In Conversation: Masooma Shakir with Saba Sindhri
Architect Masooma Mohib Shakir is Assistant Professor at the Architecture and Planning Department, NED, Karachi. She got her undergraduate degree in Architecture from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, Pakistan. She got her Masters from University of Leuven, Belgium and is currently working on her Phd research on Interrelationship of Living Heritage to its Context, Case of Sufi Shrines in Sindh, at the , in Germany. Her interests lie particularly in planning and urban design for historic environments. She has been involved in several urban research projects and publications and contributed to national and international journals, symposiums and conferences. Since 2019, Masooma Shakir is PI of an international project funded by the French Embassy and HEC Pakistan. Based on a partnership between CEIAS (CNRS-EHESS) and NED University, it focuses on the representations of the Indus River within the riverside populations and beyond.
SS: What was your basic academic training and career? How did it inspire you to work on Sindh and how did you select the topics you are working on?
MS: Thank you Saba for this opportunity! I am an architect by training and got my undergraduate degree in Architecture from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi. After being engaged in regular architecture practice for a couple of years, I decided that something enormous was missing in the practice realm and joined Architect Arif Hasan to work on design and urban research projects; both to learn from him and to study the built environment on a larger scale. It was there that I was introduced to the idea of looking at community frameworks with reference to built space, the concept of social inequalities being represented/manifested through various planned interventions. I then got a Master’s in Architecture for Human Settlements from KU Leuven, Belgium and joined the Architecture Department at NED University as an academic in 2007—where I have been ever since. Throughout this period, I have maintained engagements with multiple research projects at NED oriented towards understanding urban and community contexts and spatial associations. Working with Dr. Noman Ahmed and the various faculty members of the department while taking advantage of opportunities to engage with visiting scholars and academics who broaden the scope of architecture, I am constantly learning.
History, for me, plays an important role in the shaping of built environments and people associate with historic/traditional environments in special ways. I decided to explore this association in my doctorate work, where I focused on community associations with Sufi heritage in the Sindh region. For me, Sindh has been that non-urban reference which contrasts sharply with the fast changing, urban character and detachment (to the point of being ruthless) that I associate with the city of Karachi where I reside and have worked.
Of course, Sindh has many other cities within it, but their patterns of urban development are relatively slow in comparison with the capital. This contrast makes Sindh a good ground for research aiming to identify meaningful associations and their patterns as represented in built space.
Research work on cities and historical areas in Sindh allows an opportunity to travel, to experience the towns, their structuring features connected to ecology, geography, culture, distribution of zones and major roads, and history and people. Historic sites often summarise these associations within a built space and therefore become interesting places for study.
SS: What are your current publications?
MS: My recent works have focused on specific traditional communities and the historic landmarks and architecture attached to them. This includes the PhD work that I finished in 2018 and work with Prof. Michel Boivin on the Hindu communities attached to Oderolal.
Recently, research frames have been created to study, among others, the Mallah and Mohana communities that have been associated by livelihood to the Indus River, coast and delta.
SS: Your Ph.D. thesis, among other research works of yours, is very interesting. Could you please tell us a little bit about it: what was your purpose? What were your findings when your research was completed?
MS: My PhD thesis stemmed from the frustration of watching heritage in the Karachiite context crumble and deteriorate. Karachi is the main economic center of the country and its orientation is primarily on business and the economy. History and its preservation are generally not valued much within the Karachiite context where interests of stakeholders within the old city areas clash. The purpose of my study was to look at a community that worked at preserving a historic, cultural, and social association. My case study of the Mazar of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Bhitshah was an interesting exploration of this. An examination of the conflicts in ideology of preservation between formal institutions and the traditional community structure was an interesting outcome.
Yes, I learned many things from my research, most important of which is that when a traditional community is oriented towards preservation of a regional history, persistence and motivation is dictated by the community’s social organization and the sentiments that support that association and that this persistence can be seen as a fragile one within the larger milieu. Thus, it needs to be dealt with as such, that is, with care in planning. Yes, you can say I managed to achieve my aims, but I believe this is only another major piece within the larger puzzle of understanding contextual changes.
