“What strikes me consistently about India-Pakistan relations is that you have politics on one side. But on other you have art, literature, music, craft, patterns, poetry, fabric, clothing… and you’re letting that one thing supercede everything else.” – Mehr F Husain
“Trade fosters relationships irrespective of political ideology. As a business you are always thinking of how to collaborate, and at that point boundaries don’t come in.” – Suparna Handa
“You can’t work on dead heritage, you have to make it live and make it contextual to today’s times.” – Ritu Khandelwal
The panel titled ‘Documenting Heritage: Keeping Bonds Alive Through Art and Design’ at eShe Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women saw a fascinating discussion on the art and design links between the two countries, and especially how political borders have not only stalled the preservation and evolution of ancient crafts but also created logistical hurdles in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people with families and professional interests on both sides.
Moderator Suparnaa Chadda, media entrepreneur and founder of the SABERA Awards, began the discussion by an invocation to Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. She shared that she had done the same during a talk on her first visit to Islamabad, Pakistan, several years ago.
Amna Shariff, jewellery designer and craft connoisseur from Pakistan, talked about her first visit to India and feeling “completely at home”. Amna, who had visited India earlier as a journalist and then on a fellowship to study the jewellery traditions, found a sense of ‘freedom’ while in India, and said the visit sparked off a new career direction for her. “I realised the importance of tradition. My work now is based in tradition but it is not soulless, it is meant for contemporary times,” she said.
Echoing the sense of camaraderie and unity that Amna had expressed about being in India, author and social entrepreneur Mehr F Husain shared her own views about the shared heritage of India and Pakistan: “In the very first line of Tarun Tahiliani’s foreword in my book Pakistan: A Fashionable History, he starts with ‘Being Sindhi myself…’ In just the first line, there’s immediately this connection of two countries, coming together on the basis of identity.”
For her part, Suparna Handa, managing director of luxury home label Sarita Handa, talked about the importance of trade. “Heritage and shared crafts aside, trade fosters relationships irrespective of our political ideology or what’s happening in the subcontinent,” she said.
She added: “It feels to me seamless the kind of work that comes out of the two countries. But I think the question is how to make it alive and make it contemporary and relevant. That’s the responsibility each one of us has, irrespective of whether you’re a luxury house or a commercial space.”
Jaipur-based architect Ritu Khandelwal, who specialises in palace restorations, spoke of how her perspective towards heritage changed over the years. “It was as late as 2008 that my heritage journey started,” said, narrating how she and her husband, who run an architectural firm together, first got commissioned to renovate an old, dilapidated fort.
“That’s when the richness of our culture dawned upon us. I started deeply studying and trying to understand how and what is it that we call heritage. What is it that we need to preserve? Why do we need to preserve it at all?”
After several projects, Ritu shared that while she has been as true as possible to the original structures – even travelling for days to find the matching quality of marble for pillars – she has modernized the ancient buildings and made them livable for contemporary residents, such as putting in air-conditioners. “Heritage doesn’t have boundaries. It’s a reflection of the culture of the people in a certain place and time. What we are making today will be heritage a hundred years later, so we are also creating heritage,” she explained.
Indian artist Reena Saini Kallat spoke of her childhood in cosmopolitan Mumbai and hearing stories of Partition from her parents. “We know borders are merely a political construct. We are seeing this rapid communalization of politics and the commercialization of the media space,” she averred, adding that she appreciated eShe for creating this kind of exchange where people from both sides could speak of shared history and long civilizational links. She also displayed some of her work based on Partition, and shared history and geography.
Finally, Pakistani artist Masooma Syed talked of being married to an Indian, and the logistical and visa issues involved in being an Indo-Pak couple. “I moved to India in 2008. It’s so abstract, complicated, beautiful, and difficult. It’s not easy to even talk about. When it comes to the ground reality, things are not so black and white. Things are not so rosy at all. We can’t bypass politics, we can’t bypass other bureaucratic procedures especially when it comes to borders and the hostility of diplomacies. Everything else goes on, dreams go on, plans and aspirations go on, relations also go on, but day-to-day life is definitely affected for individuals,” she shared.
Finally, art and design are part of a historical process of documenting heritage as well as igniting change. As moderator Suparnaa put it, “We are linking our pasts and creating something new, which is the evolution of culture as well.”