Visiting beautiful places in India, not as a researcher but a tourist accompanying my best friend from Paris, I was quite enamoured to find people from low-income households touring historical monuments with a great deal of interest. Both in the Christmas chill of the north and the warm balmy breeze of southern beaches, it was evident that holidaying has become a pronounced activity among the masses.
The consuming pattern is certainly growing after 22 years of economic reforms in India. At Orchha Palace in Madhya Pradesh, we were surprised to see so many Indian visitors climbing up and down the Jahangir Mahal, a particularly ornamented specimen of Mughal architecture built in the 15th century by the Rajput king of Orchha. It is noteworthy that Emperor Akbar’s queen and Jahangir’s mother was a Rajput princess Jodha from Amber. Legend has it that Orchha Palace is where Jahangir took shelter when he incurred his father’s wrath for loving a commoner, as depicted in the film Mughal-e-Azam. Our host, the Raja Saheb of Alipura accompanied us. He commented that when there was no charge levied to see this palace, nobody used to come; but ever since they began to charge a small entry fee, visitors began flooding in. Domestic tourism has surely come to stay.
Anand, our guide in Khajuraho, had a very interesting personality. He’s actually a 40-year-old farmer who works as a guide and speaks fluent English (rather admirably). He wears a pair of stone-washed jeans with the US flag knit-stitched as his back pocket. In the tourist season from October to March, he’s learnt how to excite both foreign and Indian tourists with the erotic exotica of Khajuraho’s temples, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage. He makes Rs 2,000 to 3,000 per day during this period. When Indians come with the whole family in a religious mood to worship at the temples built by the Chandelas, a powerful Rajput dynasty which ruled the region between the 10th and 12th centuries, he feels frustrated. He says it becomes difficult for him to explain the details of the Khajuraho factor. He says that when foreign tourists hire him, it’s more interesting because they want to learn every detail.
I was watching Anand hold forth, displaying his vast knowledge of the 85 temples, revealing that only 20 remain today. He pointed out that the sculptures were part of the temple structure and not ornamentation. There were three types — divinities, nymphs or apsaras and the famous Mithuna, the sculptures of couples in graceful, amorous sexual positions. Sometimes the foreign visitors totally flummox Anand. In front of one of the famous Kamasutra sculptures, a tourist asked whether it was a top view or the real standing position. Anand was at a loss to answer properly. The foreigner was justifying that it may be the top view as the necklace is not falling. Another foreign tourist, who appeared to be a connoisseur of Khajuraho, explained that it is not the top view. He said nobody should look at the necklace because in Indian art and sculpture, the decorative part is more important than the realistic aspect of the necklace hanging. So according to one foreigner explaining to another foreigner, this is the real essence of Kamasutra — “sex with meditation”. Then Anand brightened up and congratulated the learned foreigner, saying that he particularly enjoyed guiding Europeans who seriously research a subject before making a visit. This farmer was certainly quick on the uptake and knew how to retain his customers. Later when I asked him about his parents and other family members, he said that the older ones know nothing about these sexual expressions. For them, these are just like other temples.
At the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, after paying Rs 10 per ticket, we found a phenomenal crowd. They had all come from villages and were scrutinising the paintings, photographs, sculptures and weapons of the British Raj with passion and curiosity. But what disappointed me was the poor upkeep. Metal shutters were painted white. Visible from outside was a huge pile of cartons and building materials on the top floor.
I asked some of the young people in this crowd as to what had brought them there. They replied that they learnt about our colonial heritage from the Internet and that this large marble museum, built between 1906 and 1921, was in the memory of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria. Even at Delhi’s Qutub Minar and Agra’s Taj Mahal, I saw at least three times more Indian visitors than foreign tourists. They were serious about finding out more about our historical monuments and kept the local guides busy.
The crux of the subject is that everybody has a mobile phone. Digital knowledge is driving India’s low income society to enter previously uncharted territory. They are travelling within the country like never before. Our dogmatic and traditional political parties have still not understood the power of this growing curiosity and hunger to know new things that has been induced by digital technology. For example, when I asked taxi drivers and street vendors in West Bengal about the current political condition of the state, they say there has been serious improvement that they had not experienced in the last 35 years of the Left government. Taxi drivers in Delhi too are highly appreciative of the new political era where they feel their voices and woes will be considered.
People with basic, low incomes are changing drastically. The advent of digital technology is making them aware of their rights, waking them up to become voters with a digital mindset. Enjoying newfound transparency, they are excited about the prospect of getting their rights. Exciting times are ahead as we enter the polling booths at a national level in a few months. For tomorrow, unpredictability is slated to be the new political dimension.
Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at http://www.shiningconsulting. com