SS: Apart from space as cultural heritage, how do you observe devotees in separate groups such as Hindus, Muslims, and Scheduled castes? Could you explain how they share space with each other and how, specifically, Muslims and Hindus share it with Scheduled Castes?
MS: I prefer to see them within frameworks of community with a particular hierarchy and relations that dictate their role. While my work does have anthropological leanings, scheduled castes are not a subject that I have touched upon. I do understand that social relations often dictate the organization of spaces, the case of Oderolal dargah and the Hindu complex has been one that brings this out clearly. Physical boundaries at times are safe spaces that represent the tensions between particular social groups; that they may delineate the comfort zones of groups for particular activities has been an interesting observation that has come through.
SS: How would you generalize the religiosity of Sindh in Sufi shrines and in other sacred places, in past and in present? If you give a general historical background of Sufi shrines, could you please tell us which century in the history of Sindh is important in order to understand the origin of such spaces and why? Finally, did you observe change in religiosity since you started to work on shrines?
MS: Sufi shrines are religious/sacred spaces for many, and my research revealed that places like Bhitshah which have a performance dimension attached are also visited for recreational purposes by groups of friends or single men from the region. According to the fakirs attached to the shrines, the numbers visiting for recreational purpose has increased over time. I do not believe that this can be generalized though because it varies from place to place and shrine to shrine. Some shrines are more controlled and religious. Sometimes the associated facilities, like madrasas, or institutes etc. also add to this. The Mazar of Bhitai is different from many other shrines because of some of its spatial features and cultural elements, perhaps also by its location at the center of the town. The sanctity of the space seems to somehow justify the congregation of various social groups whose code of behavior is much different from that observed in streets.
Similarly, I feel that each shrine has to be seen within its own historical framework and context. Various shrines have been historically significant within their own context. The social and cultural associations of these built environments with the community and the region, in the various forms of expression particularly in terms of historical and political relevance, is important to decipher. Their historic role in communities and subsequent evolution is an area of research interest for me.
For the rural populace, the occasional visit to shrines is a day out. It definitely has a recreational value for young people. The older members of the family attribute religious value to the places. I suppose the young are still learning about them. I also feel that history of shrines should be available at the sites as general information for the masses so they are informed. In some of the bigger shrines, there are some little booklets and plaques that give this information.
SS: Do you have any ongoing project on Sindh?
MS: Currently, we (Department of Architecture and Planning, NED UET Karachi) are working on a collaborative interdisciplinary research project with Prof. Michel Boivin and his team from the CEAISunder the Pak France Periodot Research Project funded by the Higher Education Commission Pakistan and French Consulate. The project is oriented to study communities associated with the River Heritage of and related to the Indus River. The major focus of this research is to understand the different dimensions of sanctity attached to the river, in material and social forms, attached to figures like Oderolal, Khwaja Khizr, Zindapir, Sheikh Tahir. In line with this, the various built heritage are a focus of study and documentation. Our project fieldwork and travel however, has been delayed quite a bit due to the corona virus outbreak in both countries!
SS: How do you think we can reinforce Sindhi Studies in Sindh, Pakistan and European projects?
MS: Projects like the Pak France Peridot are good opportunities that foster and promote the study of Sindh through scholarly interaction between universities. Prof. Michel Boivin is very well informed about Sindh and often he discusses aspects that provides a framework for us, and we learn about the very region where we live and work in. People from Pakistan and Sindh themselves need to understand the global theoretical frameworks to create lenses and objective methodologies of documentation of the region in the larger context. Regional studies of any part of the world have to be done within certain frameworks that present an accurate and unbiased picture of the area. My Sindhi colleagues in the academia usually agree that there is dire need for better scholarship on Sindh from within. Familiarity with the language is in my opinion a big advantage that can allow themas native speakers to document and interact closely with the locals of the region and understand the finer undertones that often some of us miss as non-Sindhi speakers.