Navina Jafa is a performer at heart. She tells me, “When I do a walk, I am the sutradhaar. I link the people with the trail that I make and I create a theatre about it. And when I create a theatre about it, by the time they come out, it’s like coming out of a multiplex. So you can’t be a presenter if you’re not a performer. Because most of the heritage you’ll be talking about has changed. You’ll be talking about traditions which have died.”
She is also a scholar, an academic researcher, an educationist, a Kathak dancer trained by none other than Pandit Birju Maharaj. But the most popular of her avatars is that of an organiser of heritage walks. There too, she prefers to introduce herself as a performer. Befitting, then, is the title of her recent book Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks. No, this is not just another run-of-the-mill heritage walk guidebook, but a “work on the technique and art of cultural representation through the medium of heritage walks as experiential academic tool”. It puts forward the idea of heritage walks as pedagogy, where the living exhibit allows us to rethink various social science disciplines, and also to develop an interdisciplinary approach involving heritage as a central element for tackling contemporary social challenges.
“I broker culture. That’s the provocative word I use. My job is to broker a civilsational identity. This book is a tool kit that’s globally applicable. Delhi’s just a case study here. When we engage, internationally as well as intranationally, we invariably refer to cultural identities. Cultural identities represent cultural mindsets. You can’t engage politically, economically, diplomatically or sociologically, without understanding heritage mindsets. Performing Heritage is a book that talks about using heritage walks as an academic tool, within what I call public academics. You go much beyond institutional learning. You create lectures on site,” says Jafa, whose formative years in the field saw her as a Fulbright scholar specialising in cultural management and cultural diplomacy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC.
But where does “performance” fit in a heritage walk or for that matter even in heritage per se? “When you are lecturing within a controlled environment, you usually have people with similar mindsets (like in a classroom), but all kinds of people might come up to you in a heritage walk. How do you create your