Preserving The Past
Were you always interested in history through your childhood? What motivated you to pursue it full time?
Yes, it was always my favourite area of study. To be honest, I simply followed my interest and was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged me to do so — without questioning what exactly I would do with these degrees in history and the history of art!
What particular aspect of your work interests and inspires you?
My interest lies in the challenge of presenting the past — making it local and relevant. Also, in telling a history that is more equal, balanced and not always pretty, maybe even uncomfortable and controversial. I look for those histories that are not immediately obvious, the voices that are quieter and the experiences that are often overlooked. In museums, it’s the histories, and even the politics, which are often left out — the stories behind, between and surrounding displays. I have always enjoyed art, architecture, and urban spaces, particularly as visual sources of history, society, the past and the present. They are also great interactive tools or cues to get audiences to look closer, to ask questions and ‘see’ the stories for themselves.
What do you do to bring in younger participants and keep them involved? Do you find a growing interest in heritage preservation around the country?
There is definitely a growing interest in history and heritage, with increasing opportunities to engage with the field. However, so much more needs to be done. The numbers are still just a drop in the ocean, and we need to work towards diversifying the audience for history, museums, art and heritage. The challenge in making history interesting is to make it conversational, interactive and, most importantly, relevant. How can we localise larger historical narratives and locate them in areas that we inhabit in our everyday lives? How can we dig deeper and get objects, paintings and buildings to speak to us, to bring about that one aha moment? What remains that can help us travel back in time? My audiences for my open-to-public walks are largely residents in the city and visitors who have heard about my walks from friends that live here. The majority are already invested in their city, even knowledgeable about its history and future. I joke that I rant a lot on my walks, but most of my groups enjoy that, and even join in! I also focus particularly on school groups and college students, to get them to think and engage critically with these subjects from a young age.
From the Partition Museum to oral histories or the Citizens’ Archive of India, a lot of initiatives are helping younger generations connect with the past— what do you think has led to this change? What are museums doing differently that helps?
Several museums in India, like those elsewhere, are now beginning to focus on audiences first. The best of them are welcoming spaces, invested in figuring out how to build an audience base for their collections and stories and bring in visitors with diverse interests and of varied ages. With growing work opportunities, an increasing number of younger leaders and new technologies, the field is becoming more accessible, popular and most of all, relevant.
What are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your work?
I think the hard parts are also the most exciting — finding ways to tell Mumbai’s oft-told histories as well as finding different lenses to look through, discovering walks and spaces. The most exciting part is that of building a growing community of interested and invested walkers and the conversations had on these walks. With my larger mission of reaching out to schools and colleges, the biggest challenge is getting a foot in the door and convincing the faculties about the value of my tours, museum visits and skill-building workshops.
What goes into the creation of a heritage walk — from mapping it to the final walk? How do you modify it to cater to different types of audiences?
Each one involves lots of reading, research and test walking at different times of the day and week to build a route and decide how and where to tell the story you want to share. Modifying both the route and the conversation according to each audience is key — I try to ask and encourage questions from the groups — that helps in telling the stories in a manner that best suits the participants.
What is a significant event or achievement that you’re proud of?
Last year, I launched a new initiative, Careers In Culture, with an intensive two-day workshop for young students and recent graduates. In the course of the workshop, we met and interacted with eight teams doing some of the most exciting new work. Careers In Culture is an ongoing attempt to build capacity in the field of museums, art and culture in Mumbai by filling a gap in arts education and offering soon-to-be or recent graduates an opportunity to network, build skills and learn from industry leaders.
What are some pieces of feedback from your walks that have really stayed with you?
It’s the simple reactions — hearing that my walks open their eyes to the city anew, make them appreciate and, more importantly, understand the city more than they did before. It’s also great to have participants come back for several repeat walks. I love it when regular walkers become an active part of my community, often getting in touch for resources to read about, to share postcards, photos, articles, anecdotes, experiences and observations. I recently had a school group tell me they wanted to do a field trip with me every week, which definitely made my day.
What are three locales or buildings in Mumbai that most people don’t know about but should?
Why just three? Most buildings are so inaccessible to people that they have become almost invisible to most, even to those people who frequent the neighbourhoods that house them!
Which city would you love to discover through a heritage walk?
Every single one I visit. Walking tours are my thing!
Any advice for someone aspiring to enter this field?
The museums and heritage sector needs you! But, come prepared to wear multiple hats and develop and use a variety of skills, often outside your comfort zone. It isn’t just about your area of interest or specialisation. Also, get ready to be entrepreneurial and innovative.
What are your plans for the future?
I am planning to not only find fresh walking routes in more Mumbai neighbourhoods but also routes that focus on looking at the city through different lenses. I want to build, train and guide a network of storytellers who can tell their stories best, as only they can and through workshops and networking sessions.