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‘Opening shop of heritage walks is a fad’

Heritage consultant Navina Jafa on the commercial and cultural aspects of heritage walks

July 29, 2015 08:47 pm | Updated 08:47 pm IST

Heritage Consultant Navina Jafa at a Monument in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Heritage Consultant Navina Jafa at a Monument in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Her walks on the Sufi landscapes in the city are like time machines that make your soul recoil with pain and poetry. When her food walks trace the lineage of sohan and habshi halwa, history suddenly becomes palatable. For Navina Jafa, one of the pioneers in holding heritage walks in the city, there is no harm in creating a business model around the walks but this should be done without undermining the inherent soul of what the Indian culture is about. Her book “Performing Heritage” remains the only technical work on curating a heritage walk.

Excerpts from an interview:

How do you think the idea of heritage walks has reduced to a fad?

Just being passionate about history is not the only criteria of jumping into the arena of professional heritage presenter. Heritage presentation is a specialised profession, being a trained banker, management professional does not make you a heritage interpreter. This is a distinct profession, which requires a multifaceted formal and intense training. Unfortunately, just studying history is not the only requirement either. The fact that since India has so much history and the exotic, will me as a foreigner ever have the guts of starting heritage tours in cities of foreign countries? There are cycle tours in early mornings in Old Delhi, but Old Delhi is about living palpable living heritage and not de-contextualized facades of building? What is the human story of the buildings, have the presenters ever researched?

I am quite puzzled at the mass mushrooming of shops of heritage walks in large cities of India. Yes, today opening shop of ‘Heritage Walks’ is a fad. While, there is no harm in creation of a ‘business model’, the question is that those who do present heritage through the genre of heritage walks tend to forget the inherent soul of what the Indian culture is about. There is a need to pay attention to true scholarship, involvement of local tradition bearers, ethics of humbleness to the seminal idea of Indian dynamics represented in complex contradictions, weft and warp of parallel time cycles, and diversity of cultural responses. Little do most new players realize that it is the latter component which adds value to their ‘product services’? In my book I do refer to making Heritage Walks a business, but at the same time it argues the value of being in a mode of submission to sustain a spiritual approach and not get taken in by racing for ‘profit.’

How much of the walk is history and how much of it is storytelling based on assumptions and hearsay?

This is where research is needed. In order to create strong narratives and research anecdotal oral histories, it is as my PhD guide Dr. Narayani Gupta would say, important to verify with at least three people and also look for some written evidence. Hence the narrative while incorporating anecdotes, myths, beliefs, rituals (kimvadanti) have to be woven in a manner where the narrative performed clearly and honestly presents facts and fiction. Secondly, the more important aspect is the performance of the narrative which needs drama, voice training and much more.

Tell us about the offbeat walks that you conduct in Delhi like the one around exorcism?

This is a walk from the area of applied psychology. It is serious. Hence, from crafts museum which used to have a Bhuta Gallery, to the Sufi Shrine of Matka Pir, and rituals of exorcism in Hazrat Nizamuddin to the entire idea of Djinns Tradition (which is relatively new) in the Feroz Shah Kotla and finally to interaction with tradition bearers who are engaged in exorcist rituals. I do this walk with a trained psychologist, and while the on ground reality is recreated, the walk has the element of a scientific interpretation which my colleague and I work out. The entire process of walk is therefore raised to an intense participatory learning exercise.

What are the areas in and around Delhi which remain unexplored?

My concern are areas of Meherauli, Old Delhi, Kalkaji, far off North Delhi where there are silent spaces that have all kinds of fascinating histories both in tangible sense as well as the most neglected of all the skills and memories related to traditions, rituals and practices. My concern is on also how to present linkages between various parts of the city together.

How do you tackle tricky questions like Muslim invasions leading to change in the architectural character of the city?

It is not difficult when you open your narrative by stating the basic idea of India as a melting pot of cultural traditions where inevitable contact with other cultures irrespective of the nature of contact: be it commercial, forced or gradual migration it was natural for ideas to get mingled. I also insist that the audience do not get flowed by propaganda but step aside and question…So for example – Prithviraj Chauhan was attacked by Mohammad Ghori… Well the question to ask is why did Ghori really succeed? Did it not have anything to do with the division among the Rajputs themselves? The worst damage has come from historical television serials like Prithviraj Chauhan and even distortion of history in films such as Jodha Akbar . Visual propaganda is really difficult to counter. At this point of time we really need to work towards internal peace. We need more than ever responsible, well trained Heritage Interpreters and not history buffs and enthusiasts.

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