“It is important that we commit ourselves ever more ardently to the essential work of cultural heritage as a powerful contributor to improving the quality of life for the entire human community,” stated Mawlana Hazar Imam in a speech at the 50th anniversary of ICOMOS, also known as the International Council on Monuments and Sites, in London in 2015.
In a world threatened by socioeconomic disparities, unprecedented disruptions, and conflicts, investments in the preservation of diverse traditions and cultural heritage can provide a prosperous and hopeful path towards progress. In the Islamic tradition, preserving cultural heritage is not perceived as a burden. Rather, it is cherished as a communal asset which allows us to adapt to modern trends while staying rooted in shared values.
Mawlana Hazar Imam has often presented cultural heritage as a developmental priority and therefore, it is reflected in the institutional initiatives of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and Jamati institutions. The Aga Khan Music Programme for example, promotes talented musicians and music educators who strive to preserve, transmit, and further develop their musical heritage in contemporary forms.
The Leif Larsen Music Centre, located in Altit of the Gilgit Baltistan region in Pakistan, is a premier music centre where the Aga Khan Music Programme is working on the preservation, promotion, and reinvigoration of Central Asian music. Recently, the Leif Larsen Music Centre invited Mr Zia ul Karim, an expert in folk music, with strong national and international experience, to be a master musician and trainer. Mr Karim, who also performed at the reputable Coke Studio, is working in collaboration with other musicians to train 20 pupils, both girls and boys, to play various local instruments like the rubab, sitar, charda, xhighini, and percussion.
The Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board (AKYSB), through its local, regional, and national initiatives, is also providing a platform for the youth, particularly those from the remote areas of Pakistan, to develop empathy for local cultures. For instance, AKYSB recently led a heritage mapping exercise in Hunza to document the cultural heritage of the region and to identify new sacred and historical sites. Led by a diverse group of youth, all alumni of AKYSB’s programmes, the project not only enhanced the cultural sensitivity of participants, but also contributed towards promoting tourism in the region by celebrating local traditions.
Similarly, AKYSB Garden organised a virtual camp titled “Arte Para Todos – Art for Everyone” in August 2020. Engaging with 60 young participants, the camp explored diverse forms of art and music and encouraged Jamati youth to experience and appreciate the cultural diversity around them. The camp also focused on using art as a means to reflect and generate positivity, particularly during Covid-19. One of the participants explained, “This is the best thing that happened in lockdown, as the camp was full of learning experiences. It helped me understand how I can contribute to society with the help of art.”
The success of AKYSB’s programmes depend on regional and local teams that include youth who possess a strong civic sense and eagerness to contribute towards community initiatives on arts and culture. One example is Aisar Ahmad from Gurunjur, a remote valley in Ishkoman Puniyal of Gilgit Baltistan, who was shortlisted as a Jubilee Arts national finalist in 2018. Benefitting from the knowledge acquired during that time, Aisar initiated a local group titled “Mountain Art” which works closely with the local AKYSB to arrange art camps and inspire the youth in his region to pursue their passion in various art forms.
Muhammad Arif from Gilgit Baltistan, has an ardour for music that led him to pursue a three-year diploma in vocals from the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi. He later went on to receive an undergraduate degree in music from the National College of Arts in Lahore.
Leveraging his professional expertise, Muhammad has led several sessions and music camps on the importance of music and arts in the Ishkoman Puniyal and Gupis Yasin regions. He shared that, “My musical journey so far has made me believe that if we love what we do and share it with others, it will create a circle of inspiration that positively affects people around us, irrespective of their caste, colour, religion, and beliefs.”