Saving history for future generations

Saima Iqbal studied MSc Historic Preservation and Conservation at Oxford Brookes, graduating in 2008 and has gone onto win a UNESCO award and most recently an India-UK Top Achiever award. Here she talks about her passion for heritage, her hometown of Srinigar in Kashmir and how Brookes was key to her professional development.

Saima was named in the top 75 Indian achievers who have studied in the UK – part of the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from the UK. For Saima it wasn’t just a recognition of her own achievements but also of the excellence of the teaching at Brookes.

“It is a recognition of almost two decades of work, a culmination of all the happy things that I feel about what I do professionally,” explains Saima, “and of everything I learned at Brookes and the fact that I evolved as a better professional at Brookes.”

Saima used the skills and knowledge from her course to becoming a pioneer for cultural heritage in her hometown of Srinigar in Kashmir. Following her graduation from Brookes, she became Principal Conservation Architect at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural heritage (INTACH).

Saima in the UK

An award-winning pioneer

“Until 2004, there was absolutely nobody working in the cultural heritage sector in Kashmir. We started off by preparing an inventory of the cultural resources that Srinigar has. We documented around 900 cultural heritage assets within the city.

“After that we took on the projects which had the greatest chance of changing the discourse about cultural heritage in Kashmir and gave advice to the local authorities on various pressing issues of built heritage.

“One of the most recent projects I am working on is the Endangered Wooden Architecture Program, which is being carried out by Brookes. My team won a large grant to prepare high definition, digital documentation of three timber-based heritage sites in Kashmir.”

Saima received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation Award for conservation of Amar Singh College (main image), a large colonial-style building that was damaged by floods.

“It’s an exposed, moulded-brickwork building, which was impacted by a massive flood in 2014. So, we prepared a conservation proposal and the Government agreed to fund it. The conservation work itself was very, very challenging but eventually it came to be very a successful project.”

Another project that Saima is particularly proud of was to draw up comprehensive conservation guidelines for Kashmir’s seventeenth century Mughal gardens, including Shalimar Bagh aka the “Crown of Srinagar”.

“It was a very detailed project in the kind of research we carried out, and how we understood the gardens’ evolution and future potential. It was not just guidelines; we also made a nomination to be a World Heritage Site and did a lot of conservation work within the gardens over the years. I worked on Shalimar Bagh, where we restored the water channels and the artwork in the Mughal pavilion.”

Saima’s work has contributed to raising the profile and status of cultural heritage in Kashmir and more widely in India.

“Cultural heritage and conservation really weren’t a priority for the people of Kashmir. Even in India it wasn’t taken very seriously up until about two decades ago but now people and governments are becoming more and more aware and understand the value and economic potential of conserving cultural heritage.

“Organisations like INTACH have helped make cultural heritage a household word. People are taking more and more interest and the young are taking the profession seriously – you will see a lot of Indians who, after their graduation, want to become conservation architects.”

Impact of political situation in Kashmir

Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan, and has been the subject of wars between the two countries – most recently in 1999. The political and security situation remains tense and the impact is felt by every Kashmiri.

Saima explains how this affects heritage sites: “Shut downs, Internet blockades and restrictions on movement does sometime impact our work. Many important heritage sites are located at good vantage points and are under the control of security forces. So, we can’t take them for conservation even if they are falling into a state of disrepair. Even buildings which have been vacated have been damaged by their presence and use – some also have smoke-blackened walls and ceilings because they seem to have lit fires for warmth in the rooms.”

The challenges and unpredictability of life in Kashmir was a contrast to what Saima encountered when she came to study in the UK.

“When I came to the UK there was a real cultural difference. Kashmir was just waking up from two decades of militancy. Until recently, there had always been some kind of crisis going on – you would not know what the day or the next day would hold for you.

“In the UK I saw a more open society and there was freedom of expression and thought. There were no restrictions, it was a very liberating experience.”

Oont Kadal before and after reconstruction

Studying at Brookes

At undergraduate level, Saima studied Architecture in Vijayapura in the state of Karnataka. The city was once the capital of a Deccan sultanate and is rich in historic buildings. The experience of living there had a profound influence on Saima.

“Everywhere you walked, you would see crumbling heritage. There’s so much of it. That had an indelible impact on me and I was diverted towards conservation.”

Saima had found her calling and to take the next step on her journey she chose to leave India in order to study Historic Conservation in the UK. And one university stood out.

“I applied to several universities but when I spoke to Michelle Thomas, Course Leader at Brookes, I felt compelled to take up the course. She played a big role but also, I had friends who had studied here who told me about it. When I got the offer from Brookes, I didn’t really give a lot of thought to the others.”

Saima arrived at Brookes in 2007. The course was very practical, which suited her, and she learnt or improved skills that are crucial to her work.

“It was very hands-on. You would read up on the theory, but what really mattered was how you would apply that information. So even the research led up to how are you able to apply it in the field.

“We studied historic materials and how they behave in different conditions – how they age, how to restore them, the scientific methods involved in understanding historic buildings.  And I also improved my writing skills – I used to consider my report-writing skills to be very good but when I came to Brookes, I learnt how to use few words to explain things succinctly. My research and communication skills significantly improved and I apply all of these learnings in my work today.”

Saima also enjoyed living in Oxford, “you would feel special that all these great people walked the streets of Oxford, and you are also walking among them. I remember one time we saw Tony Blair, he’d come for his son’s graduation. You could walk everywhere or cycle around. It became home. Even today, I feel like Oxford is my second home.”

And would Saima recommend studying at Brookes and in the UK to others?

“Yes, definitely. I think British education is very thorough. It is the one of the best, especially in conservation because the UK has been working in the heritage sector for centuries now. And I feel very proud of the fact that I studied at Brookes, that I evolved as a professional and as an individual.”

Looking to the future

Saima has achieved a great deal in the 15 years since she graduated from Brookes – but there is a lot more she wants to do. She has recently founded an NGO – Sustainability Architecture Heritage Environment and Nature – and is taking up community-based projects, such as her current project regenerating a community-run museum.

“I want to engage with a lot of young people and work on projects where heritage and community and the young can all work together. Also, I want to work on architecture that strengthens disaster resilience.”

It will be fascinating to see what Saima achieves in the years to come. If you want to contact Saima or follow her progress you can connect with her on LinkedIn.