The veteran educationist who had a vast contribution in preserving the heritage and culture of the valley
Sopore: One of Sopore’s most prodigious daughters, Atiqa Bano, known as ‘Behen Ji’ (sister) by her admirers, passed away earlier this month. A renowned educationist and prominent social activist, her death was mourned across Jammu and Kashmir, with condolence messages pouring in from everywhere.
While her role as an educationist is widely admired, it is her role as the curator of Kashmir’s first and only private museum, Miras Mahal, that puts her on a pedestal where many of her contemporaries struggle to find a place.
For the record, Atiqa set up the first private school in Sopore along with another educationist, Muzamil Bashir Masoodi. Many would stop there. But she worked to inspire women in many other ways. Throughout her life, Behen Ji worked for empowering women and preserving the treasure of Kashmiri culture.
Atiqa’s sister-in-law, Nabla Begum, has been a fellow teacher. Nabla says that Kashmiri culture was something Atiqa always talked about and “dedicated her life to it”.
“She suffered from cancer for a long time, but never complained about her illness. Behen Ji would never rest even if she was in pain,” says Nabla of the disciplinarian.
Atiqa Bano was born in 1940 in Sopore. Her father was a noted scholar. In days when it was rare for women to go for higher studies, Atiqa showed got a masters degree in education. She had already got a graduate degree in economics and Urdu. Soon after, she joined the education department, recalls Muzamil Bashir who co-founded the school with her.
From her first job as a teacher in a middle school in 1958 to Director Libraries J&K; Joint Director School Education, Atiqa rose through the ranks of the state bureaucracy with the power of her work and vision. All along her illustrious career, she established a reputation of an honest and competent officer, says Bashir. “Her school inspection would send shivers down the spine of the staff,” he recounts.
After her retirement from government service, she founded the ‘Miras Museum’ in Sopore in 1999 – the place is popular as Miras Mahal. “It started as a simple but stoic effort to collect artifacts, rare-hand written books and heritage pieces that shone a light on Kashmir’s collective history,” Muzamil Bashir said.
However, creating a museum from scratch was never going to be an easy task. Atiqa would travel to far-off villages to collect relics of Kashmir’s past, artifacts, manuscripts, jewelry and whatever else she could find. She reached strangers and relatives, said Imtiyaz Ahmad, who looks after Miras Mahal.
Over the past decade, Miras Mihal has grown from a small collection to occupy multiple shelves in a dozen rooms.
Artifacts in each room have a theme. Manuscripts and handwritten copies of the Qur’an, Persian literature, Hindu and Sanskrit literature are placed in one room. Among the copies of Qur’an, one dates back to 1207 AD when it was handwritten by Ghulam-din Shahid. There are books of Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) Hadith and Baghwat Geeta, besides other religious manuscripts dating back hundreds of years.
A unique collection of coins adorns another room. Besides currency from places in Middle East like Dirham, Riyal, and Dinar, rare coins minted in Kashmir and other places in the sub-continent in 17th and 18th centuries are curated at the museum.
Several well-preserved samples of Kashmiri dresses across time and religions – like Pherans, Burqa and bridal wear – are bewitching. A round Kashmiri Burqa, hanging on the wall, is around 200 years old. A Kashmiri coat hung nearby reads: “We have preserved our glorious past, our identity and the tradition of Kashmir’s unique humanity. This is the legacy of our great ancestors.”
Miras Mahal is a work of love. Atiqa and her able assistants, Imtiyaz Ahmad and Mumtaza, have made sure that every item is properly catalogued. Each shelf has been named in Kashmiri. Books are divided into sections such as Hade’s books, Law books, Image books, Dream Books, Hindi and Sanskrit books, Science books, Rumi and Sadi books, Taseer Qur’an books, Sikandar and Yousuf-Zulakha books.
Two rooms in the museum hold artifacts like spectacles and watches, silver spoons and ladles, traditional Kashmiri tea Samavaar, the diverse forms of spinning wheel (yinder), thousand years old fossil stones, Kim Kahb (an expansive type of cloth), copper utensils, mortar and pestles, hats, shoes, jewelry, wedding trousseau, lanterns, kangris, clay items and latticed windows traveling through time.
The first floor of the museum houses musical instruments like Setar, Rabab, Saarang, and Shahnayi. A wooden radio here is about 200-year-old. The room also has wood and grass slippers, a 200-year-old milk pot, and an installation of the childhood game of walnuts and compass.
A section of the museum is dedicated to a photo gallery. The first set has photos of female poets of Kashmir – from Habba Khatoon to Jahan Ara Janbaz. Another set is that of Hindu and Muslim saints of the valley. The hall of fame has rare pictures of Kashmir’s leading poets and leaders who have lived through the ages.
One leaves Miras Mahal with a sense of pride and wonder. However, the museum is just another institution that Atiqa left behind as her legacy. She established many educational institutions like Kashmir Women’s College of Education at Noorbagh Sopore, Lighthouse Public School in Handwara, two branches of Al-Mustafa Public School (where kids from economically weaker families are provided free education), Majlisun-Nisa (an NGO established in 1973), Kashmir Valley Institute of Information Technology at Noorbagh, Calligraphy and Graphic Design Centre at Sopore, Jamia Falahi Yatama (for orphans), Begum Yaseen Library in Sopore and Kashmir Studies Centre in Sopore, Muzamil Bashir told Kashmir Reader.
It is hard to imagine how a humble person could have such a glorious legacy. One can only marvel the daughter of Kashmir who chose not to marry and dedicate her life to public service. Many in Kashmir view her as their hero.