Performing Heritage

By SOHAIL HASHMI: Navina Jafa’s Performing Heritage: Art of exhibit walks is one of few books dealing with the process of conducting heritage and culture walks in India. But the subject is a rapidly expanding and lucrative field that – until now – has not been very well understood.

Jafa is a student of history, a trained classical dancer, a conservationist and a heritage activist. Normally those with their fingers in too many pies end up mixing their metaphors, but this author specialises in inventing her own – the title of this book, for instance. Performing artists, performing acrobats, performing monkeys are terms that all of us are familiar with, but the concept of heritage that performs is more unusual.

The text exists simultaneously on two planes. The first locates heritage walks in the realm of public performances, distinguishing them from exhibitions in controlled environments like museums and art galleries. The second is more illustrative, and is presented as an explanation of the arguments being advanced across the first strand.

The text posits the theory of ‘heritage performance’ as a discipline that is distinctly different from that of the droves of guides one encounters at all well-known Southasian monuments. Each time one aspect of heritage performance is touched upon, an example is presented to illustrate the point. This is always a description of a particular walk, provided for the purpose of helping the reader comprehend the difference between performing heritage and merely guiding tourists through monuments.

Heritage performance does not confine itself only to the site being visited, but draws from the vast and diverse resources of cultural practices, developments in architectural techniques, pointing towards continuities and changes, drawing attention to crafts, regional cuisines, rituals, and the various colours of life. This approach underlines the importance of taking participants on a journey through a living culture and heritage – tangible and intangible – presented, seen and absorbed in its interconnectedness and not as something that stands alone, divorced from the ethos that created it and continues enriching, modifying and even distorting it.

Jafa demonstrates that it is both possible and desirable to view the same location through different perspectives, and to draw the attention of those who join the walk to these diverse points of view. For example, a street could be viewed as the location of related trades during the day; another walk through the same street could focus almost exclusively on the changing architectural vocabulary. At sundown, it could become a site where walkers are invited to explore the rich tradition of street food. Each of these walks would require the team leader to draw upon a different set of heritage resources, while managing to link their focus to the larger movements of fusion and recreation that inform heritage production.

The bustle of life, the noise of traffic, the unexpected and not-always-enriching sounds of a brass band at the head of a boisterous marriage procession: all seem designed to distract the viewer from the central purpose of the heritage walk. The unpredictability of what you may find at the site adds an element of the unknown to each walk, and the leader must develop the ability to weave these new and mostly unconnected occurrences into the planned programme. It is these interruptions which add an element of ad-libbing to the performance of the walk leader.

A well-justified case is built around the challenges that the heritage performer faces while trying to maintain the attention of the group. One must be quick-witted enough to expand the scope of the walk on the spur of the moment, perhaps including a discussion on the changing nature of marriage processions, the rise and decline of the brass band, the sudden rise in the number of automobiles, or the Indian driver’s compulsion for near-constant horn-blowing.

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Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks by Navina Jafa (Sage, 2012)

Heritage performance as street theatre
The difference between a museum display and a heritage walk can perhaps be understood better if we lookat the difference between proscenium and street theatre. Both are of course forms of theatre, and yet the viewer in an auditorium is focussed only on the performance. Therefore, the task of the performer is to play her or his designated role; as long as that is done skilfully, the viewer leaves satisfied and happy. As opposed to this, the performer of street theatre has to contend with all manner of distractions: sounds of traffic, ruminating bovines settling down in the middle of the acting area and sundry individuals under the influence, trying their level best to be louder and more obnoxious than they normally are. Like a walk leader, a performer in situations such as these has to ad-lib furiously in order to keep the attention of the audience, improvising a new narrative while retaining the spirit of the original.

Imagine walking through Dareeba, in the north of Delhi and talking to your group about the well-known perfumers – Gulab Singh Johrimal, established in 1816 – when suddenly one of the walkers points to a cartful of brown seeds – pearl-like on one side and flat on the other – and asks, “What are these?” The walk leader cannot plead ignorance; the questioner has to be told that this is garlic from Kudh, a town on way to Kashmir. The questioner will need to be informed that two of these are taken with water on an otherwise empty stomach as a traditional treatment for all manner of joint pains. It is possible that the entire contingent might become very excited while walking through Dareeba Khurd or Kinari Bazar, as someone notices a group of monkeys hanging overhead and swinging on wires or cables. The walk leader should know that these are Rhesus macaques. The group will also be interested to know that it is in this branch of the rather extended family of simians that the Rh factor found in human blood was first detected, and because of this and other physiological similarities with humans, many of this species were used for clinical trials.

Clearly, any walk leader has to be someone with interests that span across diverse disciplines and fields of study like history, geography, anthropology, religion, rituals, food and music. Possessing knowledge of this breadth is not something that the walk leader does for the love of lucre alone. Unless there is a deep and abiding love for the city, the bazaar, for the crafts-persons and their implements, for the arts of the tinker, tailor, baker, haberdasher, butcher and carpenter, at least a measure of curiosity for the feudal intriguer and an interest in the family that has been producing and selling just one product for generations, you cannot become a heritage walk leader. Try as you might, heritage will not perform at your bidding.

