It’s a busy day in New Delhi when the sun seems like a friend. So, 23-year-old guide Shamaila, with a spring in her step and pink dupatta fluttering in the wind, takes you past Nizamuddin’s dargah to the tomb of Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s daughter. “She was active in his court, ran a fleet of ships, wrote poetry and gave away all her wealth to the poor. Why then don’t we talk about her?” she asks.
Far away in Mumbai, conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah wonders why the 18th-century queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who built an entire city and restored the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, was posthumously feted by some historians as “the fountainhead of Indian architecture” while the fictional Howard Roark is still idolised. At the other end of town, urban conservationist Brinda Somaya inks her conditions in a tender document — women are to be half of the labour force and her site must have toilets and child-friendly facilities.
This is a representative triptych of women who are retelling heritage stories and resetting the narrative in a country that has not been as inclusive in the conservation space. Yet history is replete with women warriors, administrators, builders, urban planners, patrons, entrepreneurs and artistes. In fact, women of their time converted the utilitarian baoli into a vaunted icon of public art for all time.
Yet today’s women are struggling to be legacy keepers. Yes, they are welcome when they keep to conversation as architects and engineers. But what of the real protectors of living history, women around heritage zones, who are as much inheritors as their men? They, too, can be good labourers, tile-makers, inlay artists, craftspeople and guides. For without women taking ownership, heritage won’t be living or breathing.
It is ironic that while women have been patrons of some of India’s iconic monuments, common women are left out of the roles as purveyors of their stories.
Our built spaces across the country have often articulated history differently. For instance, in Pattadakal near Hampi in northern Karnataka, Vasavamma, a tour guide in her 30s, working on corporate tours, is asking visitors to relook at the obvious. She takes them to the main Virupaksha Temple in the centre of the pilgrim site, which was built by Queen Lokamahadevi in 740 AD. Here, Shiva as ardhnarishwar (half man and woman) in bas reliefs represents the balance of opposites. One of the panels even has a man plaiting a woman’s hair. In fact, the sculptors celebrated women of all age groups and depicted them chatting under a tree, feeding parrots while tending to children or just lazing together. Clearly the everyday could co-exist with the power and ferocity of a sculpted Durga.
“In ancient times, the temple was just not for worship. It was a space for socialising, a documentary of our lives. No TV or internet back then, ma’am. This is where we learnt everything,” she says. She doesn’t just sell stories to earn a livelihood, she uses the friezes to relook at the way heritage is consumed. A group of girls from a Bengaluru art college replicates these sketches, taking in the sub-altern history of women that lies buried by patriarchy.
Gurugram-based conservator Shikha Jain says, “The women’s stories may not be told but that doesn’t mean they weren’t lived.” She recalls taking the help of a 90-year-old dai (wet nurse) in the City Palace, Jaipur, while working on a museum project there. She was documenting how women lived in the zenana khana. She found no scrolls or documents, except a painting of women playing Holi behind a door.
That’s how Jain found the specially designed armoury and hunting gear used by Rajput women. It led her to the women in nearby villages, who were skilled in native crafts like painting. She even helped women in Rakhigarhi, Haryana, where she was working on Harappan era excavations, revive latent pottery skills, courtesy the project.
Women such as these have been able to showcase their craft and painting skills, organise themselves as cooperatives and sell their works to e-commerce giants and offline stores. With money in their hands, they have not just been able to organise their lives better, they have been able to revive and market their traditional skills and create a multi-disicplinary economy around heritage.
“Running their own crafts centres, they are even signing up for excavation and lighter tool work,” says Jain. In 2019, she met a group of swordswomen while restoring the Darbargadh Palace museum in Rajkot. “They have a ritualised sword dance called talwar ras without which a royal coronation was never complete. The current royals have revived this tradition as a tourism spectacle with 1,000 women of the village engaged in it full time,” says Jain.
Heritage was always about democratisation. “In Humayun Nama, Gulbadan Begum writes how Babur gave land parcels to women so that they could design their own gardens,” says Lambah. Delhi-based Ujjwala Menon, who has been on the team that is restoring the Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan tomb in Nizamuddin, says, “He built it for his wife. Humayun ensured all women in his family lay next to him and had the same stature in death. How many know that Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s mother Mai Sahiba raised him as a single parent and lived independently?”
