Sahapedia: Taking to India’s heritage sites free

By Rajiv Theodore

New Delhi, Dec. 31, 2018: Thanks to a unique initiative, it has become possible today for almost anyone to enter and explore the fascinating world of India’s art and cultural heritage.

All they have to do is to take a virtual walk – through its fascinating landscape. This has thrown open a new world for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special disabilities.

Appropriately called Sahapedia, (Saha is ‘’together with’’ in Sanskrit) helps a wider spectrum of the population gain a deeper understanding of their cities and towns and much of it is planned and curated, says Vaibhav Chauhan, founding secretary of Sahapedia.

Since more than a year Sahapedia has been conducting heritage walks across the country which is conducted by experts. It is currently conducting free-of-cost walks in more than 16 cities including Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Kochi, Varanasi, Pune, Mumbai, Bikaner, and Vijayawada.

‘’Sahapedia’s heritage walks are based on various facets of the city’s history, culture, architecture, art, food, and other such themes, to ensure that there is something for every heritage lover,” Chauhan told Matters India.

He explains that Sahapedia’s walks are also curated thematically, focusing on architectural heritage or women and gender-related issues, with specific visiting groups in mind, such as students, travelers, corporate teams, and so on. Sahapedia’s aim is to make heritage engagement programs more holistic and inclusive.

One of Sahapedia’s key interesting project is a 11-volume documentation of the Rashtrapati Bhavan covering the vignettes like president’s bodyguards, presidential retreats, landscape, architecture and interiors. It has also executed a cultural mapping of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, documenting areas of historical importance and tracing local practices, languages and cultures all of which can be accessed at its website.

Today a number of key cultural institutions and organisations are part of this novel initiative. These include Ministry of Culture; Archaeological Survey of India (ASI); National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA); National School of Drama (NSD); Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla; St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre (ICHCAP), Seoul; and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, says Chauhan.

‘’These institutions have made available their information repositories for Sahapedia’s heritage education activities, welcomed Sahapedia’s endeavours to archive and curate their material, and supported Sahapedia in projects of common interest, both for the archiving of knowledge and for educational outreach,’’ Chauhan added.

Talking about future plans Chauhan said that ‘’museums and archives in our country are in dire need of expertise and funds. I see this as a very big area of collaboration between the cultural institutions and corporates. There is a lot of novelty for the corporates in this space, so before we set up new libraries, museums and archives, we should really think about preserving the existing ones.’’

Since its inception of India Heritage Walks programme in November 2016, Sahapedia has widely reached out to 44 cities across India, forming a network of over 100 qualified walk leaders, and exploring diverse themes.

A target programme that Sahapedia is constantly focussing is on those with disabilities. These engagements are aimed at enhancing the experience of such persons so they are not excluded from involvement with India’s rich heritage, says Chauhan.

The user-groups that Sahapedia targets are those of the visually impaired, hearing impaired, wheelchair users, those with intellectual disabilities (learning disability, autism and cerebral palsy), reduced mobility, and slow learners.

These include walking tours, sensory experiences in museums and other spaces that support special needs. For the purpose of enhanced heritage experiences, special toolkits are created, which include tactile recreation of culturally relevant topics and Braille books for the visually impaired.

In this direction Sahapedia has collaborated with local partners such as The Maker’s Collaborative (Kolkata), Access for ALL (Mumbai) and the Partition Museum (Amritsar). The first event, which was held in Kolkata on November 30, showcased West Bengal’s tradition of BeniPutul or glove puppetry. Conducted by the state’s well-known folk puppeteer BasantaGhorai, the puppetry show was organised for persons with hearing disabilities.

There is also a walk-through and storytelling session at New Delhi’s Crafts Museum, which has over 30,000 artefacts and 5,000 objects such as puppets and bronze sculptures. At Mumbai’s Anandi Special School, on December 3, a session on folk tales and an art workshop was in order to engage children with intellectual disabilities.

Other important events included a discussion in Bhubaneswar, on December 2, focusing on “Breaking Barriers: Exploring the Odisha State Museum with the Visually Impaired.” Sahapedia has organised and curated more than 50 heritage-based events for nearly 2,000 differently-abled persons.

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