Culture

Ateeqa Bano: An Unsung Hero of Kashmir – II

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Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

A day before my return to the US during my January 2015 visit to Kashmir, I met Ateeqa Ji again, this time at the University of Kashmir. She called me and invited me to a “program on girl child,” organized in part with the Markaz-e-Noor. When I entered after taking off my shoes at the front door, I saw Ateeqa Ji sitting in the front row on the left side which was predominantly occupied by men while a dozen women, some of them in complete face veils, were occupying a space on the right side of the hall. As soon as she saw me, Ateeqa Ji quickly stood up in excitement and offered me her own seat – a spot decorated with cylindrical cushions covered in white gilaf. After a bit of polite haggling and my refusal to take her spot, she sat down and I took the space on her left.

We chatted for a while and kept waiting for the Vice Chancellor, the “chief guest” of the event that was supposed to start at noon, but when the VC was nowhere to be seen even by 1:00 pm, people started getting impatient. Ateeqa Ji turned to me in an embarrassing tone, “Sadaf Ji, do people come to meetings this late in the US as well?” to which I responded in a negative. She appreciated that. In a few minutes, the convener began the program and Ateeqa Ji talked various problems faced by women of Kashmir — problems at home, in public and at the work place. She spoke about “the lack of self-confidence in women” its side-effects which often expresses itself in the objectification of women.

Next, Ateeqa Ji invited me on stage to “speak a few words” on the topic, and I, hesitantly obliged. By then the VC had arrived and taken the special seat in the center of the stage. While I was talking, a bearded man came to me with a little note in his hand that read, “This is not a seminar, please be short.” I quickly finished my point and sat beside a burqa-clad woman next to me. I was sipping kehwa from a beautiful chinaware tea cup and gulping on the last crumb of a shirmaal when I saw the woman writing something on a piece of paper that she pulled from out of a file and passed it to me quietly. The meeting was adjourned after a little bit of commotion over the remarks of the VC who said that “women were responsible for their own woes,” at the conclusion of his views and those of another male faculty who declared that “women’s job was to bear and raise kids while that of men was to earn and support the family.” I retorted in protest and some other women joined in as well. At that uneasy note, people dispersed.

aap se jii bhar ke baat karna chaahti huun (‘I want to talk to you at great length’), the burqa-clad woman had said to me while passing the piece of paper along with her email address. I discovered she was a comrade of Ateeqa Ji in her activism on women’s issues, closely involved in the affairs of the women’s welfare organization Jamiah Falaah-e-Nisvaan set up some years ago. I tried to meet her in the adjacent room but it soon got jam-packed with people and suddenly I found myself ensconced between three men on a sofa – one on my right and two on my left while my new friend squeezed into a corner at the other end of the room hesitant to break the invisible barrier between us. She had promised to “unveil” in private when I told her that I felt uncomfortable talking to a person I could not see. I looked at my watch and realized I was getting late. “I have to leave,” I said. I had to prepare for my return journey and meet another friend who was waiting for me outside. Ateeqa Ji offered me a ride back, but I asked her to excuse me and began to leave. “Wait,” she quickly turned around for something and came back with a package: “This is for you. From Sopore.” The bag full of kulchas that she had brought as a parting gift traveled with me to the United States along with several documents and scores of photographs she had handed over to me earlier; my husband and I relished the kulchas for several weekends over nun chai.

I visited Kashmir again in June that year to gather more information on the collections. Over the following year, I stayed in touch with Ateeqa Ji off and on in connection with my unsuccessful attempts in pursuing funds for digitization and documentation besides training of personnel in the methods in cataloging and preservation. The proposal was submitted and declined twice by the British Library (United Kingdom) in 2015-16. Next year, in summer 2016, I was in Kashmir again for a grant-writing workshop (which sadly was never held due to the situation) and for collecting more information for a re-submission. When I was frantically trying to connect with Ateeqa Ji for a letter that needed her signature, with phones only working intermittently (thanks to the government restrictions), I received a short call from her: Sadaf Ji, main aap se bahut maa’zrat-khwah hoon. Internet band hai, is liye main letter nahi bhej sakti, aur hadtal ki wajah se aap se milne Srinagar bhi nahi aa sakti (‘Sadaf Ji, I am very sorry. Since the Internet is not working, I cannot send you the letter. And because of the hadtal, I am unable to travel to Srinagar to meet you (and deliver the letter by hand)’). After checking into a hotel at Rajbagh for Internet access, I somehow managed to submit the proposal, this time to the National Endowment for Humanities (USA). The proposal was declined a third time earlier this year for insufficient information.

