Saturday, April 30, 2011

Proud to be a Pakistani

“Pakistan is facing such an identity crisis right now, that it is essential for our generation to understand why this country was built, what happened in its early years and what happened to derail it from its tracks to make it the country it is today?” says a vehement Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, President Citizens Archive of Pakistan.  She is committed to “preserve, record, archive and make available the rich history of the country for future generations in a wide variety of new media”. At the end of the road in 2010 she sees the Living History Museum of Pakistan based in Karachi, a one of its kind, which will serve both as an interactive museum as well as a research facility for students and academia alike or anybody and everybody who is interested in knowing about the past of the country.

Passionately involved in making her dream come true, Chinoy is not a lone rider. She is backed by a ten member team which includes Altaf Qureishi,(International corporate and financial barrister), Durriya Kazi (Head Visual Studies Dept.), Sabeen Mahmud (Director PeaceNiche), Amean J. (Photographer), Minal Rahimtoola, Omar Rahim ( Dance-Chorographer), Sarah Taher (CEO FM91), Fahad Asadullah, Shazieh Gorji (Ceramic Artist). All of them are young entrepreneurs who have opted to come back to Pakistan to pursue their careers inspite of a volatile situation at home.

Working under the umbrella of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a non-profit, tax-exempted society, The Oral History Project, trains young interns volunteering to learn and be part of recording personal stories revolving around independence of a generation which is slowly fading and will not be amongst us in a few more years. “We already feel that it is a bit late and we have lost quite a few people who made a mark on the history of the country,” says Chinoy. The urgency in Chinoy’s voice demands attention. However, funds required for the sophisticated audio and editing equipment, logistics and enormous costs of documenting and preserving on digital media are extremely hard to find. “Who wants to give money for history?” questions Chinoy. Pakistan may be a country of philanthropists but the past does not seem to be something anybody seems to loosen his purse strings for. Nonetheless, this has not deterred The Oral History Project team, a group of enthusiastic energetic souls who know that they are making history by bringing forward the voices and images of a generation that put everything on stake for their motherland.

 “I’ve worked in other NGOs but here these people are doing inspirational work.  We are contributing to the history of Pakistan,” says intern Nimra Asi. “Each time I come back after interviewing someone, it just makes me appreciate how much history we have.” Asi’s enthusiasm is simply contagious. Although she will be leaving in a few days for Lahore to pursue her education, she feels it has been “one of the best experiences in life where one can actually see people getting all choked up and emotional when they talk of the Quaid.” The interns work hard handling various responsibilities. Some conduct interviews or document old photographs; others transcribe or make audio clippings of the 6,500 pictures that are currently with the organization. A few weeks back, Intern Fawaz Motiwala had stepped into the office with mixed thoughts about the project. However, now as he handles the audio recordings during the interviews, he feels “privileged to listen to the stories of the older generation”. “The presentation is so amazing, that each interview is like a story and definitely does not resemble a lesson from a Pakistan Studies text book,” Motiwala adds.    

The emotional impact of the project cannot be ignored. All those who are involved have had their moments of discovery. Each intern has one day or the other walked back into the office feeling emotionally moved. Probing into the lives of these great people, the interns and rest of the staff feel a sense of great achievement as they continue to add stories and contribute the larger cause of preservation. It takes three sets of interviews to make a story. “The first interview is biographical. This is followed by a standard interview which is conducted to assess if the person has not forgotten anything or made wrong statements due to a slack in memory because of old age. The third and final interview is a detailed one which deals with the interviewee being part of an important event related to partition”, explains Chinoy. Listening to first person accounts and saving them for future generations is no mean task. “Now one just has to put the headphone to one’s ears and listen to the voices of these great people. Isn’t this an extraordinary experience?” says Chinoy.

Great discoveries have been made by the team on their walk to enlightenment. That in the 1950s riffle training was given to the Women’s National Gaurds, a force of women trained to defend Pakistan, says so much about the role of women in the past. At another interview a man admitted that he was part of a mob that killed Hindus and Sikhs. The recollection of the feeling of sadness that filled the air at Jinnah’s funeral as well as the controversies that erupted after Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination are no small stories.         

On the other hand, it is also a very rewarding exercise for the interviewees. Mariam Bilgrami, Project Coordinator gives her side of the story. “As I introduce the project to the person, I can always feel the enthusiasm with which the interviewees receive the news. They are elated to hear someone actually interested in listening to their experiences and preserving them for the future generations of Pakistan.”

As a test to assess whether there was “an appetite in the general public for events catered around history”, The Citizens Archive of Pakistan held a four day long Shanaakht Festival in 2007. “The response was phenomenal”, recounts Chinoy. A record 4000 people from all strata and all walks of life walked in. The Karachi Arts Council saw granddads holding hands of their grandchildren, walking past the 4 by 16 feel murals, painted by cinema billboard artist S.Iqbal, each depicting important events of the decade. The organization had run free buses to various localities of the city and there was no entrance fee to an event. A photography exhibition exhibiting memories of partition and also those exploring the identity of the country was curated by Amean J. Another Art Exhibition titled Sohni Dharti was also put up. Over the course of four days, a number of international documentary films focusing on identity and freedom were screened at the indoor auditorium of the Arts Council. A very interesting informal story telling program was held each evening in which old residents of Karachi rekindled stories of early days of Pakistan, and their experiences of partition. Some of the people who spoke at the sittings included Aziz Fatima (Granddaughter of Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar), Retd. Admiral Hasnain(one of the Founding Fathers of Pakistan Navy), Lutfullah Sahab, (who owns the largest collection of Paksitan’s Oral Archive). Apart from these, an interactive evening was held by Anwar Maqsod and Moin Akhtar discussing the country’s past, present and future in their unique style. Sheema Kirmani presented “Jinnay Lahore Nahin Vakhya”, a play set in 1947 about a family who is allotted a haveli in Lahore but when it arrives there finds an old Hindu lady still occupying the residence. Taking its dialogue from poet Nasir Kazmi’s letters and writings, the play was based on a real life incident.

The Shanaakht festival also had Audio-Visual boots where interested visitors could just walk in and record their personal experiences about partition. As part of the festival Ayesha Tammy Khan had also brought six Karachities on stage to talk of their years after independence and the early struggles of the country. For those of us who somehow missed the festival, the good news is that Shanaakht 2008 is being planned for the 23rd of March next year. The programs will include a host of activities like photo and art exhibits and various oral based presentations. The aim is to facilitate the history and culture of Pakistan by bringing it to life through interactive exhibits in varied genres. At present, the enthusiasm and amount of work geared towards creating The Living History Museum speaks volumes of the team.

“I envision an institution where families come for a day out and go back educated, a place where lectures are held of people who know the real Pakistan, its culture its true identity. I envision a place where academics, young and old, have a field day discovering the past,” says Chinoy.  As Chinoy and her team continue to work towards a dream project, the clock is ticking fast. However at the end of the day, each little effort reinforces the idea that “this is important because we must see the Pakistan of those people who sacrificed their lives, families, everything they had to give us a homeland that we can call our own”. 


1 comment:

  1. thx for the info cuz before today, i didnt knew that a group of ppl is doing such great work : )