Making our heritage inclusive

Original Source:

The future for our legacy can be ensured if old buildings are perceived as part of life and just not the landscape.

Article by Gurmeet Rai

Original Source:

The future for our legacy can be ensured if old buildings are perceived as part of life and just not the landscape.

Article by Gurmeet Rai

BUILDINGS of historic significance protected during the British period were primarily sites from the ancient period — from the Indus valley civilisation and those associated with Buddhism, Mauryan, Kushan period. Later a shift to monuments of medieval period came in the early decades of the 20th century. The legal instruments for according protection, the conservation methods and structures of the organisations undertaking conservation has not significantly changed even today given the evolved understanding of heritage and the needs of the modern India.

The community library at Bilga village

The library is a live memorial to the heroes of the Ghadar Party, especially those belonging to the village. 
The absence of an understanding of what constitutes or contributes to the character of our towns, its natural and cultural heritage wealth, the living traditions, which enrich both human life through cultural economy and using the colonial tools, has led to disconnecting people from their own past.

That Punjab has been undertaking conservation of monuments over the past 10 years is a testimony to tools that are dysfunctional. Unprotected buildings of heritage significance were conserved in their material fabric, and in the process managed to disconnect the life around from around them. The police station of the Rambagh Gate in Amritsar was restored after relocating the police station. The western deori of the Rambagh garden was being used as the office of the civil defence before it was relocated to be able to recover the monument and to restore the monument back to the precinct of the Rambagh complex to regain the palace complex of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The office was removed with much effort.

These buildings were restored and now seemingly have no takers. These buildings of immense historical importance are yet to find a place of pride in the urban landscape of the city. The challenge is that how can this be achieved? The people of the city seem to be suffering from amnesia and are completely disconnected from their own collective histories.

It is time for introspection and to revisit the tools, the systems and provisions for conservation of heritage buildings. If not visited with seriousness conservation initiatives such as these are not sustainable. Government organisations, engaged in conserving these buildings, will soon find themselves protecting the buildings, as in the present and the past practice, from the very people to whom the heritage actually belongs. It will lead us to safeguard buildings and not history thus demonstrating that, ‘history has no future’.

How can a future for our heritage be ensured? The answer lies in the way buildings are perceived in the Indian landscape — as part of life, as a human value. Can conservation programs be so developed where the buildings of heritage significance are restored and given back to the people? It requires recognising that communities have memories, it is this memory that gives them their cultural identity and protecting buildings of ‘historic significance’ has to be understood as part of the collective memory of communities. Conservation processes give opportunities for creating of memories as well.

Bilga, a village in Jalandhar district, located along on what was the old Mughal road, has many stories to tell. The stories can be told as people of the village remember these stories. Originally a walled precinct, the village is entered through seven gates, comprises seven pattis, or the seven neighbourhoods. In the heart of the village, located on the highest point, is the gurdwara. On its first floor, the gurdwara houses an interpretative gallery, as we call them today. The stories that are told through the multifarious paintings and objects are stories of the Sikh gurus and others that the community holds as significant to it. The story of the guru’s visit to the village is evidently the most important one. The reason for his visit and the gift the local community received from the guru in the form of a stitched garment, a stool, a rosary and a prayer book recalls the blessing the community received from the guru due to their hospitality and graciousness. The guru is then known to have gone for his marriage to the neighbouring village. The ‘memory’ of the event created a link between the two villages which continues to be celebrated every year through a three-day festival between the two villages. This festival connects the two villages through this bond of cultural memory.

The story of the village continues — the legacy of the Ghadar party is closely associated with the village of Bilga. Sohan Singh Bilga and over a hundred others known and unknown heroes of the history of the Ghadar Movement came from this village. What makes the history come alive is that the stories are told by both the young and old. There are clearly two spaces within the village that can be described as the ‘people’s places’— the gurdwara and the community library.

The community library is a live memorial to the story of the Ghadar Party, more specifically to the heroes of party that came from the village. Photographs of these freedom fighters adorn the walls of the community library. The building of the library came as a contribution from the local people. A large central table, few chairs and cupboards holding a collection of books are all that the room holds. Located at the entrance of the old village, by one of the gates leading to the gurdwara certainly indicates the pride of place that the library receives.

The story does not stop here — Bilga is one village that seemingly did not get severely impacted by Partition of India, more so the partition of Punjab into two Punjabs when people were uprooted from their geo-cultural place of origin. Amritsar, like most places in Punjab today, did. This explains to some extent why the disconnect with the heritage… loss of memory and association.

Can this memory be recovered? Can people be blamed for the abysmal condition of the built heritage, especially since the government policies continue to be tools from the colonial past? Can memories be created to occupy the vacuum due to the past recent histories? Can engagement with histories take place through enabling active engagement of the communities with these historic buildings and spaces? Can historic buildings and spaces metamorphosize into people’s spaces? Decades of practice in the cultural heritage sector has given us reasons enough to believe that this is the only way, history and memory are two sides of the same coin.

The change can only come through active enabling policy, development plans and programmes and schemes of the government? If heritage buildings continue to be isolated from the people, the future of heritage is bleak. Heritage conservation can directly contribute to the quality of life of a people, heritage is a basic human value.

Large numbers of people from Bilga migrated to Europe and North America into the 20th century — the reason possibly was the continued memory associated with the off-shore Ghadar Movement. The diaspora continues to actively engage with their village, back home. The recently built village hospital, a school and an empowered village community that ensures well-maintained village infrastructure by way of clean roads, proper waste management and sanitation are indicators of a sense of well-being. The conclusion drawn is that memory contributes to self-esteem, this can be a very significant contribution of community driven heritage conservation and revitalisation initiatives. Unfortunately the policies for heritage conservation are yet to have this paradigm shift.

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