Nighat Shafi Pandit is the founder of HELP (Human Effort for Love & Peace) Foundation, a Jammu and Kashmir based non governmental organization. With the aim of reviving and educating the next generation about the valley's rich heritage, art, and craft, The HELP Foundation has established a heritage museum - Bait-ul-Meeras (The house of heritage). The museum is a magnificent example of Kashmir’s architectural heritage, serving as a testament to the region's rich cultural history. Through the museum's artifacts and displays, one can gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the valley's cultural heritage.
Pandit is one of 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005, due to her exemplary work and commitment. She was also awarded the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in the category of Development and Welfare of Women and Children. She spoke to Akasha Usmani.
The heritage museum: Bait-ul-Meeras
Akasha Usmani (AU): What inspired you to start working with rural communities in Kashmir and focus on helping orphans and widows?
Nighat Shafi (NS): I started my work in 1997 and at that point of time things were very bad in Kashmir, there was a conflict in Kashmir going on and we are still facing the effects of that. Due to the conflict, we realized that lots of people are suffering and the widows and orphans need help so that was a call for me to move out of my home and start working with these children and women who had nobody to fall back on. My focus was to help those widows by a way of livelihood, by a way of training and because the schools had been burnt around so the education had also taken a brunt of the conflict so we started with small schools and at present we have one school running but at that point of time, I started with one and then had three. That is how we decided to work in the rural communities because the outreach programs will not reach the rural communities so we started going to them and asking what they needed because non-governmental organizations (NGO) were not registered and ours - HELP foundation, was one of the first ones to get registered. The NGO culture was not there so we had to introduce ourselves and let them know what we are doing and that we are not affiliated to any government agency and that was the first thing that we had to satisfy the question of the people.
AU: Can you describe the impact and reach of the Help Foundation in the region?
NS: Help Foundation has been since 1997 and you can see now it has been 22-23 years. It has worked nearly in all the regions like Jammu, we worked for some years but mostly the work has been in Kashmir in nearly 4-5 districts and maximum work we have done is in Kupwara and Srinagar. The impact has been immense. I remember when I started a school in Kupwara with eight kids, the girls were not allowed to study so it was a mission for me to get the girls in and get them into education because everyone wanted boys to study and not the girls. There was no skill training in Kupwara and we started all these - getting the women also, getting their health check-ups done. I feel the impact has been quite a lot in the districts that we have been working.
AU: How does the Help Foundation's work contribute to the larger social and cultural context in Kashmir?
NS: Socially, when you see how Help Foundation has helped, I think everybody’s duty is to see that the people of the state are happy, they are well provided for. I don’t think we should leave it to the government to see. I think whatever we can do working in a social sector, we have to help and make the hands of government stronger by doing our duty and we have tried to do that. I attend to the people who need to be brought up by education, by way of empowerment and culturally also we have had programs on culture, heritage as we have realized that all these years we have lost a lot of our culture.
I remember I did a workshop for six months with Faizal and Qazi from Delhi School of Drama who came down with his partner and we had a six months workshop in which we tried to revive the culture on what is our culture, what is our heritage, what our arts are, what are artifacts, - we have been doing it for so many years but that was a beginning of everything where children didn’t know what our past was, how their elders lives and what sort of difficulties they had so we started with that and I think it is now come up as a huge thing in a way that we are dealing with culture, we have taken up the Baitul Meeras building just to show our children, to be proud of their culture and heritage.
It is a show window for everybody not just for children but for everybody, this is the second NGO that have set up this Baitul Meeras museums and that is something I am really happy about because this was my dream that we should have something like this where children could come, we could have theater festivals, we have had drama and theater festivals. I was the first one to start with drama and theater in Kashmir because in those days this was not a thing. In conflict we were not supposed to have theater or have movies.
We had three-four years tie up with children film societies and we were showing children these films and theater training was given by our people to the children to encourage them about the art they have and that this is not below your dignity to work in the theater so we have tried to do that.
AU: Can you talk a little about the heritage museum Baitul Meeras, What inspired the Help Foundation to consider setting up a heritage museum and what is the main objective of the museum?
NS: This was my dream project because I realized we have objects at home, we don't respect that and we need to have a place wherein we can keep all the things so that people of Kashmir can see and be proud of a place where they can go and see them and even outsiders like tourists. Since last year tourists have been coming to Baitul Meeras and it is a place where you can see things of Kashmir. It is not only the food that is famous, our other things are also famous like jewellery is famous, our way of living is different so I feel for us this has been a good initiative that we have taken up and we have also created a space for the children of the city who have been neglected for all these years in the sense that they have no space in this city, they don’t have much space to work so we have created a space for the children to participate in theater, participate in music, calligraphy, painting - whatever they want, it is like a small club for the children and for the women as well who have gone through the stress of conflict. I think it is a place where you can relax, talk to each other, not where you are demanded and asked to do things, it is a space where you can breathe freely and have a good time.
AU: How does the heritage museum contribute to the larger conversation about preserving cultural heritage and promoting sustainability?
NS: This is just the first step, I think the museum is the first step but at least now our children know what our background is, what they should be proud of, our language, our culture heritage. We have folk theater here, we have been doing that. We have asked them to see what the music is, the musical instruments are different from the other parts of India, this also created a space for musicians, a space where children know their musical instruments and art.
This is promoting our heritage. Sustainability, now that we have to see how we have to sustain and maintain it. Wherever you have the will, you have the way. We have done this much and we hope and pray we can move forward and take it to different places as well. As I thought of having spaces in villages where the village children can see what their culture is, how important their language is, how important the theater is as our folk theater is famous for this, we are trying to see if we can move it to villages also and create spaces for children over there.
AU: What message would you like to share with others who are looking to make a difference in their communities and beyond?
NS: My message to everybody is to join us and give us ideas on how to work about it because we may not be 100 per cent right but we are doing our bit. My request for everybody is to come and join us and see if they can make a difference in the society who has suffered quite a lot for the last 35 years. We are in a state where the population has been under stress so this has been a breather for everybody. Request is to join us and let us take this forward.