It is this spirit that’s the spark at Nizamuddin basti where women have reclaimed their lives with some hand-holding from the Aga Khan Trust. The revitalisation project in the basti has been continuing since 2007. Refusing to be ghettoised, women like Mehrunnisa and Shah Jahan, both 28, have cleaned up the locality around the shrine, rescuing ancient structures and repairing their own lives. “We were in purdah and had studied till Class X. But once we cleaned up the area and got paid for our work, we got respect at home. When I bought a washing machine with my own money and conveniences that even my husband couldn’t afford, the family let me work for the community. It helped that we earned off the shrine complex as we didn’t have to travel far from our homes. I have now completed my Masters in social work and with my peers, am now into holistic area development and not just cleanliness. We have created safe zones, so the gardens and open spaces around the dargah are safe for women. We charge nominal amounts to run public utilities like bathrooms. We interact with government officials on a regular basis to track governance issues on the ground. In short, we have taken ownership of our lives,” says Shah Jahan.
Shamaila is researching oral history to spice up her walking tours around the lesser-known shrines in Nizamuddin. “The tourism economy has meant that the neighbourhood’s shrines are no longer criminal dens. With it, the city, too, has new spaces for interaction,” she says. Some women are revisiting traditional paper-cutting skills of sanjhi and ari embroidery, replicating jaali designs of monuments on fabric, crochet, gift boxes and books. Meanwhile, with Zaika, 11 women tucked away in a gully kitchen are exporting an unbroken tradition of Nizami food passed on from generations of women, to food pop-ups and an elite south Delhi clientele. Conservation has given them identity, safety and independence.
It has also inspired 24-year-old Farah Qureshi to chart an independent path. A law student, she is working on financial inclusion of women. “Women here are not aware of their financial rights. What is empowerment if they do not know how to grow their money? They don’t know they can open a zero-balance bank account and get easily taken in by misinformation,” she says animatedly. Qureshi also doesn’t see women as the only marginalised people. She is working with the mentally challenged in the area, who can be skilled in basic work so that they can support themselves independently.
If a community of women can change their lives by pooling their resources and skill sets, can’t women at the top help other women? Lambah is trying to curb mid-level dropouts of conservation architects at her firm because of familial pressures. “Yes, conservation is demanding, it is continuous because we can’t leave a site to the vagaries of time. That doesn’t mean there aren’t options because women are great problem-solvers and become confident in enabling circumstances,” she says. Lambah, who allows flexi-hour options and creches at her sites, has set an example early on by taking her own child to work. Currently, working on the memorial of Bal Thackeray in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, she is consciously hiring women labourers and insisting on site toilets for them, which are often a neglected necessity.
Somaya is advocating the need for a high skill eco-system for women labourers since they have been cut off from native construction and plastering techniques with knowledge passing on from father to son. That’s why, Lambah feels, there should be a national policy on skilling women labourers at historical sites. “If they are doing heavy lifting for MNREGA projects, there’s no reason why we can’t create a high-skill ecosystem for shilpkaari (craftsmanship).”
In fact, Jyotsna Lall of the Aga Khan Trust believes that smaller monuments for restoration could be put under MNREGA. “These are community assets and we shouldn’t look at them as encroachment. Conservation needs to spur economic growth,” says Delhi-based Lall.
Somaya dreams of the day when she can see women ascend all tiers and stand tall on the scaffolding as welders and masons. For now, she insists on toilets, childcare facilities and even playgrounds at her sites. “I have seen women labourers form care-giver groups, where one of them takes turns to look after the kids of others at a playground. Then they share the daily wages together,” she says.
It is this multi-tasking ability that conservation architect Gurmeet Rai feels makes women ripe for cultural preservation. “Women have an innate empathy and nuanced understanding. Cultural heritage requires care and that’s a very feminine trait. I work with all-women teams and have really got a lot done while working with women bureaucrats, particularly in Punjab. I try to include more women workers on site by capitalising on their existing skill sets like mud plastering,” she says.
Rai is not relying on the government and is working on skilling women herself by hosting a conservancy residency programme in Gurdaspur, Punjab.
At her own level, Lambah, too, managed to convince 80-year-old master masons to teach lime plaster techniques to women labourers in Patiala. And because most male contractors prefer not to recruit women, it is heartening that there are women contractors emerging at project sites and creating what Jain calls a “nurturing environment.”
As Hazrat Nizamuddin is said to have once remarked, “When a tiger comes out of its den, nobody asks if it is a male or female.”