What is ‘heritage’ to you? What is ‘heritage’ for people? In its strictest definition, ‘heritage’ has a temporal orientation — a positionality, a way of remembering, has nostalgia attached and is often not a fixed or immutable category.
The dictionary defines ‘heritage’ as our legacy from the past, what we live with during our lifetime and what we pass on to future generations. Heritage has a physical, as well as a social, cultural or economic presence. Also, the natural and cultural heritage are both unique sources of motivation in life.
Heritage has a tangible and intangible component — the tangible being the built structures and the intangible being music, folk dance, customs, traditions, recipes, language, songs and dance. When translated into Urdu, heritage becomes virsa, which is a ‘male’ word. What does this gender connotation say about the very idea of heritage?
Heritage has a multilayered ontology: you can trace heritage in practice, in knowledge, in livelihood and perhaps in the ethics of a society too. For instance, fishing exemplifies heritage in practice, whereas the wisdom elders bequeath to their upcoming generations reflects heritage in knowledge.
SOCIAL MEANING AND EMOTIONS
Another way of looking at heritage is to deconstruct it in terms of proximity and emotion. Emotional experiences play a significant role in developing experiences around heritage. The different ways in which these experiences are perceived are seen as modes of social meanings.
Social media plays a significant role towards this end. For example, social media postings of an endangered building can initiate an emotional response and a resultant participatory approach creating an action-response.
This was witnessed when the city government of Karachi tried to construct a gateway at the entrance of the Frere Hall Garden, which blocked partial view of the Frere Hall. The Institute of Architects and Planners (IAP) reacted, along with a few civil society members, and physical protests were held at the site, resulting in a discontinuation of the construction of the gateway.
What is ‘heritage
Heritage appeals to the collective memory and is something which keeps evolving with time and is not frozen. It is lived, played and appropriated. Processes of participation, place-making, urban conservation and construction of a central neighbourhood as a local heritage of the city, are all examples towards this end.
Place-making is an act of rethinking, reimagining and reinventing public spaces collectively as a community. The idea is to strengthen connections between places and people, and design public spaces around notions of collective memory and identity.
If people belonging to a neighbourhood are collectively made part of the decision-making process, there is greater ownership and association with those places, resulting in a shared value.
Place-making helps retain physical heritage as a result of local dynamics, urban policies and media discourses. Place-making is at the heart of heritage conservation but, in Pakistan, the trend is more towards conservation of individual buildings and structures. The process of place-making can be a unique opportunity for entire neighbourhoods to be conserved and dovetailed with modern development.
Like public squares, maidaans, chowks and other historic places can attract local and international tourism and can provide stimuli for regeneration of old neighborhoods, for example a neighborhood like Kharadar. Kharadar is an old neighborhood in central Karachi, inhabited largely by Memon and Gujarati communities and in close proximity to the sea port.
As is witnessed in many historic cities of the world, such as Rome, Paris, Barcelona and London, the co-existence of old and new structures is the hallmark of effective incorporation of heritage into modernity.
HERITAGE SITES AND PLACE-MAKING
There are six world heritage sites in Pakistan, with three in the province of Punjab, one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and two in the province of Sindh. These range from the archaeological ruins of forts, towns and graveyards.
But these stand in isolation and their preservation and conservation is not envisaged through the idea of place-making. Thus, they are not owned by the community and they do not think of these spaces as their virsa.
On the other hand, during my research in Kharadar and Meethadar, I discovered that the chowks, chabootras and chowrangis were considered as heritage by the locals, because they owned these spaces. There was a strong presence of community in these localities, and people spent quality time socialising in these places on a daily basis. Thus, there were many memories attached to these places.
Similarly, a primary school might be a valued physical heritage for some, whereas a town hall may not have any value because the locals never associated with it, or because it was out of bounds for the locals.
This was the case with the Khaliq Dina Hall on M. A. Jinnah Road in Karachi, where all government officials named this building as an important physical heritage of the city, but the locals residing in neighbourhood areas did not mention it during the research I conducted in the locality a few years ago.
CHANGE AND CONSERVATION
The bylaws that protect heritage buildings and historical neighbourhoods of Pakistan are very weak and can easily be violated. Many a time, some artefacts with which local people associate are not even identified or recognised as heritage.
The responsibilities of protecting these sites are often not delegated to local government officers or staff and they are not trained either in heritage preservation or how to carry out conservation of any historical artefacts.
The historic built fabric of cities of Pakistan is old, fragile and under-maintained; and aggressive land acquisition and poor quality of construction are major threats. As a result, the historic cores of Pakistan are experiencing the loss of valuable cultural diversity as communities are moving out. Another reason for the communities to be moving out is the overburdened infrastructure in these older localities, resulting in frequent power failures, and a shortage of water and other civic facilities.
Furthermore, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), families depending on local crafts and talents are experiencing a sharp decline in the demand for these skills and have to resort to other ways of earning an income, resulting in a loss of intangible vitality of these neighbourhoods.
However, not all is lost. Recently, the Banyan trees of old Clifton were declared as heritage for the city of Karachi. This act in itself shows a small but much required shift in the way heritage is thought of by city administrators.
It is not only about buildings, and that too the monumental ones. There are various scales and many ways in which heritage can exist, and it greatly depends on the materiality of space, the imaginability of place, social connotations and cultural relevance.
Thus, it is important to decode what is heritage, whose heritage, why is something heritage and how does one associate with heritage.