Anila Naeem. 2017.
Urban Traditions and Historic Environments in Sindh: A Fading Legacy of Shikarpoor, Historic City
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
The conservation and management of urban heritage worldwide today face a complex set of issues amidst rapid globalization, urbanization, and culture change. Historic urban landscapes in South Asia are exemplars of this phenomenon, and they bring in additional layers of complexity due to the region’s inherent political instability, institutional failure, economic decay, and sociocultural plurality. The historic city of Shikarpoor in Sindh, Pakistan, is an epitome of the problem of how to manage an urban heritage in this time and space, as eloquently pointed out in Anila Naeem’s monograph, titled Urban Traditions and Historic Environments in Sindh: A Fading Legacy of Shikarpoor, Historic city. As Naeem points out in her preface, Shikarpoor lets us understand that our penchant for everything ‘modern’ - in other words ‘Western’, a vestige of colonial times - leads us not to accept the originality of such places and their sociocultural compatibility with our lives. The book reminds us that the region possesses such rich cultural heritage, yet we have neglected the proper care of it, and have not developed the kind of policy and institutional infrastructure for proper care of it. The book offers a series of actions needed to revive the fading legacy of Shikarpoor, which are quite applicable to elsewhere in South Asia.
The heritage of Shikarpoor
Established in the mid-17th century as a place of exchange at the intersection of trading routes from India to Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, Shikarpoor flourished during the following centuries, only to fall into its current demise from the early part of the 20th century onwards. In the first five chapters, Naeem portrays the historical, cultural, and architectural significance of the place with an elaborate discussion of the rich urban and architectural characteristics of the town. What is remarkable in this discussion is its comprehensiveness in systematically covering all morphological and architectural characteristics of the historic town that are germane to the its cultural significance and heritage values. The discussion is based on a detailed heritage inventory, which is the most critical point of departure for any conservation effort. Such an inventory provides the basis for all ensuing studies, technical conservation decisions, heritage management strategies, and the assessment of heritage impact of new constructions and renovation of existing buildings. Without that foundational framework, all heritage conservation actions and studies lack a comparative basis against which to claim validity and credibility. Naeem does an excellent job in laying out the inventory’s findings, starting at the significant characteristics of the macro settlement scale and then gradually moving into more specific architectural features, evoking a comprehensive image of the place in the reader’s mind. The discussions on the typology and classification of buildings based on architectural values, historic values, and value-based groupings of the buildings provide exceptional methodology for defining the buildings’ value, conservation priorities, and future restorations. However, the problem that I see in these discussions is that they all are monument-centric and ignore other dimensions of cultural heritage, primarily intangible heritage. They are also expert-driven. Furthermore, these chapters are devoid of any discussion of systems and evidence of traditional ways of heritage management, as well as the town residents’ views on their heritage, civic pride, and thoughts on its conservation and developmental issues and potentials. An effective urban conservation should focus on an integrative and holistic norm of cultural heritage, with properly localized stewardship of its heritage. I see this monument-centric, expert-driven aspect of the book – even though this is needed in heritage management – as a major weakness.
Managing Shikarpoor’s heritage
The causes that led to the decay of this important urban heritage are in fact quite common to such historical towns in the South Asian region and elsewhere. As Naeem finds out in Shikarpoor, most of the common and serious threats to historic environments include demolitions, underutilization and inappropriate usage, inappropriate alteration, neglect and inadequate maintenance, divisions of historic properties, lack of development investments, and degeneration of civic facilities. These threats are, in most places, results of the absence of civic leadership that understands the significance of cultural heritage and its protection, which leads to the absence of a conservation policy, legislation, masterplan, funding, related institutions, and trained heritage professionals. Naeem identifies the ineffective municipality, absence of conservation masterplan, and lack of trained professionals as three specific threats to the preservation of Shikarpoor’s heritage. The ineffectual local authorities are a recurring issue in many South Asian historic towns, which is closely connected to the instable and/or corrupt political culture, structural, and systemic problems in overall governance, lack of real enforcement power on development control, as well as strained human, capital, and technical resources. I nevertheless think that some of these issues could still be resolved with strong local political leadership that understands the importance of cultural heritage and who can muster the necessary resources and community support for the protection of heritage. My own observations in the South Asian region indicates that this strategy is perhaps the most imperative for establishing a workable approach to heritage conservation. Even with strained resources, structural problems in the governance, and political instability, some South Asian towns, such as Bhaktapur in Nepal, have been successful in maintaining their cultural heritage. Another issue could be the lack of attention given to peripheral towns like Shikarpoor. The national focus may be on several high-profile heritage sites that have more global and national importance. Naeem does not go into a deeper analysis of the politics of Shikarpoor or the Sindh region to show us how the national, regional or local politics have negatively contributed to the fading of Shikarpoor’s heritage. Her discussion of the range of threats to its heritage is nonetheless useful, applicable to many other similar places in the region, and thus provides a framework for other historic places to identify or compare with their own scenarios.
The need for political support, national and international attention, and a proper institutionalization of heritage management are briefly discussed when Naeem defines a way forward in safeguarding Shikarpoor’s heritage. These elements are framed as key policy guidelines. What I would add to these is the creation of a highly consensual vision for the place, one that is carefully crafted and agreed upon by multiple stakeholders, while balancing heritage conservation concerns with the development needs of Shikarpoor. Without such a clear goal, it is inherently difficult to navigate the complex issues of conserving inhabited historic places. The general trend is to conserve a historic town for a tourism-driven objective, imposed as a top-down vision, which has unfailingly brought unintended and irreversible negative consequences to many small-scale historic towns in Asia. The seeds for an effective vision for Shikarpoor is given in Naeem’s discussion of the potentials of the town, which include sustainable development, economic revival, and existing infrastructure as a resource. Capitalizing on these potentials could help devise a vision which is more specific to the contextual conditions of Shikarpoor. Yet, it should be emphasized here that the vision for the place should be shared by the multiple stakeholders, among whom the local residential community should play a major role. Active civic participation in development and/or conservation decision-making has never been a part of the South Asian governance. Localizing the heritage stewardship has been identified as a critical factor in any successful conservation attempt worldwide. It would have been very helpful if the discussion on policy and actions for Shikarpoor’s heritage conservation included a critique and recommendations on how to establish a workable solution to this perennial problem in South Asian governance. One of the actions that Naeem proposes – establishing a heritage monitoring committee – has been employed as a means for coordination and collaboration of multiple local authorities and stakeholders, and for community participation elsewhere in Asian contexts. In most cases, such committees, while they look good on paper, have not delivered expected outcomes due to systemic and structural issues in governments, political culture, and lack of strong political leadership. The list of actions identified in the book are nevertheless commendable and, if implemented properly, would bring very satisfactory results in the management of Shikarpoor’s heritage.
Taking care of cultural heritage in an inhabited historic town in the South Asian context at a time of heightened globalization and culture change is a complex problem that goes beyond simple scientific preservation techniques, and requires an integrated social, economic, and political strategy. One can only be hopeful, as Naeem is in this volume, that all the pieces in this complex puzzle would eventually come together amidst seen and unforeseen constraints. The volume certainly marks the beginning of such a process. Its usefulness comes from the comprehensive discussion of the place’s historical and architectural significance, detailed inventory of the place, types of threats, and the policy and actions recommended for heritage management. The volume thus provides a valuable exemplar for similar historic towns elsewhere. It also reminds us that the heritage management in places like Shikarpoor may take long arduous years to materialize. One could only wish that change in Shikarpoor would not be radical and rapid during these ensuing years.