According to reports, there are approximately 700,000 heritage structures in India. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) administers 3,675 ancient monuments and archaeological sites. The rest come under state archaeological departments, private trusts and other bodies, like the Wakf Council.
Several are ‘lawaaris’ monuments, and there is little documentation of their current status.
Many have “disappeared” as a result of encroachments and development. Still others are repeatedly abused, turned into sites for graffiti, and habitually treated as open lavatories. In most cases, there is neither proper conservation nor adequate funding and awareness about these monuments.
That Delhi-based photographer Amit Pasricha is passionate about historical monuments is not unknown. Since 2007, he has put together several award-winning coffee table books such as The Monumental India Book, The Sacred India Book, Mughal Architecture & Gardens and India At Home. Over the years, however, as the popularity of digital media and the Internet continues to grow, he feels that the book market in the country has plummeted because very few people are actually reading. Not just this, Indians today hardly visit museums and exhibitions. The result is that we are spending too little time engaging with our history.
After having learnt and experimented with the language of photography for about three decades, Pasricha felt it was time for him to actually put this skill to bring about a difference in the way people engage with history and monuments. This pushed him to start a yatra through the country, to identify “lesser-known monuments” and bring their stories to the world.
So, what qualifies as a lesser-known monument? Pasricha’s parameters are simple—the monument must be an aesthetic structure which has some historical or architectural value. “Apart from the list of 100-odd monuments (like the Taj Mahal and Qutab Minar) that Indians know about, all the rest are on my radar,” he says. “For instance, Champaner, a historical city in Gujarat, is one of the 36 World Heritage Sites in India. Unfortunately, Indians and even most Gujaratis are unaware about its existence,” he adds.
He decided to change the medium he used to explore his passion from books to an ever-increasing, participative process that people could engage with and contribute to. The ‘India Lost and Found’ project was born out of an attempt to put together a “virtual museum of thought of a time gone by”. It is not about discovering monuments, but rather about discovering our heritage. “When we studied about the Lodi period in our history textbooks, no one really connected it to the Lodi Gardens or the other monuments they built,” he says, as he explains how it can be difficult to imagine what those times would have been like, in the absence of heritage documentation. “Did people wear white? Did the men wear turbans? What food did people eat?” — these are the kind of questions that remain unanswered. Lack of adequate information means that often, we don’t know why certain monuments were built. In a sense, his project wants people to be able to re-imagine everything we have been through, to get to present times.
Unfortunately, discourse surrounding these subjects has been restricted for a very long time to historians’ and architects’ circles. By drawing from the knowledge of people who are subject matter experts in various fields, the project aims to use the monuments as the base for ideation and conversations about what our past was like, in terms of the culture, craft, folklore, mythology, cuisine, fashion, textile, the environment, and materiality, among other things. By working with experts who can talk about quotidian things like the cuisine of different periods of history, Pasricha is putting together a variety of thought on a public social platform (Facebook), where 37 posts are shared per month—thus making thousands of people more aware.
This Patron Network of experts comprises a mix of conservators, designers, landscape designers, museologists, historians, heritage enthusiasts and history students. Parul Pandya Dhar, an associate professor with the Department of History, University of Delhi, is one of the experts in the Network. “The India Lost and Found project foregrounds many admirable aspects of our built heritage—aesthetic, historical and socio-cultural. The images are very captivating and draw the interested mind to know more about them: Who built these magnificent structures? Who were the patrons and artists? What are their hidden narratives? Who lived in them? What were the rituals practiced there? What do the painted and sculpted details reveal?” she explains. “I hope to see this movement grow and transform into a people’s movement for heritage awareness and conservation,” she adds.
Noted social worker, designer, writer and craft activist, Laila Tyabji is another expert on the Network. She says, “Having worked with crafts and craftspeople all over India, I keep encountering extraordinary yet unknown architectural gems, and also amazing rituals and practices that are linked with the communities in that area. Culture and aesthetics are part of a holistic social cycle, just as built heritage and intangible heritage are closely intertwined. We need to make those connections,” she says. “We are so rich in terms of these unknown treasures and traditions. We need to share our experiences and value them,” adds Tyabji.
How will this imitative help restore heritage? “If you become aware about a time gone by, you will care a lot more about it,” says Pasricha, “By redefining our heritage for ourselves and our children, we can make them understand its importance, and in turn make them want to visit these monuments.” Essentially, the idea is to understand our relationship with India’s heritage today, in order to make sure that it is not lost and forgotten. “This discussion is the means by which restoration can be enabled. Also, through this, the imagination of our children can be stimulated, as opposed to things like technology, which mostly consumes them,” he adds.
While the feed will continue to grow until June this year, Pasricha plans to start travelling next month to other states—Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu—which haven’t been covered by the campaign thus far. “Covering each state will take about a month,” he says. In tandem with this, Pasricha also plans to conduct smartphone photography workshops for school students which will impart photography skills that they can put to use in the future. A one-day workshop will be conducted at one of the lesser known monuments in the city to teach children how to click pictures on a smartphone. An INTACH volunteer will talk about the monument for about 15 minutes, which will be followed by technique-oriented workshops and group sessions.
This article first appeared in Firstpost. It has been reprinted here with permission of the author.