by Harini Dias Bandaranayake (with Pirintha Kulasingam & Aousten Aloysious)
“Knowing new landscapes and people brings more light into my understanding about culture and heritage; this is where I begin to explore and reflect on my visit to Kolkata”, 26 year-old Pirintha Kulasingham, an academic who teaches Art History at the University of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, told me. An enthusiastic and optimistic Aousten Aloysious, also a resident of Jaffna, studying architecture at the University of Moratuwa chimes in, “It’s the unbiased take and the nuanced way in which the walks were presented that made a difference to me.”
My new found friends and colleagues and I spent a three-week intensive internship with Heritage Walk Calcutta (HWC) in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata from 17th July to 7th August 2019. After we returned to Sri Lanka, all three of us recalled our experiences interning for HWC: how we participated in a healthy mix of both classroom sessions, where the theoretical concepts, framework and purposes of a heritage walk were discussed in a small group of six interns, as well as participated in heritage walks led by the staff and co-founders of HWC – Dr. Tathagata Neogi and his wife Chelsea McGill.
As the first batch of six participants of HWC’s first internship programme offered at Kolkata, together with University of Exeter, UK, over the course of three weeks, we learned much. The classroom sessions and discussions helped us get a grasp of the technical aspects to planning, designing and executing a research-based heritage walk. However, it was in participating in actual walks conducted by HWC’s team, made up of a very young, bright bunch from diverse disciplines from history and anthropology to art and architecture to sociology and linguistics, that enriched each walk with their unique approaches to storytelling. We experienced themed heritage walks from the history and birth of the city of Kolkata to a walk on family-owned temples; a walk through Kolkata’s South Indian colony, the Dalhousie Square and a walk dedicated to Kolkata’s unique experiences during the Great Bengal Famine and the prelude to the Second World War, among others. I quite enjoyed the delightfully crafted feminist take on the discoveries of the colourful histories of colonial-period women buried at the South Park Street Cemetery.
As a researcher working in Colombo, Sri Lanka, what struck me the most was the research effort that had obviously gone into the walks designed and executed by HWC. Every aspect of the walk – from the timing to marketing, to communication, to the permissions required, to the ethical approach to communities and relationship-building – was thoughtfully, sensitively and patiently undertaken prior to conducting it.
“I particularly loved how food was incorporated into the walks,” I shared enthusiastically with my interning colleagues, who by now know well this about me. Being a foodie, and being in India’s foodie haven, it was evident to us all how food was very much a part of the storytelling during every walk. However, it wasn’t only during a walk that we were treated to sample Bengal’s extensive and multi-cultural gastronomical fare. HWC took every opportunity to feed us up with restaurant meals, coffee stops and treats at tea time during classroom work. So much so that we never felt a distance or a power imbalance between the teacher and the taught.
“I think we learned a lot from each other too; the different disciplines represented among us interns was also helpful in gaining insight and learning as we went,” Aousten told me, reflecting on his experience of the HWC internship. He spoke of how impressed he was by the concept of conservation in heritage embedded in the talk delivered by Rory Wheeler, for example, a fellow intern. Pirintha agreed that a “group of people with different backgrounds came together for a common purpose”, i.e. to learn about and appreciate heritage and to develop heritage walks in our respective corners of the world. To this end, we engaged in a fruitful workshop on developing a heritage network and successfully drafted a charter for the network as collective outputs during our time in Kolkata. We received training in technical skills such as photography, website development, marketing techniques and heritage legislation, which we unanimously agree will continue to help us in our own individual endeavours.
Armed now with this intensive training and new knowledge, Aousten says he wants to develop further the heritage walk he had conducted as a part of his architectural project in Jaffna. He now plans to restructure it on a more rigorous and sustainable business model. Pirintha is already working on her research for a heritage walk in Kayts – a colonial island outpost off the coast of Jaffna. I am working on an exhibition and a subsequent walk on the Cricket Clubs of Colombo, delving into further research of my own.
Our takeaways from the internship programme at Kolkata vary, as do our hopes and ambitions for the use of our newly honed skills and knowledge. As Pirintha, speaking of the essence of a heritage walk, puts it so succinctly, “When I hear the stories, I have a heart-connection with the places, monuments and the people of the city we explore.” We all agree.
About the Author
Harini is a Sri Lankan researcher and communications coordinator with a background in development and economics.