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The Urbane Column V

Updated: May 2

(Disclaimer- Taking the conversation to an academia-oriented outlook, the column is an excerpt from the author’s work looking at cultural geographies and the role of heterogenous community in the making of a place. It will be a continuing piece and will cover instances in detail in the next issue)

Over the last decade and more, Vadodara has been struggling to maintain a continuous and sustainable relation with its physical places and historic fabrics. Yet there lies hope, due to individuals and communities who having been part of the city’s changing geo-political and cultural landscape from a long time. They are gradually becoming interested in formulating inclusive narratives that would highlight their sense of pride in being part of the collective. There are instances where individuals are able to engage in society in their capacity, be it reusing industrial or famed historical spaces as seen at Space Studio and café’s in the once industrial block, to opening up private residences for the occasional traveler via Maddhav Bagh or Arudh Mahal, to celebrating annual urban folk festivals in Navratri and the Vadodara’s People Heritage Festival- all that have developed from a sense of collective culture and more. Looking within, the city now encourages a conversation amongst itself to celebrate the interaction with its micro culture.

Heritage has generally remained the preserve of cultural geography. The field of cultural geography looks at places and the way people make sense of them, and while occupying landscapes how the culture evolves creating an identity of both place and people. Although spatial in nature, the field has generated many place-making narratives and traditions evolving to include cultural features of a society, as a collective of different individuals, having grown via its interaction with the local physical and natural environment. ‘Culture is a phenomenon that tends to have intensely place-specific characteristics thereby helping to differentiate places from one another’ (Allen Scott,1997), thus human settlements are strongly conditioned by structures from the past while acting as a culture’s nucleus. In contrast to well-established narratives of many other Indian historic settlements, small cities like Vadodara (Gujarat) might not be globally acknowledged with monumental architectural markers or widespread representation of its cultural practices but it hosts a multiethnic society with original roots of many still visible.

Despite the earlier known settlements of Ankotakk (3rd BC to 500 AD, present-day Akota area stretching up to the Bhimnath temple complex in SayajiGunj) and its subsequent eastern neighbor Vatapatraka (500-900 AD) situated on a higher elevation (present-day Kothi area)- the city has always been prominently known as the once princely state Badode, ruled by the Gaekwad’s from mid-18th century up until Independence. This cultural reference to a people-place narrative has continued in essence in many parts of the city even today. Vadodara has also been under the Gujarat Sultanate, Mughals, and the British influence too, each of whom have left invisible social and cultural hierarchies and lattices.  So while the landscape is dotted with notable cultural infrastructure including a World Heritage Park (Champaner-Pavagadh), 11th century fort wall remnants, institutional and cultural landmarks from the 18th and 19th century and primarily Gaekwad period- it is the intangible traditions and communities that intersperse these spaces, and primarily form the city narrative. But post-independence, due to the loss of direct patronage combined with industrialization and globalization, the city’s once small and tight knit communities began losing their essence. Slowly it could be tangibly mapped that, ‘… bonds of kinship, of neighborliness and the sentiments arising out of living together for generations under a common folk tradition’ (Louis Wirth, 1938) began to weaken. These were primarily due to increase in heterogeneity within the fabric of the traditional communities- due to migrating families or change in land use that rendered proximity unsafe.

Performances have made places, in turn defining the cultural geography of a space. This capture of an European tightrope walker performing before a large crowd in Baroda by an unknown photographer in mid-18th century highlights the very need of people to make a place’s culture. Source: British Library

Vadodara’s communities in its historic core as well as suburbs including places like Brahmapuri (where the court Brahmins resided), Mogul Wad (officers of Moghul reign), Mehta Pol (among others named after a caste), Race Course (used to be a race track for nobles, now a residential area), have now not only lost original populations but also function and traditional roles.

The Urbane issue for the cultural narrative- both for place and people has primarily been marred by the absence of clear visions and frameworks (even today). With the historic fabric of the city eroding as early as the 1980’s, its socio-physical fabric has been threatened by opportune land usurpers who have found the loopholes in dialogue over heritage. Like-minded heritage enthusiasts and professionals grouping together (Heritage Trust) back then provided the city one of its first attempts to highlight the cultural geography of the city. With solidarity bonds with and within the community, enthusiasts since then have tried to hold together ‘a folk society’ despite the lack of formal control mechanisms, by finding a diverse but strong sense of belonging. Since then collectives have also began forming, introducing the now cosmopolitan society to the city’s rich past. Increased and visible conversations around tangible and intangible cultural past now get carried forward not only by the Heritage Trust but also via an INTACH Chapter, concerned individuals and traditional communities. These have led to interactions of physical, economical, emotional and spiritual needs, and old neighborhoods and denizens are beginning to perceive their places, as influenced by personal experiences and memories. Although complex in nature and sometimes consensus appears hard to achieve, given the cacophony of different owners and interests, and lack of empirical documentation, the outputs that now dot the city’s cultural landscape are more evolving and diverse. They embody visual, aural, tactile and gustatory events and spaces that have sparked a spatial-cultural activism. Their participants and stakeholders now generate other important material or ‘places’ associated with heritage conservation.

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