I finally broke the news to my mother a few days ago. I told her that I am leaving my stable job as a faculty member in archaeology and moving back to Kolkata to start my own company which will raise community awareness about heritage through walks and workshops. She did not understand of course, and the result? Absolute P A N I C! How will I get money to live on? What will I eat? How can I support the family? More importantly, why am I doing this after working hard for years doing my MA and PhD in England?
Unbeknownst to her, I had asked myself these same questions over and over earlier this year. On one hand there was this job which offered a sense of security, an assured paycheck at the end of each month, and some stability that my wife Chelsea and I were looking for after two and half years of itinerancy. On the other hand, this job meant working in an unprofessional organization where original thinking was sneered at; where I received comparatively low pay with no opportunity for advancement; and where I confronted a complete disregard for academic freedom every day. I felt frustrated and suffocated. I was low on self-esteem and I could not even enjoy teaching, something that I generally love to do. It was during one of these low points that Chelsea suggested I start something myself – something that allows me to combine my skillset as an academic and an archaeologist with my love for teaching, and that lets me contribute to the community rather than just being a source of money. The vision of Heritage Walk Calcutta was born. In the midst of this internal debate to discover something that I could truly work toward, my father, an eternal altruist and philanthropist in his own modest means, suddenly passed away. More than anything else, this loss pushed me to make this final decision. I had to use my education to do something worthwhile, to contribute to the community. I had to act.
The idea of doing something combining my skills and passions to benefit the community was not new, though. I have always wanted to do something like this. My education in England introduced me to the concept of community archaeology and sustainable, community-focused heritage management projects. I loved the idea of experts working with the communities and empowering them to identify, record and protect their local heritage through targeted training. When I returned to India after receiving my Master’s degree in 2010, I got an opportunity to lead a project under the West Bengal Heritage Commission and INTACH-Kolkata, in which we recorded the location and conditions of built heritage sites in 13 districts of southern Bengal. During this nine-month project, we recorded and reported more than 700 potential heritage sites, many of which were in alarming conditions. The scale and magnitude of how much was at stake struck me head on. I also realized that, although the intentions of the Heritage Commission, INTACH, the State Archaeology Department and ASI were good, there was a lack of funding, infrastructure and experts needed for large-scale conservation projects. If there was interest among the local communities about their heritage, they lacked the necessary training and expert support to document and conserve these structures or oral histories.
My PhD research exposed me to a different kind of heritage facing an even more alarming future. I am studying ethnographic narratives of pre-industrial methods of iron and steel production in Telangana, in an effort to help understand the archaeological record. The research took me to small groups of surviving iron-smelter communities in the remote forests of Adilabad (Telangana), Netarhat (Jharkhand), and the Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu). In all of these places, I found that lopsided and rapid development, coupled with the loss of an ancestral craft, has rapidly eroded the sense of heritage among these communities. Hence there is a chronic sense of loss of identity. As identities are constantly reshaped and redefined faster than ever in today’s world, are we not all affected by the erosion of our connections to our personal, family or community heritage?
In these circumstances, it seems obvious that addressing the misbalance between rapid development and the conservation of tangible and intangible heritage must be done through community awareness, engagement, and empowerment. Building the capacities of local communities will enable them to at least document their local heritage for the coming generations, thereby preventing a complete loss of history and identity.
My vision behind Heritage Walk Calcutta is precisely this. Launching in February 2017, Heritage Walk Calcutta will serve as a platform for community outreach through heritage walks for the general public and capacity-building workshops in schools and other organizations. At Heritage Walk Calcutta, we believe that awareness about heritage must begin from an early age, and can be achieved through fun, interactive, experiential sessions. Children will be more interested in learning history if it can be personalized and made more alive. That way, a genuine interest and skill can be encouraged.
With our heritage walks, our objective is to encourage the people of Kolkata and beyond to explore the city’s immensely attractive and complex history first hand. The prices for the walks are intentionally kept low so that they are affordable for a large section of the community. The walks will be personally led by me or by other historians who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Kolkata’s history. Although we are starting with Kolkata, we eventually want to make our workshops and heritage walks available in the rest of West Bengal as well. I sincerely hope that this initiative will make a significant impact in empowering our communities to protect our local heritage.
Postscript: We earnestly request you to spread the word about Heritage Walk Calcutta. We would also love to hear from you if you are interested in providing logistical support through funding, endorsements and media. Thank you!
About Tathagata: Tathagata is an archaeologist by training. He completed his BA (Hons.) in History from Jadavpur University and MA in Archaeology from University of Exeter. He is currently completing his PhD in Archaeology from Exeter under a joint Exeter-NIAS studentship. You can read about his research here. He tweets under the handle @archaeonomad.