In India, cultural tourism has a big potential for development given the diversity of sites and experiences the country has to offer. Conscious publicity campaigns like ‘Incredible India’ are aimed at highlighting the richness of Indian traditions. Indian tourism, primarily reliant on domestic numbers, is also making efforts through infrastructure projects and publicity to attract inflows from abroad. In this, the role of heritage becomes very important. However, how heritage and historical narrative are instrumentalised in this context needs to be reflected on.
Presenting History in Public: Who is in Charge?
The roots of heritage protection and its conservation in India can essentially be traced back to the colonial period. The establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1861 led to the creation of a framework and infrastructure for managing historical sites and also defined a mandate for their preservation and presentation, which continues to guide heritage management in India even today. Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) established in 1984 was created with the aim of preserving and promoting the unprotected heritage which fell beyond the purview of the state bodies. INTACH has mobilised the heritage movement in the country to a great extent. Through activist efforts, many heritage sites were saved from destruction and damages.
In the post-industrial period, heritage became a big contributor for tourism in the urban context. Heritage restoration projects carried out by professionals have made monuments accessible and presentable again. Many NGOs and professionals have also been engaged in creating heritage walks and other interesting outreach projects to reach out to masses. Heritage has become localised with cultural festivals being organised on several occasions—like e.g. the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai. However, the heritage practice in the country remains primarily within the government purview—except urban heritage which has some element of privatisation. It is a top-down bureaucratic approach rather than a bottom-up, grass-roots level implementation and stakeholders participatory process, and thus lacks inclusivity and diversity. In recent years, public-private partnerships are on the rise, which have offered a boost to heritage conservation and presentation.
Nostalgia of the Past and Packaged Authenticity
Heritage is celebrated in India largely as an achievement of the past and reflects in its presentation as well. At many sites, interpretation infrastructure, such as guided tours, light and sound shows, and interpretation panels has been developed. However, narrow-focused and limited information and eulogistic narratives often interlaced with myths and misconceptions create a romantic experience for tourists, devoid of nuances of history and critical reflection of the past. Visitor experience at historic sites and museums is influenced by “packaged authenticity”, a created narrative. This notion, borrowed from the western discourse, creates a challenge in presenting narratives. Multiple temporalities and spatialities, though visible on sites, are barely taken cognisance of in these narratives. Many heritage projects that deal with colonial heritage seem to harness colonial nostalgia in presentation and preservation. The media use of colonial nostalgia has an appeal for domestic tourists.
Which history is promoted and how it is presented depends on a number of aspects, including official, political and expert preferences. There are also differences in how sites are promoted as heritage. World heritage sites have received attention as key tourist attractions, but a large number of sites remain neglected. Sites are either restored to achieve visual integrity or large infrastructure-related developments around the site. A holistic integrated heritage development plan is yet missing from the imagination and implementation of the historic site managers. Lack of official and expert attention, paucity of funding and infrastructure, and community apathy seem to stall developments.
There is a lot of imbalance in how heritage is valued and developed for commercial purposes, such as tourism. As an example, on one hand, there is commercialisation of heritage sites like the forts and palaces in Rajasthan, while forts in the state of Maharashtra are still waiting to be rejuvenated. Though rampant commercialisation needs to be avoided, many activists are trying for due infrastructure and interpretation to communicate this rich past to the public. Many such cases abound.
Museums are other key sites where history is presented for the public. The museums in India created during the British colonial rule became the cabinets of curiosities to store and display the antiquaries of India, such as sculptures, art and archaeological objects, weapons and botanical/ zoological/ geological specimens. History of India was presented as a linear narrative in these museums starting from prehistoric times to medieval ages. The museum as an institution has transformed in the post-independence period, however the narrative still remains largely uncontested and unreflected. Despite a call for change in museum interpretation, the process is quite slow and interpretation facilities remain inadequate. The museum audience has diversified from the predominantly urban elite as was previously seen, but whether museums have adapted to cater to these larger tourist demands remains to be questioned.
Tell Me Again: What is Heritage?
In India, heritage, in a common parlance, is still something distant for people from their everyday life, something from the past. The notion of living heritage—religious places, industrial heritage such as railways—is not yet well established as heritage for commoners. The Indian heritage practice is still largely concentrated on built forms and monumentality in which visual integrity and material authenticity hold the large focus. Though exceptions exist, change and continuity as essential aspects of heritage are not yet completely ingrained in heritage understanding.
While INTACH advocates sites as fluid and changing, there are only a few examples which show this approach being used in practice. INTACH has largely focused on non-official sites, which has created binaries in the Indian heritage practice. Heritage still remains an isolated and elite phenomenon, seen as contradicting development and progress. Heritage as not just a built or intangible product, but as a political process and practice of creating meanings and values remains less reflected on. A unilateral lens of looking at heritage creates difficulties as the narratives are determined by these authorised perspectives. The everyday, mundane dimension of heritage, community connections, is not well integrated in heritage interpretation.
This is not to say that efforts are not underway in this direction. There have been significant projects, such as the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, which present good examples of close cooperation with stakeholders. Heritage conservation in Mumbai has also taken into consideration the community connection. The UNESCO World Heritage inscription for the Victorian and Art Deco Ensembles in Mumbai was initiated by citizens residing in many of these historic buildings and they have been actively engaged in presenting the narrative of the site.
In recent years, it is encouraging to see that museums harness new concepts of engaging with the public through novel educational and outreach activities. In the case of leading museums like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, Indian Museum in Kolkata, extensive programmes are organised regularly for diverse audiences, including school children. The encounters with India’s past, its culture and its future are interlaced in these programmes, engendering critical thinking and engagement among audiences. Moreover, many non-conventional museums, such as Conflictorium in Ahmedabad, Partition Museum in Amritsar, or Bhopal Gas Tragedy memorial in Bhopal have been established in the last decade. These places offer visitors a chance to engage with and reflect on difficult histories.
Measuring success of public history and tourism in India first needs assessing the parameters of success. While the field has achieved a lot over the past few decades, there is much more potential that remains untapped. The Government of India recently constituted a Working Group to assess the challenges in heritage management, in which heritage tourism forms a major component. Improving infrastructure, branding and digital opportunities are among the concerns addressed in this action plan. Along with these developments, what is required is rethinking the role of heritage in development.
As mentioned elsewhere, heritage tourism cannot be an end in itself, but a tool towards socio-economic-environmental sustenance. Heritage practice also needs to be treated with sensitivity, bringing out the plurality, community connections and layered histories, and tangible and intangible connections to the sites. But at the same time, it has to look towards the future, paving the way for social and environmental resilience and well-being. Tourism, not exploitative but rather adaptive, can become a sustainable vessel for propagating public history using inclusive and participatory mechanisms.
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Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai. © by Shraddha Bhatawadekar, 2023.
Bhatawadekar, Shraddha, Sanaeya Vandrewala: Public History & Tourism: Practices in India. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 4, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21498.
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