I broker culture

Written by Sukalp Sharma | Sukalp Sharma | Updated: Nov 4 2012, 06:53am hrs
Navina Jafa is a performer at heart. She tells me, When I do a walk, I am the sutradhaar. I link the people with the trail that I make and I create a theatre about it. And when I create a theatre about it, by the time they come out, its like coming out of a multiplex. So you cant be a presenter if youre not a performer. Because most of the heritage youll be talking about has changed. Youll be talking about traditions which have died.

She is also a scholar, an academic researcher, an educationist, a Kathak dancer trained by none other than Pandit Birju Maharaj. But the most popular of her avatars is that of an organiser of heritage walks. There too, she prefers to introduce herself as a performer. Befitting, then, is the title of her recent book Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks. No, this is not just another run-of-the-mill heritage walk guidebook, but a work on the technique and art of cultural representation through the medium of heritage walks as experiential academic tool. It puts forward the idea of heritage walks as pedagogy, where the living exhibit allows us to rethink various social science disciplines, and also to develop an interdisciplinary approach involving heritage as a central element for tackling contemporary social challenges.

I broker culture. Thats the provocative word I use. My job is to broker a civilsational identity. This book is a tool kit thats globally applicable. Delhis just a case study here. When we engage, internationally as well as intranationally, we invariably refer to cultural identities. Cultural identities represent cultural mindsets. You cant engage politically, economically, diplomatically or sociologically, without understanding heritage mindsets. Performing Heritage is a book that talks about using heritage walks as an academic tool, within what I call public academics. You go much beyond institutional learning. You create lectures on site, says Jafa, whose formative years in the field saw her as a Fulbright scholar specialising in cultural management and cultural diplomacy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC.

But where does performance fit in a heritage walk or for that matter even in heritage per se When you are lecturing within a controlled environment, you usually have people with similar mindsets (like in a classroom), but all kinds of people might come up to you in a heritage walk. How do you create your narrative to give something for everyone to take back So you link heritage landscapes. Impression, visual impression, audio impression. Thats where performance comes in, she responds. Sometimes when you become very erudite, you forget the art of performance. You need to have that art of presentation. I call this field applied heritage, Jafa adds.

Heritage, in popular perception, is more about historical time warps. Framed and branded by a particular epoch, century, dynasty. Jafa takes such a peripheral view of heritage as incomplete, inconclusive and, if one may say so, ineffective. In fact, this work of hers is firmly balanced on the foundation of heritage as dynamic, as she understands and practices it. Heritage is not a building and dance and music. It is our identity, the civilisational identity. It rests as much in the intangible as it does in the tangible. Every day, common people are creating traditions.

Because Jafa sees heritage as definitely having dynamism, she contests the wrongness of the word: Its a western concept of freezing things of the past. The word parampara communicates a more dynamic aspect of heritage. She asks, why cant UNESCO substitute parampara for heritage Performing Heritage attempts to negotiate the dilemma of local and global, contemporary and traditional, in order for India and Indians to have a less conflict-ridden future: We are a hierarchical society. And then when you bring in ideas like equality and secularism, they clash with the civilisational ethos. So, how do you create bridges For us, as a modern nation state, these ideas are just 65 years old, while the ones they are coming into conflict with might be thousands of years old. We need a heritage medium to negotiate that barrier. Hence her push to develop heritage as a multi-disciplinary field for contemporary problem-solving and conflict-resolution, both political and social. Jafa also emphasises that we, as a nation, havent properly utilised the tremendous power of parampara as a tool for national development and social discourse, even though a nation with extraordinary diversity could really do with the help of such a tool.

A really interesting assertion Jafa makes is that while heritage studies have been underutilised in social development, politicians as a professional category have used heritage the most, for the good and for the bad: Theyve used it because they know its the most effective way of creating stakeholders. Mahatma Gandhi created the whole performance of the Dandi March. It was a performance; it was a parade. I interpret Gandhi as a great performer. Look at the way he dressed. By putting the charkha in the middle of political meetings, he created cultural symbols that linked everyone, breaking the barriers of caste, religion and gender. Jafa notes that Adolf Hitler also used cultural mindsets and heritage symbols, but to quite the contrary effect and devastatingly so.

Politics impacts heritage, helping to create tomorrows heritage today. This, according to Jafa, can be explicitly seen in the case of Mayawati and her neo-Buddhist installations, which have been a cause of much acrimony and debate in the public domain. But Jafa wont get into the moral or ethical legitimacy of the matter, sticking to what she knows best. There was a Lucknow of the Nawabs, a Lucknow of the British and now there is a neo-Buddhist Lucknow, How can we forget or exclude that emerging dalit identity Mayawati has strategically placed statues and these monuments of neo-Buddhism in places that have the exotica of the Nawabs, taking that glory and assuming the legitimacy of those exotic and privileged personae.Now, even the Mayawati installations are a part of Lucknows heritage and they will have influence tomorrow. You cant pull them down. The dalit is claiming a new space for himself, she says.

But for the artist in Jafa who conducts heritage walks for everyone from the migratory population on the street to political bigwigs and even geo-political hawks like Henry Kissinger, does the intertwining of art and science with modern conflict-resolution and societal dilemmas ever prove to be a burden No. On the contrary I feel very energised. I try and make the heritage walks as participative as possible. Its been challenging and youre constantly rethinking about how to make it interesting and insightful, gripping the imagination of all the different audiences. So, every time I go to even the same monuments, theres a feeling of something new because the audience responses are so varied and the audience itself is varied and different each time, she says effervescently. After all, for any performer, the most gratifying experience is the performance. Perhaps thats the reason why Jafa is most comfortable with this identity of hers, out of the multitudes available to her. The performer in her works in constant synergy with the researcher and the scholar. Jafa is happy to claim, Im actually quite a well-known feature with a megaphone in the city, mostly around monuments.