Mirroring everyday Kashmir

Preserving history

Mirroring everyday Kashmir

Atiqa Bano is 73 years old, and her appearance is quite unassuming. The Kashmiri woman dresses up in a floral salwar-kameez, dons old-fashioned slippers, and a black veil covers her henna-tinted hair as a few tousled strands fall over her face.

As she walks around the neighbourhood, people greet the elderly woman with respect and she smiles back affectionately, blessing them. Of course, for all her ordinariness, Atiqa Bano is quite an extraordinary woman — she has made a unique contribution to preserving the history of Kashmir.

About 57 km from Srinagar, the state capital of Jammu and Kashmir, lies the town of Sopore. It is in a three-storey building here that Atiqa has painstakingly set up a museum that showcases the everyday life of Kashmiri people back from the times when it was truly ‘a heaven on earth’. Much like its creator, Meeras Mahal bears a plain look — it has no modern furniture or fittings, and none of the glitz of a city museum.

Each of its 15 rooms has been fitted with functional wooden shelves, frames and tables where artefacts, painstakingly collected over the years, have been displayed rather unceremoniously. Coloured chart papers have been used to give detailed descriptions and synthetic mismatched mats have been used as flooring to complete the rustic feel.

From coat buttons, locks and keys to precious manuscripts and ancient literature, there’s a lot to take in. In fact, many items found in this museum are not even there in the state museums. “I have collected things that were part of our daily lives. My museum is about every ordinary Kashmiri and his or her existence,” says Atiqa.

A walk around Meeras Mahal will reveal a treasure trove of objects from a forgotten era. There is a plethora of interesting kitchenware, including scores of knives, copper utensils, rusted spoons, pitchers, mortar and pestle sets, earthenware, pitchers, among others, many of which are now extinct. Besides these, there are more personal items like combs, dozens of exquisite necklaces — none of which have been used in decades — staffs and qalams (dried reed pens).

There is also a century-old doli (palanquin), in addition to a crib as well as a rusted coffin that fittingly lie side by side in one corner. Incidentally, at Rs 6,000, the coffin is the costliest purchase on display.

Atiqa is really proud of the various spinning wheels that she has been able to gather. According to her, “Women in Kashmir have been contributing towards the family income for centuries. Spinning yarn has been one of the means of earning money. They are a true symbol of our women folk’s hard work.” 

The septuagenarian has a strong connect with her past as well. Atiqa Bano was born in Sopore in 1940. When her father — a political figure in the 1930s — died, she was only a few months old. His passing away put the entire burden of keeping the family together on her mother, who courageously took on the responsibility of bringing up five children single-handedly. “But that also meant that she could not go out to work. Also, ours was a conservative family and no woman had ever stepped out of home to earn,” Atiqa elaborates.

Fortunately for them, some relatives stepped in to support the family and Atiqa and her siblings could continue with their studies. After she passed her matriculation in 1956, she got a job as a school teacher. Later she served at different levels in the administrative section of the state education department. She retired in 1999 as Director, Libraries and Research, Jammu and Kashmir.

Throughout her career, Atiqa had always dreamt of working in the field of culture, but it was only after her retirement that the idea of Meeras Mahal took shape. She says, “While I was in service, I ensured that we set up exhibition halls in every educational institution to which I was posted. I was always interested in Kashmiri culture.”

In the 1970s, Atiqa had also single-handedly set up a welfare organisation called Majlis-e-Nisa that worked for the welfare of women. The idea was to ensure their financial independence and develop a sense of self-confidence in them. “In Kashmir, women see themselves as someone’s wife or daughter, I wanted them to think of themselves as individuals. I encouraged them to be good at whatever they did, even while fighting social evils like dowry,” she adds.

Majlis-e-Nisa grew with time, and along with it came up Meeras Mahal. Atiqa started collecting old objects from the local people. She mostly looked for poor households that continued to use old items. She then chose an abandoned hostel building in a college her family had owned to showcase the past to visitors. As people volunteered to work with her, her collection diversified. “I am facing a dearth of space now. We need many more rooms. I have to pile these objects, one over the other,” she remarks.

Kashmir has only one important museum, the Shri Pratap Singh (SPS) Museum in Srinagar, which is in a deplorable condition, with a new complex awaiting completion for the past four years.

The SPS museum houses objects of ancient Kashmir, mostly depicting royalty and the elite class. Meeras Mahal, on the other hand, gives a clear picture of the common person’s life in Kashmir dating back to over 150-200 years. “I have collected needles, tooth picks, mouth fresheners and every little object of our use. It is a history of the common person, not of royalty,” emphasises Atiqua.

Despite having collected an alluring set of things that depict the Kashmiri culture, Atiqa is not satisfied. “There are so many things still missing. It’s unfortunate that some people have sold some important ancient objects of daily use to the newspaper recycling vendors. People here do not realise the value of their culture. That is hurtful,” she observes.

With Atiqa devoting all her time to her job and preserving Kashmir’s culture, her personal life took a backseat. She never married. She says, “There is no particular reason for not marrying. It just did not happen.” Her only passion in life is to keep the face of ancient Kashmir alive and so, despite her growing years, she is seen often going from door to door in search of valuable additions to her heritage palace.

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