Sunday, Apr 02, 2023

Taking Heritage Walks To The Next Level With Performance Heritage

Taking Heritage Walks To The Next Level With Performance Heritage

Dr Navina Jafa is a cultural activist, Kathak performer, academician and heritage consultant who conducts heritage walks which are unique, combining performance to articulate the culture of a given place.

Mandu, once known as Shadiabad or City of Joy, may soon be declared a Unesco World Heritage site
Mandu, once known as Shadiabad or City of Joy, may soon be declared a Unesco World Heritage site Oscar Espinosa / Shutterstock

I first came across Dr Navina Jafa while pursuing my final undergrad years in St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. My society had calmly rejected Zoom for its 40-minute time limit, while Jafa was nervous as she was only familiar with Zoom as a meeting platform. But a quick practice on the day before the meet calmed her, and it opened up our memory gates leading to eulogising of Room S and the college. It was on the day of our virtual meet that I watched her live performance connected to the topic that she discussed. I think everyone (their expressions could be seen on video) felt the impact of her performance, so carefully curated to bring alive and express a cultural artifact.

That performance remains ingrained in my mind, and occasionally pops out when I come across terms like ‘heritage’, ‘kathak’ or ‘culture’.

So, when I was asked to think of possible heritage walks and people who could be interviewed, my mind, a stubborn fool out of habit, remembered Dr. Jafa’s performance. And I knew that her concept of performance heritage should surely be recorded for other cultural enthusiasts like me to read.

But first, let me introduce Dr Navina Jafa. She is a cultural scholar and activist, Kathak performer, academician and heritage consultant. The author of the book Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks, she has conducted heritage walks for various groups, ranging from children, economic delegates and politicians. Her heritage walks are unique. She calls them ‘performance-heritage walks’ as she combines performance to articulate the culture of a given place. The most recent performance-heritage walk that she conducted was on Orchha.

I spoke to her about the multi-textual nature of her heritage walks, and what sets them apart.

Performances, according to many, are enacted on stage for entertainment purposes. How do you think performance-heritage walks change this perception of performance and heritage walks?

Dr Navina Jafa on a heritage walk with Prince Albert of Liechtenstein showcasing Indo-Islamic archit
Dr Navina Jafa on a heritage walk with Prince Albert of Liechtenstein showcasing Indo-Islamic architecture Dr Navina Jafa

First, one must understand that the word ‘heritage’ combines all the expressions of human activities and knowledge skills as responses to geographical contexts and that which are inherited by generations to come. It is a dynamic process of how every contemporary human group engages with heritage and adds to the different perceptions. I coined the phrase ‘performing heritage’ about Heritage Tourism through the modality of the curated living exhibition called ‘Heritage Walks.’ It points to the process of curating and interpreting any chosen heritage and its landscape. In the interpretative process comes the element of image building that forms the part of the storytelling or the narration, and the communication of the narration is all about performing the heritage. The performance of the narrative connects the exhibition heritage landscape with the audience. Wherefore, the space between the heritage scape and the audience becomes an active space colored with the sound and dramatic deliberation of the narrative.

What made you think of incorporating performance into a heritage walk?

My entry into the world of culture and heritage came from my training and my existing career in classical kathak dance. My guru Pandit Birju Maharaj was the epitome of recreating the living and past landscapes as heritage stories performed. So the performance has come naturally to me. If one is engaged in the heritage tourism of Incredible India, then the presenter of that heritage has to embody in dress in nuances the idea of India. One significant aspect of the performance is what we from the ancient Indian heritage of performing arts call ‘Aharya’ Abhinaya, creating the character ( in this case, the sutradhar / study leader/ walk leader/ guide/ storyteller) by appropriate dress code that too is heritage. Hence I am particular about picking out of the many dresses we have in India, for example, the dokhona worn by the Bodo women, The shararas, the goncha from Ladakh and many others. I also collect and wear traditional silver and other metal jewelry. The use of dramatic visual impact with theatrical nuances and bringing in lived immersive experiences makes the heritage performed.

In what different ways have you incorporated performance into walks? Can you give us some instances? How has adding performance enriched these specific walks? What has been the reaction from walk participants?

