Kashmir loses its heritage lady

Shujaat Bukhari looks back at Atiqa Bano's work

Kashmir loses its heritage lady
Most of the people in Kashmir did not know who she was till she breathed her last on October 4. Atiqa Bano was an indomitable woman who left an indelible footprint by her extraordinary work. An educationist who carved a niche in her field as an officer, she contributed hugely to upgrading the standards of education in the government sector. She tirelessly fought for the empowerment of women in a conservative society such as Kashmir’s. But she remained wedded to her religious ideals and stood out for not being seen without her signature two-piece burqa. She was a language activist and rose to senior vice president of the Adbee Markaz Kamraz, Kashmir’s biggest and oldest federation of cultural and literary organization. In the last few years of her life she shot to prominence, though only in a limited circle, for something unimaginable. She set up Meeras Mehal, the first of its kind museum in the private sector.

When Behenji, as she was popularly known, passed away, all the facets of her life came to light. To the teachers and students who had seen her as an officer in the education department she was a tough administrator. Even a whiff of a proposed visit to a school in the 70s and 80s would send shivers down the spines of its teachers. She inculcated a sense of discipline that bore spectacular results. Oddly though, she was shy and would never agree to come on camera. Though her long career in government, that ended with her as director for Libraries and Research, was dotted with contributions, the life that she lived for her people started soon after retirement.
Meeras Mahal museum is about ordinary Kashmir unlike museums which venerate kings and queens. This, in a way, formed a counter-narrative to historiography that is centered around the elite

In a society where it was naïve to think about such a concept, she formed the Majlis-un-Nisa, an NGO in north Kashmir’s Sopore. She set up vocational training centers for women. This concept was first introduced by Begum Akbar Jehan (the wife of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Kashmir’s tallest leader) at Miskeen Bagh and Atiqa-ji followed it far away in north Kashmir. A sense of independence and recognizing their own worth was the best gift she gave to literate and semi-literate women who could not go out to do full-time work. Without disturbing the religious, Islamic or ethical ethos of the time, she expressed womanhood and carved her identity in a patriarchal society. Without even saying that she challenged Western and European theories of empowerment based on religious and ethical confrontations, she expressed herself while keeping her values intact.

Despite having been born into a religious home, where her grandfather and father were preachers, she preferred to remain single. She would tell journalists that this decision gave her unthinkable opportunities to work for her people. She also set up a college of education for women among other institutions. Behenji also opened a calligraphy training institute in Jammu for many people whose chances of learning “Khushkhat” had been blocked. She started a Kashmiri weekly titled Meeras but faced a hard time keeping it as she could not find loyal supporters.

However, it was Meeras Mehal that garnered her attention from a circle interested in heritage and culture. Conceiving a museum in the private sector was unthinkable. But she did it and today when someone talks about her, the conversation inevitably starts with Meeras Mehal. The inspiration, she once told me, was her own home where there were many museum-worthy materials. Those manuscripts are today part of Meeras Mehal whose wooden shelves in 15 rooms have become invaluable. What is distinct about this museum is that it is about ordinary Kashmir unlike museums which venerate kings and queens. This, in a way, formed a counter-narrative to historiography that is centered around the elite. It is a commoner’s history that is kept alive in the museum that is not even not built like one.

Meeras Mehal has preserved items that are slowly disappearing. This includes footwear pulhoar (of grass) and khrav (of wood) and utensils such as Kani Leaj (stone cauldrons). There are books and manuscripts, handwritten copies of the Holy Quran (150 to 250 years old), the Bhagwad Geeta in different languages and a rare copy of Shahnama Firdousi. There is a 500-year-old stone cauldron, which weighs around five kilograms and a 500-year-old stone sculpture of a Hindu goddess engraved with designs of the cow.

Behenji herself visited village to village to collect these artifacts and even paid for them. She would boast that a coffin in a museum is most expensive as it is related to life’s reality.

As people thronged to pay their last respects one got a sense of how popular she had become. Many people referred to her as an Iron Lady as she was a tough administrator and others called her a Mother Teresa for her social work. Some people compared her museum with that of Orhan Pamuk’s in Istanbul. Whatever title she preferred to be known as, she was a simple Kashmiri woman who devoted herself to the cause of her people. Her biggest contribution was to make the ordinariness of Kashmiris something extraordinary, which people will cherish for times to come.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Srinagar (Kashmir) and can be reached at shujaat7867@gmail.com