World Heritage Day: How five Indians are preserving their heritage in Chennai, Kochi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad
Majestic, magnificent and monumental — three words that simply describe most heritage structures in India. While heritage sites like the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Kaziranga National Park in Assam, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai or even Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu are quite well-known around the country, there are several structures, which don’t really enjoy the ‘heritage status’, as they are still not recognised by the Archaeological Survey of India. However, there are experts who work silently towards the preservation and conservation of cultural monuments in India — even those that are not recognised by the ASI as heritage sites.
Known for his book The White Mughals, renowned Delhi-based historian and author, William Dalrymple is at the forefront of heritage in India. One of his most important contributions has been raising one million pounds to restore the British Residency in Hyderabad.“Many of the heritage sites in India are not up to the mark because there is not enough money being invested in the process of preservation, and it is grossly underfunded by the ASI,” says the 54-year-old author, who is currently in Odisha, on invite from the state government. In agreement, Anuradha Reddy, convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Hyderabad and co-convenor of INTACH Telangana, says, “It is only the private owners of the heritage sites who are investing in the preservation of the property but apart from that, there isn’t much being done by the government, and that is why our role has now changed, since we first started in 1985.” While earlier they awarded government-run heritage sites, in 2018, they shifted their attention to giving preference and award privately owned structures, in an attempt to get the attention of the government.
While the authorities are working differently, there are many people across South India, who are taking it upon themselves to keep the interest in heritage alive among people. Among the different methods, heritage walks are quite common, but they are going beyond them to implement other methods that would get both adults as well as children interested in the process. With the popularity of Instagram picking up for many reasons, there are others who are using it to raise awareness and create a record of structures through regular updates on their feed. Less than a year old, Kochi Heritage Project (whose Chinese fishing nets trail, that unearths the history of these nets, is popular among the locals) has gained over 1,225 followers, and while it is still in the nascent stage, 31-year-old founder Johann Kuruvilla says this is just the start for him. The marketing professional, who has dabbled in many fields, said he always had an interest in heritage, and that it may be because of his interest in his own genealogy, which he has traced to the 17th century. Having lived in the heart of Fort Kochi with his grandparents, Johann remembers walking down the streets and experiencing its rich culture. However, he only started researching about it when he met several like-minded people on Orkut groups after he realised he did not know much about the city himself at the time.
“While I currently do heritage walks, I am in the process of hosting more documentary screenings, and workshops as well as heritage awareness from the grassroots,” says Johann, who has already conducted one screening for enthusiasts in the city. However, his project slowed down after the ravaging floods hit Kerala last year, as he was busily involved in the rescue operations, and with the elections around the corner too, he hopes he can go about creating awareness in different forms for all people. “I want it to be available to everybody through everybody and not limit it to experts only. It will include teaching children at the school level so that they can learn about it early, and think about preserving heritage, and hopefully create a job out of their love for heritage,” says the Kochi-based heritage enthusiast seeking inspiration from the Marxist theory. Calling himself a ‘Heritage Consultant’, Johann is a one-man army, who got the idea during his travels around the world. After getting the Instagram page up and running, Johann also started a Facebook forum to create a community, which now has over 200 people, but he wants to take it offline. The group encourages people from all over India and the world to share any history related to Kochi to help build an archive around it.
Jewels of Hyderabad
Interestingly, it is not only Johann in Kochi, Hyderabad’s Madhu Vottery, an author and conservation architect is also one among many, who first started her journey in 2004 as a student. In 2009, she was handpicked by the state tourism board to design the Hyderabad Heritage Walk, before the release of her first book A Guide to Heritage of Hyderabad. However, after being invited as the Indian delegate by the US Consulate for an exchange program, she realised the subject had to be taught to children too. After her return, she worked on her second book called Heritage of Hyderabad: From Children, For Children put together by 16 children. Taking it a step further, she designed a Hyderabad Craft Heritage Walk, teaching people about the different crafts in the city before working with Telangana Tourism and promoting Eco Tourism. Constantly raising awareness about heritage, she has also designed a mobile application called Hyderabad Heritage and is currently in talks with the government about it. “The application will teach people and highlight the different architecture marvels about the city apart from famous places in the city like Charminar,” says Madhu, who is hoping it comes out soon with the right support. Actively involved with children, the application will also have audio files by children, who will guide people.