Heritage walks as living exhibits allow me to point out and create several images, which amplify the theme and develop a greater understanding of the heritage scape, devising visual effects adds to the aesthetic experience. For example, presenting the 15th century Hindol Mahal or the Swinging Palace in Mandu (The City of Joy) which served as a Royal Meeting Hall (Durbar Hall). Its imposing slanting walls serve as a compelling picture. There was a group of more than 20 visitors on one occasion. They entered the grand hall of the Hindol mahal; the roofless hall emerged even more impressive with a gallery of well-aligned interior set of arches. Answering the request of other participants, I asked a participant to sing a folk song on the ritual of women swinging during the monsoons, and I began to dance. I intended to make the stark sloping thick walls come alive as the dance replicated the waves of energy emitted by the stone arches.

A visitor at Hindol Mahal in Mandu
A visitor at Hindol Mahal in Mandu Oscar Espinosa / Shutterstock

Similarly, in the heritage landscape of the terracotta Bishnupur temples in West Bengal, I organised for a baul (mystic singers of Bengal) to be part of the heritage walk on the temples to create an immersive heritage tourism experience. The theme of the heritage walk was ’And When Vishu Comes Alive!’ I requested the baul to perform from his repertoire a response to one of the sculpted friezes, and I accompanied and performed my dance with him.

How have you weaven in narratives of women and power in the paintings of Orchha? How does such a narrative translate in a performance?

Every heritage landscape around a built heritage site has layers of some known and other lesser-known themes and subjects. For instance, the narrative on the Taj Mahal completely misses the importance of the Taj Ganj, the neighborhood that displays the skilled communities  who built the monument and took care of the memorial when the Mughals shifted to Delhi. Similarly, Orchha has several lesser-known themes, and one relates to women, especially concerning the stories of:

Queen Ganeshkuwar ( worshiper of Ram) and her fight with her husband Madhukar Shah on my Ram is more significant than your Krishna.

The painting in one of the rooms is called Hastikunj. Even if the King rides the elephant, the elephant's body comprises women representing the energy that controls him. It reminds me of Kabir's couplet:

चढ़िए हाथी ज्ञान का सहज दुलीचा डार
स्वान रूप संसार है भूँकत है झख मार …कबीर

The third is the legacy of the medieval Hindi Poet who was a court poet – Keshavdas. His Radha is centered around the courtesan Rai Praveen. And it is by way of the poetic heritage I bring out in the building called the Rai Praveen's palace and garden.

What are the parameters with which you select sites for your performance-heritage walks? Give us some examples.

When I am commissioned to design Heritage Tourism experiences through the medium of heritage walks anywhere in India or even in other parts of South Asia my first method is dividing the heritage landscape of a region, a city or any location into zones, then selecting themes on what I want to exhibit, I chart the route accordingly and inject all kinds of immersive experiences bringing in local heritage skilled
communities into the exhibition. I act as the Sutrdhar or principal interpreter – narrator or storyteller. The location can be cities, museums, built and natural heritage sites, or visits to any space where creative communities live. Or, for that manner, even a new phenomenon that adds to the comprehension of that heritage landscape. For example, when I design heritage walks on the River island Majuli, it includes a visit to the boat clinics started in 2004 by the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research, or C-NES, that have served to bring healthcare to the grassroots communities in the isolated, unconnected river islands called Chars. As I enter the Boat clinic, I sing Jayant Hazarika’s song. the Brahmaputra River that gives as much as it takes …Oh, the tempestuous floods of Luit, which direction will you take this time or who will you chase with the power of your thundering sounding waves.

The main object needs to be to bring the present into the larger overarching canvas of the past in the performance theater on any heritage landscape. These kinds of methodologies, especially bringing in contemporary subjects related to heritage landscapes, serve to create relevance for the modern visitor, and it serves as a rippling down effect when more people want to come to see the same. Hence Heritage immersive tourism through performed heritage walks is one of the most potent and effective modalities for conserving cultural heritage. You make heritage from a distant exotica to being a part of the present.

During the pandemic and economic inflation, the tourism industry took a dip. What are the various ways in which you have had to adapt and cope with the effects?

