A citizens’ meeting was organised in the World Heritage City of Ahmedabad on the 19th of August at ATMA house. Hosted by the Trustees of Sunni Wakf Committee, the event was chaired by activist Bhavna Ramrakhiani and historian Rizwan Kadri. It was the first such large meeting of an informal group organised to discuss the World Heritage status, with a series soon being planned to deliberate on various other themes.
The event began on an artistic note, with the recitation of a poem on Ahmedabad by Sadiq Noor Pathan, which provoked the poignant thought that a city resides in the hearts and veins of its citizens. The moderator raised the important point that we need to understand that the title of ‘World Heritage City’ has been earned as an outcome of over two decades of initiatives led by passionate individuals.
The occasion was the start of a movement towards inclusion and synthesis of both the visible and the invisible. It included talks by noted historians M.A. Abassi and Makrand Mehta, followed by a discussion by participants on the heritage of Ahmedabad. The audience was marked by wide participation from the city’s civil society, with the presence of academicians, architects, historians, archaeologists, students, government officials, community leaders, craftspeople and other individuals who have been involved with or are interested in, the city’s heritage. The likes of Nimish Patel, Parul Zaveri, Debashish Nayak, P.K.Ghosh, Abhay Mangaldas, Neel Kamal Chapagain, Sonal Mehta, Shahid Ansari, Shireen Mehta, Rupa Mehta, Jitu Mishra, Abrar Ali Sayyed, and many other involved individuals, graced the occasion.
The lectures gave the audience a glimpse into the history of Ahmedabad and what makes the city unique. Examples of Hindu-Muslim syncretic culture have reflected for more than 600 years in every aspect of its social, cultural, artistic and built fabric. And it is this which got the city the support of all 20 countries at UNESCO for its World Heritage City title.
The participants discussed the continuous living history of the city, from the days of Sultan Ahmed Shah till date, with the city being witness to the Maratha rule and the colonial period, as well as to Gandhiji launching the Freedom Movement from here. It has always been a shrewd, pragmatic, industrial city which has welcomed people from across the world and has also absorbed cultural aspects of civilizations from across the Indian Ocean and the world.
Many of the participants raised vital concerns and suggestions, by calling attention to specific issues which beset Ahmedabad, as well as the general ails which can be seen in other cities of the country as well. Some raised the crucial argument that, though the country and the city are in the unique position of being home to so much living heritage, we are fossilizing them as we only consider the end product to be ‘heritage’, forgetting the processes that have made them so. The fact that monuments are not stand alone but are associated with the communities, and are also representative of continued artistic traditions which need to be preserved alongside, was an important issue raised.
Some of the participants drew attention to the condition of specific sites in the city, like Victoria Garden, which was once an important public space, but is in a neglected and dilapidated state today. One individual pointed out that ‘World Heritage City’ is also just a tag and we need to go beyond it – that even the UNESCO has its own paradigms, which might be limited.
A need was felt to address the gap between the custodians of heritage and the professionals, since many people are passionate about heritage and approach it with good intentions, but their lack of professional knowledge and training creates issues.
Many of the participants at the forum had grown up in the city and been a part of it for decades. As an outsider, I got a glimpse into an Ahmedabad that I did not know, understood the changes which had taken place over the years and the factors which play a role in giving the city its unique ethos. I observed how people hailing from different backgrounds, who had dissimilar opinions, came together to respect the others’ positions, which is rare to find in this day and age. The city has been a place of traders and merchants, but it has also been a city of scholars and of saints, and continues to be so. It is this which makes it one of its kind.
The meeting ended on a positive note with steps being taken to evolve this initiative forward. It was decided that the next meeting would be held at Ahmedabad University. It was very gratifying to see citizens converge to find ways to take things ahead and contribute in protecting the city’s legacy. We hope that such future meetings yield more positive outcomes, and that they mark the beginning of a movement for the betterment of the city and its citizens.
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