Fighting on different fronts
Yasmeen Lari poses quite a challenge to any writer who attempts to profile her. She is dynamic, energetic and totally committed to her projects. As someone who has followed her career for two decades, I have been highly impressed with her dedication to many causes that she has espoused but wasn’t aware of her meticulous attention to details until, earlier this month, when I saw her at work at the World Heritage Site, the necropolis in Makli, where under her stewardship The Heritage Foundation (THF) of Pakistan is involved in salvaging some tombs. THF had earlier documented as many as 400 tombs and isolated graves.
That afternoon I saw Lari spending the better part of an hour examining the work that is being done by specially trained staff members. She looked intently at almost all the bricks that are being fixed back in the dilapidated wall of a 500-year-old tomb.
Her unflinching dedication to her work is a trait she seems to have inherited from her father. Lari, who was just a toddler when her father was the Deputy Commissioner of Lahore at the time of Partition, recalls that he had dual responsibilities – to shield the Hindus and Sikhs in Lahore and at the same time to provide food and shelter to the Muslim refugees who had under dangerous circumstances managed to cross the newly created border. Once when he found the highly inflamed refugees from East Punjab, trying to seek revenge over a beleaguered group of unarmed Hindus, he intervened and said sternly “You have to cut my throat before you can even touch these helpless people.” He later managed to send them safely to India.
He was Assistant Commissioner of Dera Ghazi Khan when Lari was born in Rajanpur into a family hailing from Gorakhpur in Eastern UP.
Lari had her early education at Queen Mary’s School in Lahore. She later went to Adabistan-e-Soofia because her father wanted her to gain some grounding in Persian and Arabic also. She then went to Kinnaird College before she left for the UK.
She got married in 1961 to Suhail Lari, a cousin, and both of them went back to England for studies. While he studied politics, philosophy and economics, Lari chose architecture, graduating in 1963 from the Oxford School of Architecture, now Oxford Brookes University.
When Lari started practising in Karachi in 1964, she was the first woman architect of Pakistan. Brinda Somaya, a leading practitioner of the discipline in India, claims that her friend is in fact the first woman architect in the subcontinent.
Lari was no ordinary architect – she was into urban designing as well, which sparked her interest in heritage. After having designed some fine structures like the Finance and Trade Centre on Shahra-e-Faisal Karachi, and the ABN Amro Bank’s building (now Faysal Bank) on Abdulla Haroon Road, she decided to call it a day and spend all her time on research and writing books. That was in 2000. But before that she and her husband had jointly set up a Trust called the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan. She fought with a missionary zeal in getting a ban imposed on the demolition of heritage buildings through the heritage preservation act passed by Sindh Assembly in 1994 and through Heritage Foundation’s catalogues that identified over 600 historic buildings of Karachi.
In 2000, with the help of friends, mostly new and renowned in their fields, and volunteers, including students, Lari started cleaning operations of many public buildings in Karachi. The project was called KaravanKarachi to celebrate the violence-stricken, dynamic metropolis, but soon, as UNESCO appointed her National Advisor for Lahore Fort World Heritage Site, she decided to extend the Karavan activities to Lahore. In addition to leading the team that saved the endangered Sheesh Mahal, she found enthusiastic volunteers from schools and colleges of Lahore to help her clean the historic Mughal walls.
Until 2005 The Heritage Foundation’s activities were all about restoring our heritage, but when the devastating earthquake hit northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir the not-for-profit organisation took up the job of rehabilitating the survivors.
It so happened that when she saw harrowing images of destruction on TV, Lari borrowed some money from her husband and left for Mansehra. She chose to work in a remote place called the Siran Valley. Medical and food aids were pouring in but the people had no shelter. Joined by some volunteers she taught the local people how to rebuild their houses, using much of the material salvaged from the shambles. The locals’ lifestyle was not hygienic. She arranged for hand-washing events for children along with creative art activities through numerous young volunteers, many of whom came from other countries.
