Sunday, June 24, 2018

Answers to: 'Whose Fort is it Anyway'

 In my essay published in The Indian Express on the 3rd of June 2018 (, I had underlined ‘the need to remind ourselves about the pertinence of the question: “Whose Fort is it, anyway”?’ And the necessity to take the ‘opportunity to own our right and our responsibility for the custody of our heritage.’
I had also written that:
‘So far, we have interpreted ‘custody’—whose dictionary meanings are both ‘protective care’ and ‘imprisonment’—within meanings that see people as interlopers. We need to now see custodianship as protective care, both for the monuments we profess to conserve, and the people whom we ostensibly conserve them for.’

Almost exactly a week after the piece was published, I received a letter by post, from a resident of Pune. She introduced herself as someone who had been born and brought up in Agra, and wrote about the affinity she and other locals felt for the Mughal monuments there. She wrote of memories of picnics spent in their grounds. And owned unequivocally the familial bond they all felt for these buildings and their makers, as strong as if these buildings were their parents. She went on to write:
 ‘You can consider this letter an answer to your question “Whose Fort is it Anyway”. Not only this fort, but all monuments are mine. They now belong to me as a citizen of India’.

This was the prelude to her telling me in great detail about Burhanpur. About its history and architecture; its palaces and serais, its qila and its hammams, its mosques and its gateways. She told me about how local residents, hotel owners and historians, had taken her around the city to reveal these to her, on her visit to Burhanpur. Of their concern for the well-being of these buildings, and their efforts to catalyse government officials. Of the threat to them from new construction, neglect and vandalism. She requested me to use my ‘authority to help restore Burhanpur to its original glory’.

This letter from a lady in Pune, who had grown up in Agra, impelled by her great concern for the heritage of the city of Burhanpur, is a powerful validation of the belief articulated in my essay that: ‘This is true not just for the Fort. Other, less complex sites, which have seen less transformation, will also have many stories, individual and unique to them…They will also need to be interpreted and integrated with people around them.’

            In the letter that I wrote back to her, I had to inform her that I do not have any authority as an individual to do what she asked. What I did suggest as a way forward, was that local residents take ownership of their heritage, of which monuments are an important part.

One possible answer lies in an experiment done as part of a working group called the Friends of ASI (FrASI). The idea of the group was a brainchild of Professor Narayani Gupta, and was set up as a 150th anniversary present to the Archaeological Survey of India. The main reason for such a designated group, was the gap between the ASI as official custodians of much of our tangible history, and the rest of us; as well as a need to re-evaluate what should be the role of the ASI as official custodians. As one member of the group put it, ‘as friends we needed to bring out the strengths of the ASI anchored to their core objectives for the benefit of the public at large and for the future generations of this country’, and ‘move away from a ‘UNESCO-centric’ view of heritage’ to preserve our diverse cultural wealth in the light of our own distinct cultural values.[1]

We felt that the trust-building had to be a two-way process, and just as it was important to highlight what the ASI did ‘well’, it was equally important to have a channel where people’s opinions of what they did not manage to do so well, could be communicated directly to the ASI. Also, rather than just have reactionary responses—such as providing feedback on what the ASI has done, well or otherwise—the FrASI hoped to ensure more participation so that communities and members of society could know beforehand what was planned for their city’s monuments and they could have a say in the direction and intent of such planning. We thus, envisaged the FrASI to be an initiative of civil society supporting and supported by the ASI.[2]

We planned to do this in the historic area of Begumpur and Bijay Mandal[3] primarily through dissemination of information: researched and culled from ASI sources and from the inhabitants at site, two different sorts of histories. And involvement at site: through planned activities where the local residents, the ASI, and visitors get to know and understand each other as well as the site better; and consequently work at improving the site and their relation with it.

The FrASI managed to do some of this, over the span of one year, entirely through voluntary efforts by different members, both within and outside the ASI. ( This shows that it is possible to work towards integrating the needs of the inhabitants and the monuments. The main reason why the experiment lapsed was that we could not catalyse lasting communication between the villagers, other local residents and stakeholders and the ASI staff deputed at the site, and increase the band of Friends at the local level. Some of us, key members of the initiative, lived 40 kms away from the site.

For the same reason, an initiative for the conservation of Burhanpur can only be successful if its local residents and the local ASI jointly work as its custodians. If the people who are closest to a monument, are kept away from it by expending great effort in creating a lakshman rekha, and are deemed untrustworthy, unfit, and unaware of the correct etiquette about how to behave in a monument, no lasting conservation is possible. We should also remember that the very fact of the existence of our unparalleled built heritage even before the formation of a formal agency such as the ASI, shows that local people had responsibilities that they lived up to—in their care for such heritage. All this implies that responsible local responses are the only valid answer to the question of appropriate custodianship. And that the official custodians of our monuments recognise this aspect, and give credence to it.

[1] A.R. Ramanathan, Email in response to the invitation to the First meeting of the Friends of ASI
[2] A core team of the following members: B.M.Pande, Narayani Gupta, Janwhij Sharma, B.R.Mani, Sohail Hashmi, Vivek Jindgar, Robinson, and Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, was allocated the task of taking these suggestions forward, with help from Shilpi Rajpal and Jennifer Chowdhary. Anisha was asked to serve as the node for coordinating activities, and to summarize the way forward reached at the end of the discussions of the First meeting to be shared with the rest of the core team. Dr. B.M.Pande, ex DG ASI, Dr Narayani Gupta, Dr. Gautam Sengupta, the then DG ASI, were seen as senior advisors to this group.
[3] Following from the 21 May 2012 Site Visit to Begumpur and Bijay Mandal, and the follow-up meetings/ email correspondence between various members)

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