From a Facebook page to a full-fledged voluntary group that researches and promotes archaeo-tourism, Oxford alumna Shriya Gautam’s Speaking Archaeologically aims at creating awareness about archaeology and its relevance in understanding ourselves better. She speaks to Chandigarh Newsline about this initiative and what lies ahead.
Your group, Speaking Archaeologically, has notched up quite a following in the last three years. What’s your take on this?
I am amazed at how the group has grown, we started with 10 and now we’re 50. When I first began with Speaking Archaeologically, a lot of people weren’t sure. I have to take it back in time when I was 20 and wanted to be an archaeologist. People told my parents that you’re throwing your daughter down the drain because there’s no scope in this field. A lot of people don’t understand what archaeology is and confuse it with architecture. So, I was often hit with the question whether I was going to build bridges and I replied saying if there was a bridge buried under the ground, I’d probably be the one to dig it out.
What made you take up this initiative?
What really made me take it up was my experience with prime archaeological organisations in India. The kind of reception they give to young archaeologists is disheartening because they’ll tell you they have no funds, no place for you and can’t pay you well. In 2014, I received an email from a student from my alma mater, MCM DAV College, and she wanted to be an archaeologist and asked me to guide her. That rang a bell and I realised I don’t want more people to be led in the dark for a profession that they want to pursue. If there are students who want to know what archaeology is and if ASI can’t help us, I am going to be that one person who can.
Most of your work is on the social media and you connect with people through platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
I started a Facebook page on June 1, 2015, where I started posting pictures I received from people of their travels and of artefacts that they own. Four of my closest friends in the field wanted to collaborate. Our first project was ‘Citizen Archaeology’ that we still run via Instagram, where we urge people to send in pictures of their travels or old things. We analyse it for them and let them know what it is and put it out on public domains such as Pinterest so that people can see it and find out what it is and read more about it.
What do you work on and how do you figure out the projects?
We have three wings. The workshop wing organises workshops and handles artifacts available to us, be it medieval paintings, museum visits, worksheets, observation and analysis. The second wing is Citizen Archaeology where you’re a travel blogger. We give a list of 10 unknown sites and members can cover anyone and write about and photograph it. Each member churns in four blogs a month and the thrust is on archaeo-tourism and its promotion. Countries such as Egypt, Italy, and Greece earn 11 per cent of their GDP through this.
But India it’s less than 1 per cent considering the kind of heritage we have access to. Then comes the research wing that is involved in looking at neglected areas such as sites and objects. These students are taught to look at existing things with a different eye and see what they can add to the information available on it. We also collaborate with museums such as the British Museum and the Ashmolean at Oxford University. We’ve got tremendous help from Seema Gera, the curator of the Government Museum here in Sector 10.
The threat of the distortion of historical facts looms large, be it the ‘Padmaavat’ fiasco or the shunning of the Mughal era. An alternate discourse that the present generation was taught “a fascist history” has also emerged.
I recently had a discussion about the Padmaavat debacle and how history is being saffronised. The Muslims, not just Mughal rulers from 1,100 onwards, are being shown in poor light and that’s something that disturbs me. When the Mughals ruled over India, they did not just cater to Muslims. They may have been partial, but so is the present government.
Heritage has no religion and belongs to each of us. If we neglect a part of our heritage, we’re neglecting our own identity. Cultural identity is a dynamic concept in India that keeps changing and can’t be bracketed within the western definition. Everything here, language, culture, identity, varies every 10 miles. We can’t erase a particular community just because you differ religiously or ideologically with it. That’s too unscientific and limiting it to a narrow perspective. History cannot have just one perspective.
How have you helped evolve a thought process that is aware of cultural identity and the importance of understanding the past?
When I first gave lectures in colleges, teachers told me I’d have to start from the scratch as a lot of people think archaeology is grave digging. I have a lot of people from the department of anthropology in Panjab University now, but when I first began I hardly had people who were studying history. I think my students have learnt not to confine themselves to a discipline or academic qualification. They now know that everything, no matter what, has a history. They’ve developed this keen insight and now I have students whom I don’t need to tell what to look at. I began with people who were afraid to voice their opinions and I now sit among them and they give me the pros and cons of historical, political and geographical implications of why something looks the way it does.
A certain romanticism has always been attached to archaeology: Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Dan Brown novels. Do you think fiction helps to promote archaeology as an interesting career option or is it debilitating to its cause?
Regarding them, despite the fact that I look at them with perfect archaeological disdain now, I still can’t ignore the fact that none of us would be here doing what we’re doing had it not been for these few fantastic figures in literature and popular culture. Had they not existed, I don’t think anyone would have given two hoots about archaeology. They do mislead us into thinking we can find gold with magical properties that has the potential to stir governments, but it creates an image that captivates the young mind to be an archaeologist. I would rather have people believe in Indiana Jones and Lara Croft than thinking we’re a bunch of people digging around in shorts. People do get disillusioned, but it’s important to lure them and if fiction does it then you have to give that licence.
What lies ahead and how do you see Speaking Archaeologically shaping up in the future?
That’s a question for the kids to answer. For me, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, I feel like it’s going to collapse like a house of cards. What if the things that I’ve undertaken are never executed, red tapism disrupts things, permissions fail us. Some of the things that we want to do are still stuck in the meandering channels of files and that discourages me.
Three of my students have become archaeologists; in three years that’s a big thing. When I see some part of my passion reflected in my students, I wonder if I caused it because I never sat them down and talked them through it. Of course, there’s a possibility that it dissolves. But there’s also a possibility that the passion stays alive as it’s a symbiotic process. It will result if not in increasing the scope of archaeology as a profession but increasing an awareness about it.