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Monday, 12 March 2012

Take a heritage walk

By Shobha Sengupta

Swapna Liddle, who has a PhD in 19th century Delhi, has made it her business to popul­arise history. Liddle, also the co-convenor of Intach’s Delhi Chapter, talks to Sh­obha Sengupta, about her book, Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, which has bec­ome a hit with Delhiites as well as visitors. Excerpts.

It is not usual for a historian to introduce history to the man on the street. What brought you from the rarefied world of academics to heritage walks?

I am certainly not the only one in this regard. There are a number of historians, architects and architectural historians who love Delhi’s historic areas and have been sharing their knowledge with others through heritage walks. I find it highly rewarding, because it makes history relevant to the everyday lives of people in a very direct and obvious way. For me, another important consideration is that if people learn to love the heritage around them, they are more likely to care about its protection.

In what other ways are you involved in conservation and popularising history?

I volunteer for the Delhi Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), which is dedicated to conservation of India’s heritage. We work to increase the awareness of the public as well as government authorities about the need to preserve heritage. This is done through lectures, heritage walks, informative literature, and exhibitions. We also execute building conservation projects.

Delhi is steeped in history. Are you satisfied with the level of awareness and empathy for history among Delhiites?

We have along way to go before we can claim to have reached a satisfactory level of awareness, but nevertheless there has been a considerable improvement over the last few years. More people are interested in the history of the city as manifested in its old buildings and even food, crafts, and performance traditions like qawwali and dastan-goi.

And our government?

Here too we can see a perceptible improvement. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has improved the level of maintenance of many monuments under its care. The Delhi government has embarked on a major project to protect and conserve buildings that are not under the management of the ASI. Several heritage buildings have been notified by the NDMC and MCD for protection under a special heritage clause of the building bye-laws. Other measures like informative signage and the hop-on-hop-off tourist bus service certainly make visits to historic areas easier and more enjoyable.

What remains to be done to popularise history and conserve historical monuments?

Children are a very important target audience for this. History as a part of the school curriculum should include a greater focus on local history, buildings and museums. Meaningful visits to historic sites are important; and for these, teachers should familiarise themselves with the history and other details of these places. This is not difficult, as now helpful literature is increasingly becoming available.

More generally, interesting museums with technologically up-to-date displays, better visitor amenities at historic monuments, imaginative but controlled re-use of historic buildings, are all measures that can help people relate to their historic environment in a better way.

Indian cities are not very “pedestrian friendly”. Does that come in the way of conducting heritage walks?

It can be challenging to walk in Delhi. For conducted walks in larger groups, weekend mornings are generally more convenient, as there is less traffic and ambient noise. Mornings are also usually more pleasant, since Delhi can get quite hot.

(Shobha Sengupta owns the bookstore and gallery, Quill and Canvas, in Gurgaon)

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