For the first time in many years, I did not visit Kashmir this past summer in 2017. Disappointed at my previous attempts, I did not have the enthusiasm nor the patience to pursue the grant a fourth time during the next funding cycle. I lost touch with Ateeqa Ji in the meantime and the next thing I heard about her was that Ateeqa Ji was no more. Heartbroken and embarrassed, I regretted the loss of the repository of knowledge that departed with her – knowledge that may not be assessed by ordinary people nor retrievable by ordinary means. One can only hope that the treasure she left behind is taken care of with the same dedication and passion that she harbored.

© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.

 

Ateeqa Bano: an unsung hero of Kashmir

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Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

Situated in the heart of the pristine Sopore town and away from the clamor of the city life is an incredible treasure trove called Meeras Mahal. An extremely modest building, Meeras Mahal is an abode of numerous artifacts of historical and cultural importance that are yet to be disseminated to the outside world. The materials collected over more than three decades of relentless efforts by a legend, an unsung hero of the time — Ateeqa Bano. Born in 1940 in the same town, Ateeqa Ji spent most of her adult life serving as an educator and collecting and curating cultural artifacts of a myriad kind. Before her retirement from government service, she served as the Director of Libraries and Joint-Director Education (Jammu & Kashmir). 

It was a pleasant morning in January 2015 when I set out for the historic town of Sopore during a ten-day trip to Kashmir to discuss the plans for a proposal to digitize the manuscript collection at Meeras Mehal. The meeting and the transportation was arranged by personnel at INTACH Kashmir, my collaborators on the proposed project. DSC03917Ateeqa Ji’s eyes glimmered with joy when we arrived. I had explained the purpose of my visit earlier on telephone; she was expecting me. She greeted us with great fervor and high expectations. Wearing her usual “burqa coat” over a green pheran while a light cotton dupatta lay loose over her head, it seemed she were all set for the meeting. We started our 3-hour long journey in her little compound around midday — a small office space with very modest furnishing, no heating and no curtains in the room in the cold season. As Ateeqa Ji gave an introduction of the museum over a glass bowl filled with dried fruits —  almond, cashew nuts, pistachio and dates, a little girl with a scarf woven round her head kept sneaking in and looking at us from out the window. The window opened into the walkway leading to a series of similar-sized rooms in a row. An associate pulled a table from one corner and set it beside another one of slightly different dimensions in front of us. Ateeqa Ji opened a roll of plastic sheet with golden patterns and spread it over the tables for tea and more snacks. Thereafter, she took us for a tour of the museum, from one room to the other, walking us through history and revealing to us an enormous treasure of several generations.

DSC03941Ateeqa Bano’s Meeras Mahal is a repository of items illustrating Kashmir’s ongoing cultural history in a visual format – rare manuscripts, ornaments, pottery and terracotta utensils, metal works, wood works, stone crafts, traditional dresses and jewelry, a coin collection, some calligraphic works, and different kinds of tools. Each item in the repository has a name, a story, and Ateeqa Ji knew it all. Words that have fallen out of use in the language, items no longer seen in the Kashmiri households, are some of the various attractions I was impressed with during my few hours of experience at Meeras Mahal.  DSC03964Picking up an item in her hands and demonstrating its importance in an exuberant manner, telling its story to the audiences – Ateeqa Ji had it all, the incredible motivation to explore and the passion to preserve Kashmir’s remarkable past, its rich cultural history. Our next stop was the manuscript collection — my primary interest in the museum. Ateeqa Ji handed me a copy of the inventory and we went through the list — item by item. Manuscripts were maintained in a pretty good condition given the limited resources she had had at her disposal.

As we sat down for a second course of tea and snacks towards the end of the meeting, Ateeqa Ji produced a document, a proposal for the creation of an institution of enormous potential. DSC03927She showed me the map of a proposed little township with many aspects including a proposed site for an “artists in residence” program she wished to set up as part of her efforts. It was a spectacular idea and I was fascinated, but it needed resources which had been consistently denied. Over the many years of her work on collecting and curating the artifacts, Ateeqa Ji had been desperately seeking financial support from the government and other sources for the maintenance and upkeep of the museum, for hiring trained staff, for infrastructure to preserve the artifacts, and for the upgrading of the building structure.

DSC03945“If this kind of work was done by a man, he would be supported and recognized. Our society does not recognize women’s contributions, she said to me in a humble tone as her associates moved their heads in silent admission. I knew she was right. I had nothing to offer before I left except for a promise to be fulfilled.  

Ateeqa Bano was a woman of incredible motivation, an inspiration, an institution of her own. I could not help but fall in love with this woman of enormous potential and zeal.

(continued)

© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.