Introducing Confusion2.0: Who owns our heritage?

One of the most ambitious projects that Heritage Walk Calcutta has been itching to take on is engaging students in heritage conservation. As a part of the three-day FUTURE (T)HERE International Youth Conference On Sustainable Living 2018, Heritage Walk Calcutta’s team worked with kids from Calcutta, Guwahati, and Kharagpur, discussing the legalities of conserving Calcutta’s built heritage. This conference, hosted by the Goethe Institut, Kolkata, was a perfect opportunity to help the students question the definitions and facts and rote learning that are often the bane of history classes. Asking individual students about their own understandings of words like “heritage,” “community,” “sustainability,” “conservation,” or “ownership” — and even “old,” “ancient,” and “modern” – brought to the fore the general confusion around what heritage means. The fact that Grandma’s old recipe book can also be a part of an individual’s heritage helped them come to terms with ideas of private and public ownership of heritage, and how “old” things or “ancient” artefacts are not the only ones worthy of being “heritage.”

On a personal level, it amazes me how little I learned about the general history of Bengal and Calcutta in school. We knew all about the Indian Independence Movement, the Harappan civilization, and even bits and pieces about Hitler and the World Wars. What was sorely lacking from my education was the concept that being a part of history was not an honour meant only for the nobles or elites, the gallants or villains. Instead, it is about you and me, our grandparents, our families, our letters, and the spaces we inhabit. The area now known as Calcutta was not transformed in the span of a day by the efforts of Job Charnock.  Beginning from fishing hamlets, rivers and creeks, and a Pilgrim’s Path that goes back centuries before Calcutta got its name, the developmental history of the region has often taken a backseat in the face of its colonial and postcolonial narratives.

During the conference, we introduced the students to the city, its history, and why it is how it is – all through visual mediums including maps, old photographs, and paintings. Before they could doze off to the hum of the projector, we led them out into the open and headed to Dalhousie Square on the first day of the workshop. They were suitably impressed on learning how St. John’s Church was built on an old burial ground, how it was overcrowded because of the high mortality among the first waves of Europeans visiting Calcutta in the 1700s, and how malaria, one of the many killers of the time, would be treated using mercury and bloodletting, often killing the sick anyway. St. John’s Church also happens to house Job Charnock’s Mausoleum, whose architecture is anything but European. We were pleasantly surprised when the kids correctly surmised that the local architects of the time probably did not know how to build European-style architecture, and that was the reason for its Indian design.

Heritage walk at Dalhousie Square on Day 1 of the workshop

Heritage walk at Dalhousie Square on Day 1 of the workshop

The next morning the kids were excited about the prospect of another walk, this time to the sites around Kumartuli. The workshop was designed to let them observe the differences in the state of conservation of the built environment in various sections of the city. Our primary aim was to show them places they would not normally have access to, or even notice; by walking the streets, they learned to be more observant and empathetic to the needs of the spaces they populate.

The questions started pouring in once we started walking around Upper Chitpore Road, beginning near Bagbazar Ghat and ending at the Bhagyakul Roy Family Mansions. One of the children’s questions that stayed with me was: “Why should we preserve this building which apparently has no significance other than this woodwork sculpture on top? Why not keep that in a museum, and make the housing conditions more liveable?” This leads us to a larger question – what about creating community museums in Calcutta, or even a Calcutta Museum? Is the single gallery in Victoria Memorial sufficient for our future generations to fall back on? Why should we expect them to fall back on dusty papers and government documents in corridors full of bureaucratic red tape? Should the history of our city, the one we live in, not be available to the people of the city in a form that is relatable, understandable, and memorable?

On returning to the Goethe Institut, we had the children dissect the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s mandates on heritage buildings, including snippets from the KMC Act of 1980. The task was to determine the specific legalities that could be used to improve the situation of the buildings we had seen on the walks, and how the law could be modified to be more flexible and sustainable in the long run. The students were divided into groups of threes and fours so that each could work on a different aspect or site for their final presentation.

