was the manuscript collection – my primary interest in the museum. Ateeqa Ji handed me a copy of the inventory and we ran through the list item by item. Manuscripts in different languages, Kashmiri, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, were kept in a pretty good condition given the meagre resources she had had. She also showed us a classroom where calligraphy lessons were held for local children.

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As we sat down for a second course of tea and snacks towards the end of the meeting, Ateeqaji produced a multi-page document, a proposal for the creation of an institution of enormous potential. She handed over copies of the inventories of items, booklets with pictures, and a comprehensive list of the manuscript collection. She showed me a well-planned map of a future township with many aspects including a proposed site for an ‘artist in residence’ program she wished to set up as part of her efforts. It was a spectacular idea and, being an artist, I was fascinated, but such ideas need enormous resources which had been consistently denied. Over the many years of her work on collecting and curating the artifacts, Ateeqaji had been desperately seeking financial support from both the government and other local sources for the maintenance and upkeep of the museum, for hiring trained staff, for infrastructure to preserve the artifacts, and for the upgrading of the building structure.

“Over the last thirty-three years, I went door-to-door, collecting these materials. I gathered discarded items from people’s attics, backyards and elsewhere. I invested everything I had in this. Some people thought I was crazy,” she laughed. Ateeqaji  was a woman of incredible motivation. I could not help but fall in love with this woman of exceptional potential and zeal.

Had this kind of work been done by a man, he would be supported and recognized. Our society does not recognize women’s contributions, she said to me in a humble tone as her associates moved their heads in silent admission. I knew she was right. I had nothing to offer before I left except for a promise to be fulfilled. In the next few days, she sent me a package with photographs of manuscripts that I had liked to be digitized and catalogued.

My next meeting with Ateeqaji was a day before my departure for the US at the University of Kashmir. She called and invited me to a program on girl child organized in part with the Markaz-e-Noor.When I entered after taking off my shoes at the front door, I saw Ateeqaji sitting in the front row on the left side which was predominantly occupied by men while a dozen women, some of them in complete face veils, were occupying a space on the right side of the hall. As soon as she saw me, Ateeqaji quickly stood up in excitement and offered me her own seat decorated with cylindrical gilaffed white cushions. After a bit of polite haggling, she sat back and I took the space right next to her.

We kept waiting for the Vice Chancellor, who was the chief guest at the event that was supposed to start at noon, but when the VC was nowhere to be seen even by 1:00 pm, people, including myself, started getting impatient. Ateeqa Ji turned to me in an embarrassing tone: “Sadafji, do people come to meetings this late in the US as well?” I said no. She appreciated that. In a few minutes, the convener began the program and Ateeqaji talked about some of the problems women of Kashmir faced – problems at home, in public and at the work place. She spoke about “the lack of self-confidence in women” and consequently their indulgence in alternatives, “such as expensive clothing and jewelry.”

Soon after, Ateeqaji invited me on the stage, introducing me as a “special guest from America.” I was simply there to meet her, but she asked me to speak a few words on the topic. By then the VC had arrived and taken the ‘special seat’. While I was talking, a bearded man came to me with a little note in his hand: “This is not a seminar, please be short.” I quickly finished my point.

The meeting concluded after a little bit of commotion over the remarks of the VC who said that “women are responsible for their own woes,” and another male faculty who declared that “women’s job is to bear and raise kids while that of men to earn and support the family.” I retorted vehemently and some other women joined in as well. At that uneasy note, people dispersed.

It took Ateeqaji years of painstaking efforts to accumulate a wide repertoire of artifacts.

Ateeqa Ji offered me a ride back, but I asked her to excuse me and began to leave. “Wait,” she quickly turned around for something and came back with a package: “This is for you. From Sopore!” The bagful of kulchas she had brought as a parting gift traveled with me all the way to the United States along with several documents and scores of photographs she had handed over earlier. My husband and I relished the kulchas for several weeks over nun chai at weekends.

In June 2015, I visited again to collect more information on the collections. Over the following year, I stayed in touch with Ateeqa Ji off and on in connection with my unsuccessful attempts in pursuing funds for digitization and documentation besides training of personnel in the methods in cataloguing and preservation. The proposal was submitted and declined twice by the British Library (United Kingdom) in 2015-16.

Ateeqa Bano’s Meeras Mahal is a repository of items illustrating Kashmir’s ongoing cultural history in a visual format: rare manuscripts, ornaments, pottery and terracotta utensils, metal works, wood works, stone crafts, traditional dresses and jewelry, a coin collection, some calligraphic works, and different other kinds of tools.

In summer 2016, I was in Kashmir again for a grant-writing workshop (which was never held due to the situation) and for collecting more information for a resubmission. When I was frantically trying to connect with Ateeqaji for a letter that needed to be signed by her with phones only working intermittently, thanks to the government restrictions, I received a short call: “I am very sorry. Since the Internet is not working, I cannot send you the letter. And because of the hartal, I am unable to travel to Srinagar to meet you (and deliver the letter by hand).” After checking into a hotel at Rajbagh for internet access, I somehow managed to submit the proposal, this time to the National Endowment for Humanities (USA). The proposal was declined a third time earlier this year for insufficient information.

This past summer in 2017, for the first time in many years, I did not visit Kashmir. Disappointed at my previous attempts, I had no enthusiasm or the patience to pursue the grant a fourth time during the next funding cycle.

I lost touch with Ateeqaji in the meantime, and the next thing I heard was that she was no more. Heartbroken and embarrassed, I regretted the loss of the body of knowledge that departed with her – knowledge that maynot be assessed by ordinary people, neither retrievable by ordinary means.

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