Bengaluru and beyond
While Madhu is busy making an application, heritage has a different meaning for Bengaluru-based photographer Sabir Ahmed, who uses photography to tell his story. Having explored street photography over the last 15 years, he loves working with black and white pictures. “I use street photography differently for heritage as I love exploring different architectural styles, I usually click people in front of heritage structures in Bengaluru,” 52-year-old Sabir tells us. In 2014, the photographer was a part of the project called Pratibimba, with five other people in Karnataka, which saw him travel the lengths and breadths of the state. Capturing the history, art, culture, architecture and even wildlife and cuisines, the exhibition was showcased at the Chitrakala Parishad the same year. However, among many of the heritage structures, Sabir says he sadly did not get to click the Rex Theatre on Brigade Road, before it was erased in 2018. But, finding the perfect balance of clicking people on the street in front of the heritage structures, he goes about clicking people going about their daily life, including reading the paper.
“I like to click colonial buildings, Islamic architecture and even South Indian architecture with a certain age or culture,” says Sabir, as he says that wide buildings, open spaces, domes, and minarets are what generally attract him to look through the lens. While the main city is on his radar always, it is also the old parts namely Benson Town and Richards Town, which still catch his eye. Among others, he is currently working on a street photography project, but heritage structures are definitely on the cards for him soon.
Chennai to Chettinad
Heritage is not only about walks or sessions and workshops for Chennai-based conservation architect duo Arunima Shankar and Kaushik Kumar, who started Akarmaa Foundation in 2015. The organisation focuses on spreading awareness about history and heritage through games. While they did start with heritage walks, they realised it wasn’t really interactive and the fact that they were teachers inspired them to use the idea of playing games and learning content through that. Interestingly, they have taken inspiration from the television show The Amazing Race and have hosted several treasure hunts in Hyderabad, Chennai, and Karnataka. “We use the people living in the locality as a part of the game so that they understand the relevance of their fabric, which makes it a fun activity for both,” Arunima tells us. She further adds, “We encourage the locals to take part so that they do not feel like we are ‘museumizing’ them. Making it fun for all, the priest at the Sufi dargah in Triplicane gives people the next clue, only if they pray there”. One of the races was held in the Triplicane locality of Chennai, and they took it a step further by encouraging specially-abled children to take part in the race, thus encouraging a large interaction between three groups of people. Interestingly, they went a step further and the architecture students, who were a part of the workshop, got together and cleaned and painted the arch in Triplicane, and put up a flex banner informing people about who actually built the arch, making people take notice. However, Arunima and Kaushik are also busy with restoration projects — one of the current houses they are restoring is in Hyderabad, which dates back to 1949, and is converting it to create it into a weekend guesthouse.
For Chennai-based conservation architect and collector Sivagama Sundari, heritage has always been about preserving her Chettinad culture in any form she can. Hailing from Karaikudi, Sivagama, owing to her interest in preserving her culture, founded Muttram, with three other friends Thirupurasundari Sevvel, Akshayaa Selvaraj and Devika Prabhakaran. “The stories that my dad told me when I was young kindled my curiosity and made me learn more about my ancestry and lineage,” says Sivagama, who has also displayed her collections at the Madras Literary Society and the Railway Museum in Egmore. While they currently do not have a physical office, Sivagama said they are soon planning to procure one but till then they will keep on working. However, they also keep themselves busy by conducting workshops that teach people the art of reviving traditional building techniques like red-oxide flooring and lime mortar, in their attempt to preserve the Chettinad heritage.