The author simplified important aspects of the city’s heritage law for the students

The author simplified important aspects of the city’s heritage law for the students

It is sometimes distressing when innovation and creativity has to end in an action-oriented audience presentation in a short period of time, but the students masterfully dealt with the twin challenges of time and content. During the prep hour, their questions and concerns started pouring in: who owned the buildings; who owned the artefacts; should there be a dedicated museum for the communities; why are some buildings well-restored while others are falling apart; how can an estate be owned in the name of a god; why do the authorities not accept help from private citizens or involve the community; how can the community come together to achieve the sustainable conservation of sections of the city; and so on and so forth. It was humbling for me to see how much they had understood and unearthed in the short span of one and a half days. Amidst the volley of facts and stories and the sensory overload, the students had found breathing space from their rigorous academic pursuits to pursue lines of independent questioning about their own heritage.

To tie all of the lessons together, the last day of the conference included a visit to the community associations and Taoist temples in the Old Chinatown near Tiretti Bazar, Poddar Court. The community here draws their lineage from five different villages in the Guangzhou region of southern China. The descendants of people from each village have their own club and temple. As a classic example of community engagement, Mr. Lee from the Sei Vui temple and community association talked to the children about the origins of the club and the history of the Chinese immigrants, who were historically an important trading and industrial community in Calcutta. The club dormitory, which served as a resting place for new immigrants from Sei Vui village in the early 1900s, has recently been repurposed into a restaurant. As an excellent example of the reuse of heritage spaces, this visit reinforced the idea that heritage conservation is very possible for the people of this city and those who care about it.

Mr Lee, the Secretary of the Sei Vui Club in Old Chinatown discusses the history of the Chinese community and how the Club members plan to preserve their heritage

Mr Lee, the Secretary of the Sei Vui Club in Old Chinatown discusses the history of the Chinese community and how the Club members plan to preserve their heritage

For their final presentations, the three groups of students created: a quiz; a legal review of the current state of certain buildings; and a status report on the state of conservation of different sections of the city. While Group 1 worked on a trivia quiz on historically significant structures, they also came up with questions like “Who owns heritage? And what is our role in conservation?” They did a great job of putting our thoughts into words and presenting them to the parents and teachers who came to participate. Group 2 did a review of Madan Mohan Tala, buildings in various stages of dilapidation on Fancy Lane, and a house located on Upper Chitpore Road. They worked with the varying aspects of ownership and how certain legal functions of a temple estate are different from those of a corporate or private owner. I am glad they decided to work on an oft-misunderstood aspect of the conservation efforts around the city. The members of the third group presented a grading of sites according to their level of risk, regardless of their ownership. They focused on the relevance of heritage sectors in a city, where magnificent structures with forgotten owners deserve to be saved too. Highlighting places like Bishnuram Chakrabarti’s Shibtala and St John’s Church in various stages of the conversation spoke to how much they had retained, both in terms of facts and figures and their visual impressions, including architectural details.

Group 2 worked with varying aspects of ownership and how certain legal functions of a temple estate are different from those of a corporate or private owner

Group 2 worked with varying aspects of ownership and how certain legal functions of a temple estate are different from those of a corporate or private owner

It is difficult to put into words how glad I am to have met these children who worked hard and convinced the general populace that “doing” heritage and heritage walks is a gratifying and necessary objective for a concerned citizen. While it was fun to work with the kids, I have concerns about whether our social bias of pushing children to study science and technology will let them accomplish their own goals of heritage conservation, however small they may be. It also brought forward how the legalities involved in heritage efforts need to be simplified, and that the communities around heritage structures can themselves engage in collecting funds, formulating plans, and giving shape to conservation efforts. A lot remains to be done in terms of heritage identification and mapping, before steps can be taken to ameliorate the condition of the built heritage in the city. Bringing the people of the city together by creating a common digital platform for them to locate and document our built heritage is a very real dream for us. Petitioning the municipal body to disentangle the legalities of grading heritage buildings, or even clarifying the community’s role in sustaining any heritage conservation efforts will help the community come to terms with their heritage and rights to it. This city and the people have a lot of fight left in them. We would like to give their and their children’s hopes a place to find fruition.

Pritha Mukherjee is an historian who is passionate about the colonial and postcolonial treatment of South Asia’s ancient past. She has worked on archaeological surveys, museum documentations, and heritage walk initiatives in Bihar, and currently manages Research and Development for Heritage Walk Calcutta.

Acknowledgements: Goethe Institut-Kolkata, Suvodeep Saha, Srinanda Ganguli, Chelsea McGill

Disclaimer: All images used in this post are the ownership of Heritage Walk Calcutta and may not be used without proper permission.

