An exciting year-long project aimed at showcasing Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage that is not in the mainstream for various reasons on the digital medium
Sometimes, a word, a tweet, a query you overhear or see between two people triggers something in your memory. So it happened when I saw a friend @Fifi Haroon talking to someone about the beautiful Wazir Khan Mosque in the Walled City of Lahore, and I couldn’t help but become a showoff for the moment by immediately posting this link. All because I had been part of an exciting, and educative project that allowed for the digital preservation of our cultural jewels on the Google Cultural Institute portal.
Now I know many acquainted with me would raise their eyebrows at the connection between technology and me because I am known as being somewhat tech-challenged. This is why when this young man, Badar Khushnood, who used to represent Google in Pakistan, and I had met through a common friend said, “Give up your job. In this age of Google, you should be working for yourself,” I just nodded with a faint smile, restraining the rolling of eyes, thinking ok, here’s another techie trying to rock my boat. Google indeed! Just because he represents that organisation, he wants me to give up the comfort of the physical world and traverse this nebula known as the digital world… no thank you!
Over the intervening years, I got to know this young man, and through him and his fraternity, got to know about the wondrous cyberworld. Little did I know he was keeping tabs on me, and six years down the road, suddenly one day called me and said, “I know you have just finished a project and have not taken on another yet… Don’t! I have to talk to you.”
Taken aback but curious, I let him introduce me to an enchanting world dotted with archaeological sites, art galleries and museums that I could ever dream of seeing or visiting, while sitting in the comfort of my armchair.
“What is missing?” he demanded.
Looking at my perplexed expression, he said, “Pakistan! The images that people get when they Google it, are NOT what Pakistan is all about. We have history going back thousands of years, rich cultural heritage, and art. There is art in every nook and corner, in every facet of our lives. We need to put it out there! Are you game?”
How does one not jump (despite my age) at an offer like that? Here was a chance to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Pakistan which people, due to a variety of reasons in the physical world, are not able to get to know. The digital medium now offered the means to be transported to this magical realm.
Thus began my personal educational journey towards learning more about the richness and diversity of the cultural richness of my country. After an evaluation by a team of Googlers in Singapore and England, and a lot of technical and administrative handholding by them and the small core team in Pakistan and India, I was on my way to executing an almost year long project that didn’t seem like a project. It was mid 2013.
It was a journey into the glorious past, on paths traversed by mighty emperors on their mounts and steeds, like along The Royal Trail, taking rest at one of the largest Turkish Baths outside Central Asia, known as the Shahi Hammam, or bowing their heads to the Lord at the beautifully frescoed Wazir Khan mosque, passing the colourful bazaars, and havelis of their courtiers while on their way to their abode at the Lahore Fort.
It took me to the winding, narrow lanes of the Walled City of Lahore inside the Bhati Gate, pulsating with life and vibrant with colour, into one of the oldest ‘living museums’ of the world known as the Fakirkhana Museum. This museum has been in the Fakir family since the 16th Century, and houses not only some of the holiest Islamic relics, but has the largest collection of the Sikh artifacts and relics right from Ranjeet Singh’s times.
I also received an education in art produced by so many artists of this land, some of whose pieces would have me transfixed before them, so powerful was the imagery, whether displayed by the AAN Collection, or assembled in the gallery of the heritage building of the Lahore Museum, the repository of Pakistan’s best cultural and historic relics.
And of course, how can one not be fascinated by the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, which mixes so much of old with the new, or get that otherworldly feeling when walking the pathways of the world’s largest necropolis in Makli, where history mixes with mystery, and mystique of the mystics buried there takes you into another time zone?
But this journey was not just about the past; it was about the present populated by talented young men and women savvy in the use of digital technology adroitly and seamlessly placing Pakistan’s cultural riches on the world stage. These riches were captured by a crop of superb photographers across Pakistan who matched the technical excellence of their equipment with the artistry of their eye.
It was also about the breaking of some stereotypes, and reinforcement of others. Like how some government departments function through the maze of red tape, while others cut through the clutter and grab the opportunity coming their way to show the best side of Pakistan.
So why am I writing this story here? One, because of the memory that tweet I mentioned earlier triggered. But more than that, because far too few institutions and galleries in Pakistan know that here is a digital platform to advertise and market a physical space.
This is a great way to drive tourist and academic traffic to the country, so rich in cultural heritage. Yes, there are external factors that have a bearing on getting the numbers up; extraneous factors like issues of security or availability of tourist-friendly infrastructure. But it isn’t really all that much of a Catch 22.
The ‘product’ is there. It does not have to have a ‘USP’ as it IS the ‘USP’… the digital space acts as the advertising medium. The call to action, or the ‘sales pitch’ has now to come in a coordinated manner so that Pakistan’s best kept secret, its cultural riches, can be unveiled before the world.
Meanwhile, come visit some of Pakistan’s best places virtually, by visiting Google Cultural Institute – Pakistan.