With the intention to empower women, Lari encouraged them to start making their traditional embroidery and handicrafts. Over 1,200 shelters, 137 toilets, three primary schools, one community resource centre, a health centre, and a museum were was also built. Funds came from one national corporation and a multinational operating in Pakistan.
When the army flushed out terrorists from the picturesque Swat Valley, Lari and her team rushed in to provide help to the displaced women and children. A greater challenge came in 2010 when floods hit the valley badly. Donations came from numerous generous friends, Glasgow University, the Scottish Government, Swiss Pakistan Society and The Tides Foundation for work in Swat and Upper Sindh. As many as 300 earthquake and flood-resistant houses, made of mud, lime and bamboos, were built with household participation, along with two womens’ centres. The modest, but strong and resilient structures have since then stood the test of heavy snowfall and rains.
At the community centres women were taught to fashion handcrafted products based on their delectable traditional designs. The trained ladies not only began to earn for their families but also took time out to impart training to other women. The experiment has succeeded beyond expectations, not just in Swat but also in Mansehra and more recently in Khairpur and Tando Allahyar in Sindh where the Heritage Foundation is building houses that can withstand the floods. The houses are built on high plinths with strong accessible roofs while schools, health centres and women’s centres are built on stilts to provide refuge during floods.
A couple of months back, Lari received a phone call from a young woman called Safeeyah Moosa in South Africa, who said that an organisation of Muslims hailing from the subcontinent, wanted to finance the building of houses for the poorest of the poor in Sindh. To cut a long story short, as many as 100 eco-friendly houses will soon be built, along with eco-toilets, solar lights and hand pumps. The project will also carry a primary health care centre and a mobile dispensary facility, a school, and a mosque. Heritage Foundation will build a mandir, since half of the selected village’s population comprise Hindus. This project comes in the wake of the success of a larger one, the Karavan EcoVillage Mohak Sharif of Mahmood Nawaz Shah, having been built as a training centre for disaster risk resistant (DRR) eco-building techniques, where 90 per cent of the flood affected people are Hindus.
Among the other projects Lari is involved in is the Khairpur Heritage Centre established through help of MNA Nafisa Shah and Khairpur administration to conserve the district’s rich heritage. Then there is the exquisite Sethi House in Peshawar, which was built on Mughal Foundations in the mid-19th century by the wealthy Sethi family and purchased in 2009 by the Directorate of Archaeology, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. No less exciting a project that Lari is heading is the archiving and scanning of documents of Karachi Municipality dating back to the 19th century, funded by the Dutch and German embassies. These were stuffed in gunny bags and would have been thrown in garbage had Nasreen Jalil, Lari’s younger sister not discovered them lying unnoticed for so many years.
Lari has quite a few invaluable books to her credit. The first one was the Traditional Houses of Thatta (1989). The second book, Karachi – The Dual City (1996, 2000) – is about the city during the Raj, co-authored with her son, Mihail Lari. Another book co-authored with her historian husband, Suhail Lari, is The Jewel of Sindh: Samma Tombs on the Makli Hill (1997) and her heritage guidebooks on Karachi and Lahore have been published. Several conservation guides, conservation reports and manuals on eco-building have also been published.
She has also written three sponsored but well researched books. One is about the Governor House in Lahore, the second is about the Governor House in Quetta, and the third is the History of Railways in what is now Pakistan. Its glorious past contrasts with the deplorable state that the railways are currently in.
Lari was awarded Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 2007 and five years earlier she was given the UN Recognition Award for the Promotion of Culture and Peace. What matters more to her is that in addition to a highly dedicated team of The Heritage Foundation an increasing number of volunteers are joining her. They are motivated by a lady whose enthusiasm is infectious. “There is so much to do, we need more and more people, who can be trained and who can later train others,” says a woman who works honorary. But she is alive to the fact that others can’t, so she sees to it that they earn their living as they involve themselves in either of the two jobs, restoring the heritage and rehabilitating the calamity stricken people.