A Heritage Walk for Hearing-Impaired Children

GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun – Calcutta, March 2017

On 27th March 2017, Heritage Walk Calcutta, in collaboration with Made in Bengal and ArchaeologistsEngage, hosted the year’s first GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun event in Kolkata, India. Make Heritage Fun is a global initiative by GoUNESCO, aimed at celebrating local culture—simultaneously, across the world. This campaign provides a platform for heritage and culture enthusiasts to share local heritage with others in their community. In Calcutta, we organized an event to help children with hearing-related disabilities explore Calcutta’s history through a guided and assisted 2-hour walking tour inside the compound of St. John’s Church, one of the oldest in the city. For this event, we were proud to work with the Ideal School for the Deaf, located in Salt Lake, Kolkata. 26 of their students from 6th to 10th grade (12-17 years old) and 6 teachers actively participated in this event. The tour was led by Tathagata Neogi, an archaeologist and the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, and translated into sign language by the accompanying teachers.


After the walking tour, we asked the children to create a work of art about what they learned during the walk.  When ready, these paintings/sketches will be shared through our online platforms and displayed during an exhibition at the Ideal School for the Deaf later this year.

The following is a link to the live telecast at the beginning of the walk.

The accessibility of historic sites is an issue that has not been widely addressed globally. While some countries have recently passed legislation to ensure the accessibility of major historic sites for various groups with disabilities, this issue has not been systematically addressed in India, despite the country’s rich tangible and intangible heritage, and large population of people with disabilities. By conducting a heritage walk specifically aimed at children with hearing-related disabilities under the GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun umbrella, we at Heritage Walk Calcutta wanted to start a discussion about the issue of accessibility in India’s historic sites. Heritage Walk Calcutta and our collaborators believe in a common, shared heritage, which members of disabled communities have an equal right to access.

Heritage Walk Calcutta approached GoUNESCO about hosting this event under the Make Heritage Fun umbrella at the end of February. The original plan was to provide a bus tour of several major heritage sites for school children. When GoUNESCO approved our application to host an event, this idea was further refined in the hope of addressing accessibility issues in Indian heritage sites. At this time, our collaborators, Made in Bengal and ArchaeologistsEngage, came on board to provide support for the event. The idea of a bus tour was abandoned in favour of a walking tour to increase the experiential value of the event, and to give ample time for the children to connect with a single historic site in a deeper way.

The St. John’s Church complex was chosen as the venue because of its central location and historical importance as the first Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta. The church compound also houses the graves of Job Charnock, the “founder” of the city, and some other important East India Company personalities from the city’s very early days. The Church complex is also a protected site under the Archaeological Survey of India, which is a perfect setting to start discussions about the accessibility of heritage sites, and which does not have any restrictions on entry. Finally, since the children have hearing-related disabilities, the church compound provided safety from the fast moving traffic on some busiest streets in Kolkata, just outside the walls.


After this plan was finalized, we approached the Ideal School for the Deaf through a common friend. Their authorities were very enthusiastic about the event. We discussed our plan with the head of the institute and other faculty members to come up with an accessible narrative for the children. The school requested that the event be done on Monday, March 27th, rather than on Sunday, which was the day of the international event. GoUNESCO very kindly agreed to let us host the event on this alternate day to make it easier for the children to attend, since many of them come from very far distances to attend the school. The Friday before the event, Tathagata made a presentation at the school to give the children some historical context through pictures and paintings, with translation into sign language. This also provided us, the students, and the teachers with a warm-up run for the event.


To ensure the accessibility of the information during the walking tour, we prepared visual aids for the children. This included print outs of important names, dates and numbers in large fonts and visible colours. Tathagata also spoke slowly in Bangla so that the children, who are experts in lip-reading, could get some information immediately, without waiting for the translation. Both Tathagata and the teacher who was interpreting stood on higher ground whenever possible throughout the tour so that all of the children could easily see them. A small welcome kit was also provided for the children and their teachers, which included a bottle of water and some snacks.


The issue of the accessibility of historic sites is very close to our hearts at Heritage Walk Calcutta. We believe that, while one-off events like these can spark a discussion, this talk will die out if it is not regularly followed up by similar events and workshops. Heritage Walk Calcutta is therefore committed to making significant contributions to this discussion by organizing follow-up events for various disabled groups and by working with different stakeholders to make heritage sites more accessible for disabled communities.