Continuing the metaphor of performance, Jafa explains that the leader is not an actor in a one-person show. Any soliloquy can be disrupted, and the leader can be upstaged if someone among the group knows – or thinks they know – more; bombarding the leader with questions and interruptions. This feature of the walk distinguishes it from a museum or exhibition situation and underlines the essentially participative and democratic nature of the heritage walk. Therefore, detailed research is crucial. The description of how research into the history of courtesan culture led the author to the multi-layered reality of life in the lanes behind the red light district of Delhi is a good illustration of this point. This research led Jafa to discover a flow of life that goes on changing, adapting and reinventing itself in the narrow alleyways of old cities, unseen and mostly unrecognised not only by casual tourists and their guides but also by most citizens of the newer, flashier parts of the city.

Gathering information about a city, its lanes and bye-lanes, its history, culture, food, cuisine and much else besides can be achieved through the study of printed texts that are not too difficult to find. The problem with this material is that it is easily available, and so unless walk leaders are able to provide information that is harder to procure, they will not last very long in the field.

Much of what one gathers while seeking out such material is gleaned from talking to older people, trying to tap into the vast reservoir of public memory. But this is fraught with dangers. Many of these venerable narrators either lack a clear idea of dates and years or have, with advancing age, forgotten or mixed them up. Unless everything is checked and rechecked, one is liable to be taken in by the power of the narrative and end up referencing actual events but placing them in the wrong timeframes. Circumspection, care and caution must be exercised, or one might end up taking the word of the storyteller a little too seriously.

Even a little lowering of your guard may lead you into making careless mistakes, like stating that Gama, the famous wrestler of the early 20th century was internationally recognised in the 1880s. Gama was actually born in 1880 and would have just about begun to learn the basics of grappling in 1890; it was another 10 years before he won his first major bout.

You may well flag the well-publicised restaurant, Karim’s, as a place for authentic Mughalia Cuisine. The question of Mughalia cuisine is even more nuanced, primarily because cuisine and its evolution is a territory which provides fertile ground for contentious construction and myth-making. The food served at Karim’s may have very little to do with what the Mughals actually ate. The traditional foods of Delhi are now marked by their richness and use of spices – especially chillies. Chillies, however, did not arrive in India until the 16th century, and their cultivation and widespread acceptance would have taken a few decades. So ‘authentic’ Mughalia – commonly but erroneously referred to as Mughlai – would have been vastly different from the fare served at Karim’s. In any case, aside from their own claims, there is little independent documentation to show that old man Karim-ud-Din, who opened his shop in 1911, had anything to do with the Mughal court or even with Delhi. The entire enterprise is more of a marketing success story than a gastronomic one.

The pitfalls of historiography
There are several oversights one notices throughout Performing Heritage. For example, the shrine of Nizam-ud-Din in New Delhi is described as belonging to the 13th century. The Saint died in 1325 and was buried at the site according to his instructions. Elsewhere, Akbar is described as a “secular” king. Tolerant, open-minded and syncretic, surely – but secular? Today, the term is used in two senses; the more acceptable definition internationally is ‘worldly’ as opposed to ‘spiritual’, while in India, ‘secular’ is interpreted as opposite to ‘communal’. But both are usages that evolved in modern times, and should not be applied to rulers of ancient or mediaeval times.

Similarly, terms like ‘Indo-Islamic’, are applied to subjects like architecture and identity, but these owe their origins to colonial historiography. Colonialist historians divided the history of India into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. If naming the period depended on the religion of the rulers, then the British period should have been the Christian period, but this was the kind of sleight of hand operation the colonialists specialised in. A majority of historians in post-Independence India saw through this charade, and we began dividing our history into ancient., mediaeval, modern and contemporary periods. The use of such terms is in fact a continuation of colonial classification. Architecture is cultural, regional and geographic – not denominational.

The dome and the arch are presented in India as Islamic, but in fact, the first corbelled domes are believed to have been built by the Romans. The Pantheon is an example, while the first fully-developed pendentive dome was used in the orthodox basilica of Hagia Sofia, which was later converted into a mosque and is now a museum. The dome and the arch have roots that are cultural, regional and civilisational, but not denominational. If there really was something called ‘Islamic architecture’, then surely all mosques should have domes, but as we know from examples in Kerala, Kashmir and Southeast Asia and China, this is far from the case.

One cannot blame the author alone for not addressing such issues; the larger body of our historians has often opted out of taking these questions as worthy of serious consideration. But it is still important to remember these issues, primarily because of the potential of walking tours as vehicles for strengthening peace and mutual understanding – aspects specifically foregrounded by Jafa.

These issues aside, Performing Heritage situates the entire gamut of the theory and practice of walking tours in a well-argued, accessible format. Jafa stresses the importance of constantly refreshing one’s research, not only to maintain the interest of those being guided, but also to ensure that the leader does not parrot the same tales, jokes and anecdotes in the same locations, every day. Jafa underlines the importance of relaying anecdotal information: each location is filled with oral histories, resplendent with their own revisions, additions, extrapolations and re-interpretations.

This text highlights the historical significance of walking tours, as well as the high level of sensitivity and intellectual curiosity that are the minimum requirements for a walk leader. Performing Heritage serves to promote heritage walks as a respectable and lucrative profession, if it is done with academic rigour and a commitment to the celebration of heritage. The text underlines the necessity of making it financially rewarding and upgrading it to the level of a respectable profession, for that is the only guarantee that young academics who are also heritage enthusiast would get into the field and become walk leaders. One may not be very comfortable with the term “brokering culture”, but her insistence on presenting culture as a window to the world is central to the credibility of any tour leader.

(First published in Himal Southasian.)

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