The pandemic has been one of the greatest lessons, as much as a moment to pause to consider the manner tourism can facilitate sustainability and inclusive economic growth of people engaged with heritage landscapes. The Covid recovery period is the moment to reflect on what went missing in the past where the tempo of selling Incredible India played a part in promoting the exotica. Now is the moment for creating balanced, sustainable, responsible tourism. Tourism now ought to be about the richness of content and engagement of people who have that content. The service providers also require multi-skilling capacity building to have something to fall back. And it is time that marginalized communities in heritage landscapes like women, forest and pastoral communities and other heritage knowledge communities can be active stakeholders in the frame of Incredible India. In the following 25 years, when India reaches its 100th year of freedom must be where these communities take center stage. THEY are the living heritage and have carried the idea of India on their shoulders for centuries.

There aren’t many funds or sponsorships to support such initiatives in the country. How do you sustain them?

There needs to be an understanding of the heritage landscape. Hence, a systematic methodology of Heritage skill mapping and a road map for their market connectivity is required. When cultural economics is put in place, people are attracted to invest in the sector. However, some skills may not have a ‘market value’ but have an important place in the historical record of human achievements of that country. Hence, this is where the government and multiple ministries need to create jobs and documentation opportunities for the living repositories of heritage knowledge.

Can you tell us about some of the most memorable walks you have conducted? Any interesting incidents...

The first memory that I can think of is my interaction and heritage walk with Mitsui, a Japanese visitor from around 2011-12. I think it impacted him so much that he went on to build heritage labs on the Silk Route and led self- taught cultural skill mapping and all kinds of connections between people across Asia in the subsequent years.

The second memory is related to an observatory, which is interestingly called ‘Pir Ghaib’, built by Feroz Shah Tughluq, located in Bada Hindu Rao hospital complex. The walk was scheduled for children and was called ‘Child of the Millenium’. For me, the observatory is not just a monument but a repository of certain human skills, and I wanted children to look at various cultural knowledge skills that one could find in Pir Ghaib. For that, I also invited someone from the Nehru Planetarium to talk about careers in astronomy and space, and one of the children got so interested in it that he later went off to work at NASA. A while earlier, on Facebook, he reconnected with me and told me that his story/journey began with my heritage walk. Teaching of some kind, not just performing, but being a popular academic in the same way as you call a popular history, and the impact that you leave on people, are the most valuable and memorable memories an academic can wish for.

The third memory is of my time with Stefano Pelle, Chairman of Perfetti Van Melle India. He was able to create and tailor the presence of his Italian company in India in the field of candies by participating in my heritage tour experiences.

The last memory is my walk with Benazir Bhutto, who came to India for the Leadership Conclave. I was contacted as a cultural scholar to present the walk to Hazrat Nizammuddin’s dargah. But Benazir Bhutto had two other personal requests, which was to visit and offer her prayers at the grave of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, because her parents were close to him, and lunchtime appointment with I.K.Gujral. I personally felt nervous because it was challenging to present a walk to someone who was already so familiar with Sufism. I, then, asked my Sufi teacher Khwaja Hasan Nizami Sani, and he offered to help. He asked me to bring her to his house from where they would proceed to the main courtyard. There were moments from the car ride that are still vivid in my memory. I remember her as a beautiful woman, whose beauty could not be compared with her pictures. I remember her wearing a huge diamond ring. I also remember seeing her nervous inside the car as we went past the Nizamuddin road. When I explained that we were taking her to a priest, she said to me that she dreams about her death every single day, and without any policemen in this route, she wanted to ride on the road which had a police deploitary. As the route was changed, I informed Khwaja Hasan Nizam Sani about the change of plans.

He wanted to hand over the last letter from her father who had written it to seek blessings from the priest before the morning of his execution. So they turned the car around and went inside Nizamuddin dargah through the normal route. They went into the Hujra (chambers). When she asked when she would wear the crown and when she would return home, a najoomi (astrologer), who is no longer in this world, predicted with precision ‘in x days’ (I don’t exactly remember the count). After x days, as he predicted, she landed in Pakistan. I called the priest to tell him that his prediction was correct. ‘Aap itni bewakoof ho. Pura news nahi dekhti.’ (You are too naive. Haven’t you watched the entire news?), he replied. I watched the news - Benazir Bhutto touched the ground and looked up at the sky in du’a, suggesting that “watan to wahan hai unka” (the homeland was on that side). But the priest told me that three days are still left. After three days, when she was assassinated, the priest called me up to say “Now, she has returned.”