Drawing Dreams

After successfully launching an architecture firm in US, this Sher-e-Khas girl dreams to change the landscape back home. Ubeer Naqushbandi reports her journey

Asma-Architect

As a kid Asma Jeelani would get fascinated by sketches and small lines drawn by her architect father. As she grew up, the childhood fascination turned into a passion. “I too wanted to become an architect,” says Asma, who is in her late thirties.

By the time Asma completed her schooling, her mother, a doctor, had already decided her future. Even her “dear dad”, was hesitant to let Asma follow his footsteps. Reason. Architecture as a career is not meant for girls. But Asam had already made up her mind. She wanted to design big cities, something her father has done during his hay-days as an architect. To her father’s credit are landmark buildings like Sehanshah Hotel, Pari Mahal Hotel, M A Ramzana clusters, Welcome Hotel etc.

“Finally after convincing my parents I was allowed to pursue my dream,” says Asma.

The next stop for Asma was Sir J J College of Architecture, Mumbai. After completing her course in 1996, Asma did her internship in Delhi and Mumbai for two years before coming back to Kashmir.  By the time she came back, her father had already established architectural firm: Jeelani Associates. “I cam back at the right time, as my father needed somebody to shoulder the responsibility,” says Asma.

Asma’s first project in Kashmir was the renovation of famed Gulmarg Golf Course. After completion, the project was inaugurated by then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “This helped me make my name in the industry to a great extent,” says Asma.

Despite her desire to continue her work in Kashmir, Asma, after working for just two years, had to abandon her plans. Reason: corrupt system in place.

The next stop for Asma was America: the land of opportunities and appreciations. “My first job was at Kemmij Associates, then I moved on to other firms before launching Jeelani Associates in America and Kuwait,” says Asma.

But running an architect firm in America was entirely different from what she has learned in Kashmir. “It needed an entirely different approach, a professional one,” says Asma.

With specialization in urban designing, Asma was entrusted to design Microsoft campus, Red Mann in Washington, and one of the offices for business tycoon Bill Gates.

In 2007, Asma came back to Kashmir because of her father’s demise. It was during this period Asma found Kashmir’s infrastructure has changed a lot. “I was surprised to see tall asymmetrical building towering over Srinagar’s landscape,” remembers Asma.

The more she moved around; the extent of haphazard construction, ill-planned residential colonies, shopping complexes, and government building, appalled her. “Srinagar had expanded without any thought or plan. This was heartbreaking,” recalls Asma.

Asma was troubled to see how people are using construction materials that do not sync with Kashmir’s unique climate and geography. “It was completely against the basics of architecture and nature,” says Asma. “Entire landscape was alien to Kashmir’s unique identity.”

But the most painful moment for Asma came during her daylong Sonmarg trip. “There were hundreds of huts build right inside the greenery, without planning or care for the environment and aesthetics,” says Asma. “In America, development often is done in accordance with nature. But here, nature is the first casualty.”

The next shock was when Asma visited interiors of Sher-e-Khas where she grew up. “With proper preservation and thought we could have turned Sher-e-Khas into a major tourist attraction. But nobody seems to care,” says Asma, who hails of Narwara in Sher-e-Khas.

Asma feels the so-called modern architecture that is in vogue in Kashmir now, fails to complement the overall scenic beauty of the place. “The indigenous architecture of Kashmir had a mix of wood and mud which is not only climate-friendly but earthquake resistant too,” says Asma.

Since last two years, Asma is working on a blueprint to give Sher-e-Khas a facelift. “I want to restore it back to its original glory,” says Asma, who is also co-authoring a book titled: History of Kashmiri Architecture. She is also working on a traffic management plan that will ease the vehicular mess in Srinagar, especially Sher-e-Khas. “There is no point of modernization if we do it at the cost of our heritage.”

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