Cultural activist Navina Jafa tells Anuj Kumar how heritage is much more than just buildings

To me history is the biggest mystery. You never know who was right and who was wrong and whose heritage you are I am carrying. What have I have to conserve and what can I despoil or recycle? But when Navina Jafa takes history on a walk, the past doesn’t lose its link with the present. She just doesn’t talk about the monuments; she narrates stories of people who inhabited it.

The tangibles meet the intangibles as the artistes and their skills come alive and heritage becomes parampara. Yes, that is the word she prefers, for it brings with it the dynamism that the concept of heritage conservation demands.

“Heritage in English is a very limiting word. The more appropriate word is parampara because heritage is not just something that you inherit from the past but also the new traditions that are being made in the present and both the past and the present are going to affect the future. It is an equation.”

Known for conducting heritage walks, Jafa has pioneered academic cultural tourism in the country. Recently, she came has come up with a book “Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks” (Sage), a pioneering work on the technique and art of cultural representation through the medium of heritage walks. We know Jafa is an accomplished Kathak dancer who learnt her steps under Pandit Birju Maharaj, but performance and heritage don’t really rhyme. Isn’t it? Or do they?

“There has to be dynamism in our attitude while understanding the meaning of heritage. Parampara has a dynamism about it because it comes from the Sanskrit word parampaar, which means one after the other, because the present becomes the past every second. There are new traditions being created every day and that is why even UNESCO draws categories of heritage: cultural, natural and digital heritage. Performance is how you present that dynamism. Here I have taken only one medium, that is heritage walks. Instead of taking people to a gallery I take people to a dynamic environment.” She contends that the guides of the Archaeological Survey of India might have all the knowledge about a monument but they don’t always have the presentation skills.

Jafa also works on conflict resolution through heritage. “When we look around there is a lot of disequilibrium in the society around us resulting in conflict situations. Whether it is the Bodos or the Maoists, we keep rationalising it by looking at obvious problems but the underpinning of all these conflicts is the clash of a civilisational mindset. We need to understand this lacuna that has emerged in governance."

"The idea of the nation is only 60 years old but our civilisational mindset is 5000 years old. The new identity of the nation brings in new cultural contexts like democracy, equality, secularism, but that conflicts our civilisational principles. We are a hierarchical society. We do put people into boxes and make cultural judgements on them. Civilisational identity forms the basis as to how to engage with people in political perspective, developmental perspective and even reproductive health perspective. Why don’t women like to go to a male gynaecologist? It is a cultural mindset.”

Jafa says you cannot do without a heritage quotient in governance and therefore need a link between what has been the civilisational identity and the contemporary national identity, and that tool to bridge the two identities, in her view, is the field of heritage studies.

“After agriculture it is the creative and cultural industry which is the second largest profession of engagement of this country. It is also a repository of what we are as a nation. But there is not a single university which has a heritage studies centre. It can be a laboratory for professionals linking think tanks.”

She has tried to do this through her consultancy at CBSE by inculcating the ethos of heritage, a kind of link programme for the subjects, but she insists that we definitely need something at the university level.

“It can’t be denominated or reduced to just dance and music and buildings and monuments. There is a functionality of culture and the World Bank says without culture you cannot have development and much of the problem you have today is because we are not recognising the heritage. When I say heritage I don’t meant the past. I am talking about the inherent psychological landscape of the civilisation.”

Though the case study has been done in Delhi, Jafa says, the book has a global applicability. “The purpose of this is not only training people as to how to present culture on an academic level through the medium of heritage walks and all the technicalities that go with it, it is also about creating new stakeholders in this sector. It talks about the intangibles, the intellectual heritage, knowledge economy which needs to be preserved.”

The government, under the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC), has appointed her as a consultant to strategise a citizen awareness programme in Delhi.

“In a city, walks are means to create identity of the city in the minds of people but actually you are negotiating another thing. Every day there are new people coming to the city. People only talk about the buildings. Every time you pass a new housing colony, you are negotiating with the heritage. Take the case of the colony of traditional potters, which is an intangible. So are Hathiwale near Yamuna. The phool mandi has been relocated. Most of our street performers have vanished as they come under The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959. And their skills have not been given any kind of upgrading. Countries like Canada and France have picked parallel kind of street performances and put them in a contemporary performance space and it brings in 40 billion dollars annually. We, on the other hand, who have the highest number of street and folk performers, are reduced to doing Kingdom of Dreams as Bollywood culture. Why cannot the State come forward in assisting professionals like me in creating new performance spaces for the economically displaced skills which can reap huge economic benefits for rising India?”

Distortion of the heritage is a big issue these days but Jafa doesn’t like to get judgemental. “I have issues distorting the original identity but we should tackle those case by case.” She gives the example of Lucknow and Mayawati.

“I do my exhibits in the city as the Lucknow of the Nawabs, Lucknow in the times of the British and what it is today, the neo-Buddhist identity. There is an inversion that has come into play. What she has done is that she has placed the statues of Dalit leaders, including herself in a manner that the nawabi structures provide a backdrop for these statues. It is an attempt to legitimise the Dalit identity on the shoulders of the nawabs through architecture and sculpture. We need not be judgmental about this change.”

She agrees it is very difficult to be objective. “I always believe in presenting all sides and then having a discussion. I always keep in mind the sensitive issues. For instance recently I did a walk for SRDC at the Qutub Minar. Immediately the idea came that ‘yahan par to mandir thhe (there used to be temples here). Muslims destroyed them.’ I am careful about it. I said it is something that happened 700-800 years ago. We are in the 21st Century. We can’t change it. However, can we interpret it as the great heritage recycle? Here were people who were like a tribal clan, who didn’t have resources. They definitely didn’t want to see these heathen structures but they needed revenues for survival. So they created a new citadel in the same place from where the previous dispensations had drawn their legitimacy. And then I smiled and said in our society we even recycle the soul….”

The balm works!

The making of Jafa

Jafa came in touch with Kapila Vatsyayan at the age of 13. Her mother Manorama Jafa is an authority on children’s literature, has learnt Kathak from Pandit Birju Maharaj and has dialogues with scholars as diverse as Khwaja Imam Zahoor and Dr. M.L. Deshpande. Jafa calls it a ‘potent crucible’. A Fulbright scholar on cultural management and cultural diplomacy at the Smithsonian Center for Folk life and Cultural Heritage in Washington DC, she has also taught a paper on Performance, Culture and Development at the School of Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University, Boston, USA.

On dance festivals at Purana Quila

“When Yamini Krishnamurthy performed at Chidambaram, Kapila Vatsyayan said it was her best performance because there was a functional link with the place. The Nataraja temple has a natya mandapam. At Purana Quila the link is very superficial but then you construct new functional realities.”


“I can present Humayun’s Tomb to six different groups in six different ways depending on the composition of the group.”

The most popular walk

Nizamuddin Dargah. “There is nothing like meeting the zinda peer.” Jafa is doing a walk on the exorcism and Nizamuddin is going to be central to it.

New Find

Dadi-Poti Ke Maqbare