Heritage Walk Calcutta is an academic-run company in Kolkata that aims to increase awareness of heritage in the community by connecting scholars and the common people through walking tours and workshops.

Tathagata Neogi is an archaeologist and the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta.

The event would not be possible without the active support of our various collaborators and GoUNESCO. Here, I briefly introduce our collaborators and thank them for their support.

Ideal School for the Deaf: Established in 1967 by the Society for the Deaf, the school functions as a not for profit institution to provide free education for hearing impaired children. The organization is based out of Salt Lake Sector I, Kolkata, India. The school caters to students from all backgrounds in the Kolkata area and beyond.

Made in Bengal: ‘Made in’ is a digital platform for any product/service made by the people of Bengal…for the people of the world. The Made in Bengal team constantly work with artists, artisans and weavers to innovate in order to keep traditional techniques intact! The aim is to bring on more artists, manufacturers, designers, weavers, musicians, theatre artists, and so on, to this single e-platform and reach out to the world with our products, culture, art and cuisine.

ArchaeologistsEngage: ArchaeologistsEngage is an independent non-profit group of archaeologists who came together to enable engagement between professionals and the public. ArchaeologistsEngage is a registered voluntary organisation in the Norwegian Brønnøysund Register.

Why Engage? We can all change a life – We can all change Archaeology!

We have all had a pivotal moment, or moments in our lives which have led us in a certain direction; for me, it was the tireless and patient mentor-ship of a group of archaeologists. I therefore, as founder of ArchaeologistsEngage am passionate about furthering engagement between archaeologists and our wider audience as I believe if we willingly descend from our Ivory Tower, we may be surprised how much can be achieved at ‘ground level’.

As a toddler, I was notorious, for digging in my parent’s garden and having found a small rusted tin of lead soldiers, the fact that ‘interesting things’ came out of the ground was confirmed in my young mind. However, this may have developed no further than a hobby, to be enjoyed on the weekends, if not for the Archaeology Field Unit, of University College London (UCL), at Bignor Roman Villa. The site comprises a large courtyard building, of complex sixty-five room plan, expanded over a period of time in the 3rd-4th centuries.

Emily's first find was this

Emily’s first find was a box of lead soldiers – in the back yard.

One August trip in 1992 coincided with the annual excavation by the UCL team, focussed at the time, to the east of the known excavated portion. The trenches were taped off but the visitors could talk to the archaeologists as they worked. I asked lots of questions of the site director, David Rudling and his staff and recognising more than average interest, they very kindly talked us through the finds. The site ran short training courses for interested members of the public, alongside their students and despite my young age, being eight years old, the archaeologists agreed to let me attend the next week, accompanied by a parent. In what I was to later learn was a pivotal moment in my life, I was taught the concept of stratigraphy, the importance of straight-sided sections, marking finds bags and drawing with a scale ruler. The archaeologists were patient and informative and never failed to pause and seriously answer a question….and believe me, there were many incessant questions!!

The site where Emily took her first trowel scratches.

Bignor Roman Villa: The site where Emily took her first trowel scratches.

To be surrounded by students, working professionals and the university academics I thrived and requested to return the next year. In fact, I attended the site every year for a week/two weeks in the Summer, on my own, parent’s long forgotten, until the excavations were wrapped up. I was always included in the lessons the student’s were given; taking levels, collecting core samples, dating of pottery. During this 6-7 year period, I was mentored constantly by an available member of staff, never patronised but included to the best of my ability and within what safety regulations would allow. David Rudling also took the time to talk through my stated desire to be a professional archaeologist, with my parents, advising on University departments and subject choices at GCSE and A-level. The engagement of David and his dedicated staff at the UCL Field Unit was vital preparation for my career. I understood ahead of my peers, the pitfalls of a profession of long hours and low pay, that archaeology is often as much the choice of a lifestyle, as it is a career. When applying to university, throughout my studies at Exeter and Reading, and in job interviews I have been able to draw on a depth of experience my peers couldn’t match and a confidence and determination in my chosen field, fostered in the trenches of a West Sussex field.

So I ask you all, Take the Challenge! You too could inspire a child and change archaeology………..ARCHAEOLOGISTSENGAGE!!!!!

Emily Wapshott is a lifelong field archaeologist, with a specialism in buildings, and one of the founders of ArchaeologistsEngage.