If you are a regular follower of our Facebook page, many of you may be aware of (or probably even participated in) UDC’s Heritage Awareness workshops for school children in Pondicherry, which were held in February in collaboration with INTACH and Prastara. The series of three workshops kicked off with Calve College on 2nd February followed by V.O.C. School on 16th February and Pensionnat de Jeunes Filles on 22nd February. Some of us were enthusiastic enough to travel to Pondicherry to be part of the 2nd workshop held on 16th February… it also helped that it was a Saturday and therefore seemed like a good way to spend weekend. The ones who made it included Tahaer Zoyab, A.G Praveen, Karthikeyan A., Devangi Ramakrishnan, Mahesh Radhakrishnan, Vidhya Mohankumar and myself, Ajeetha Ranganathan. Suguna Selvam and Chandru from INTACH were of immense help with logistics and Hareesh Haridasan also from INTACH videographed the whole walk with great zeal. In addition, Jayakumar Baradwaj and Nandashivabalan Thiagarajan of Prastara were also among us.
For those of you who haven’t heard about Prastara, here is a little bit of info. Prastara is founded and run by Jayakumar Baradwaj primarily to help young people connect with heritage so that they can stand up for it and ensure the continued survival of shared history. Do visit https://www.facebook.com/prastara?fref=ts for more details.
Before we get into an account of the workshop, I’d like to take a few lines to briefly talk about how these workshops came to be. The idea started off as a series of conversations with Ajit Koujalgi of INTACH- Pondicherry in 2012 on ways to conserve Pondicherry’s fast-disappearing heritage. A decade ago Pondicherry’s Boulevard town had 1800 heritage buildings… the number is almost half now. Also signficant is the fact that Pondicherry’s heritage value is not restricted to one or two public buildings or monuments but across all the streets and buildings that comprise the urban fabric of the Boulevard Town. However, the rapid pace of development means that people choose to sell, develop or demolish their properties thereby obliterating large parts of the fabric of the historic core. While regulations are needed to protect the structures within the Boulevard Town, there is also an immediate need to spread awareness of the value of our heritage, especially among the next generation. Coincidentally, it was around this time that we read about Jayakumar and Prastara in The Hindu and when we reached out to them it turned out to be the start of a very exciting collaboration between UDC and Prastara. The three schools that were chosen for the workshop were all public schools that operate out of first grade heritage buildings in the Boulevard town. All three buildings are in dire need for restoration and following a proposal made by INTACH, a generous grant had been sanctioned from the Government towards the restoration for the 3 schools. It was therefore apt to commence our heritage awareness program with the three schools just in time before the restoration work begins.
For the workshop held on 16th February at V.O.C. school, a boys only school, there were 30 boys from 9th and 11th grades. The workshop commenced at 10 a.m. at the school premises with a very enthusiastic introduction from the Principal of the school. This was followed by a brief presentation by Jayakumar during which he touched upon what heritage means and why it is important for us to connect with it and be concerned about it. After all the classroom talk, it was time to head out on the heritage walk armed with water bottles and note books.
UDC’s very own Vidhya Mohankumar walked the talk in fluent and chaste Tamil* along with Jayakumar and between them shared fascinating insights into the streets and buildings of the Boulevard town. We covered various periods in the town’s history, from the colonial buildings such as the Mairie Building, Customs House and Le Cafe on Goubert Avenue, to civic buildings, post-independence icons such as Golconde House and houses in the traditional vernacular style. The session was quite interactive, with the students being asked questions as well as asking plenty of their own and focussed on learning to pay attention to the details that were a direct depiction of our culture. For example, while walking through the Tamil town, the students were asked to identify the various features that could be found in houses in the Tamil quarter, which were not seen in the French quarter. There were quite a few correct answers like Thinnai! and Thaazhvaram! They were then encouraged to think about how these spaces could be used and why they were important. The students were also asked to reflect on how environmentally sensitive and climatically efficient these structures were and why we fail to achieve the same with our new buildings which seem to rely heavily on air-conditioning to maintain pleasant living conditions.
After two hours on the streets, the walk culminated at the INTACH office with a tour of the premises. The INTACH office itself occupies a restored heritage house in the Tamil quarter. The students showed much interest while perusing the panel displays showcasing INTACH’s work here and were curious to know if the place is open to the public and if they could bring their parents next time. We wrapped up with juice and biscuits served on the terrace and a lot of hope for Pondicherry’s heritage.
*- Ok… she objects to that description… but she tried sincerely and did a decent job!