“Sometimes going back to the beginning is the only way.”
― Rachel Hauck, Once Upon a Prince
After two decades of meandering through various art media and exploring a number of philosophical avenues, I seem to have come full circle back to a project that has suddenly evolved into a whole new animal. But before I can explain the what, I have to explain the why:
I come from a culture that is, in many ways still trying to define itself. From the initial days of living the dream as the Land of the Pure to the almost immediate drop into harsh reality, Pakistan lost critical momentum in establishing the ideals for which it was created when we lost our Quaid-e-Azam (Father of the Nation). The subsequent years of experiencing extreme political interference from the Soviet Union and the US created a space where a number of competing factions attempted to gain a foothold, further destabilizing this fledgling dream.
Having been raised outside of Pakistan, my teenage self struggled to find something great about Pakistan. My parent’s families were incredibly patriotic. They talked about the sacrifices that were made by millions, to be part of a country where Muslims could be safe and free. They dreamed of a country that lived up to the ideals that govern our religion: of education and logic and peace.
They worked every day to uphold the values and live up to the ideals that Pakistan was made for.
Yet outside of my home, all I saw around me was division and self-centeredness. Everyone judged each other on the basis of religion, sectarianism, economic status, beauty… it didn’t matter what. As long as you were a Pakistani in Pakistan, you were not good enough. This misery was further compounded by our history books and by the western media, which either couldn’t tell us apart from neighboring India, or, just called us backward terrorists. Torn between wanting to believe my parents and the prevalent negative narrative, I internalized the negativity. I figured my family was one of the few delusional families left that still tried to justify the creation of Pakistan.
Everyone else knew better, so should I.
Then, years ago, I wrote and illustrated a book that explored how the architecture of the Lahore Fort represented a visual evolution of the Mughal Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Obviously, this took me into new realms of research, beyond the cursory few paragraphs that cover the Mughal Empire in any schoolbook. My parents, (eternally supportive of our education), planned a trip to Lahore and arranged to grant me access to restricted areas of the Fort, so that I could see for myself, the scale and grandeur that my culture had left behind.
It was a seminal experience for me to realize how impactful this empire was, and how much they revered art, music and education. How their philosophies upheld the teachings of Islam and represented the kind of respect that should be shown to those from other beliefs.
The Mughal Empire holds a great significance in Pakistan, being the last Islamic Dynasty to rule this part of Asia before the British occupation in the 19th century. Unfortunately, much of what was created in this era was undermined as part of the British Divide and Rule policy, and this ridicule has been internalized and preserved in how Pakistan remembers its history today.
In my talks with the guides and authorities tasked with managing this monument, I learned that the British Armies had looted and ravaged all the monuments of the Muslims when they took power. They stabled horses in the royal courts and gouged out jewels and semi-precious stones from the sides of buildings. They wanted to destroy us, and our people not just physically, but emotionally, and wipe away any claims to greatness that we might have.
As many of our monuments from this era fall into further disrepair, our youth and public are further removed from their connection to the past. I was lucky, I had parents who were educated and dedicated to my success. They taught me to question the norm and instilled in me the principles and the strength to believe in myself. It took me years to crystallize this into a clear theory, but I got there.
It is my own experience which makes me realize how important these monuments are. The lack of historical “ownership” and ignorance is what allows external negative portrayals to settle into the psyche of our youth. This increases incidences of extremism, lawlessness, a lack of empathy for their fellow man and an extreme lack of self-pride and civic sense. Without positive reinforcement, it’s easy to live down to everyone’s expectations and teens and young adults are the first to fall prey to such manipulations.
The goal of the Lahore Fort Digital Preservation Project is to reclaim Pakistan’s historical narrative by re-examining our history and re-cataloging our historic sites. Using 3D digital visualization technology to do this, we aim to preserve and (virtually) restore the monuments of the Lahore Fort in a medium that will be attractive and accessible to all, especially our youth.
For a population with an average age of 21.4, using an interactive gaming method to communicate with them seems obvious, almost mandatory.
By bringing this project to Pakistan, I plan to train students of animation in the tools of virtual creation while simultaneously teaching them to understand and explore our past with an unbiased eye. By bringing CG colleagues with me, I hope to forge academic and professional relationships between Pakistan and the US. And, by publishing this, I hope to create a safe neutral space where Muslims (and non-Muslims) can learn more about these Islamic rulers, free of the preconceptions of western narratives.
Now, more than ever, we need to create content that humanizes our culture and history. We need to create bridges to prevent the disturbing “otherization” that is occurring around the world and find ways to help cultures communicate. We need to actively undo the damange that was done to us and rediscover the best of us.