CHAMPIONS OF CONSERVATION

FOR

CONDE NAST TRAVELLER INDIA NOV - DEC ISSUE 2018


From snakes to storytelling traditions, the treasure trove of living heritage in India is vast, enriching and deserves to survive. Whether its growing native grains or restoring old films, I got the opportunity to spend time with and photograph 8 of the most inspiring people who all have been making headway with heritage conservation. And they do by living, enjoying, nurturing and appreciating first.

SAVITA UDAY FOUNDER, BUDA FOLKLORE Uday set up BuDa Folklore, a centre for research and documentation about 10 years ago, to preserve local knowledge. The centre works closely with tribes in and around Honnavar, in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district. In Angadibail, a village near Gokarna, she works with communities like the Halakki and Siddi tribes to document their stories and cultures. These stories—which aren’t usually taught in schools— reflect their landscape, food and beliefs. Uday noticed a divide between the children’s school syllabus and their experiences. “It’s not related to where we’re living,” Uday says, recalling how the Halakki kids learn Baa Baa Black Sheep in school, but they’ve never seen a sheep. “Each place has its own literature, architecture and medicine, and at least 30 percent of it should be in the school curriculum,” she says.

PRADEEP SACHDEVA ARCHITECT & FOUNDER, PRADEEP SACHDEVA DESIGN ASSOCIATES Dilli Haat, in India’s capital city, was envisioned as a pan-Indian crafts and food market. It was also one of architect Pradeep Sachdeva’s first projects. “Even though it’s about 24 years old, it’s still very popular. It’s a watershed in creating a platform for Indian crafts and bringing them to the people,” he says. He explores a region’s landscape, culture and ecology when designing plans. He’s also part of the Jama Masjid Precinct Redevelopment. “We’ve also been working to design streets for better walkability, cycling and safety. Tourism happens on foot. You can have the best airport in the world, but if you can’t walk in the city, who’s going to come?” TIP:Buy local art and crafts. “Support the workers, no matter how big or small—it could be a stone sculpture from carvers in Bhubaneswar or a little piece of textile that costs 200,” he says.

PRADEEP SACHDEVA ARCHITECT & FOUNDER, PRADEEP SACHDEVA DESIGN ASSOCIATES Dilli Haat, in India’s capital city, was envisioned as a pan-Indian crafts and food market. It was also one of architect Pradeep Sachdeva’s first projects. “Even though it’s about 24 years old, it’s still very popular. It’s a watershed in creating a platform for Indian crafts and bringing them to the people,” he says. He explores a region’s landscape, culture and ecology when designing plans. He’s also part of the Jama Masjid Precinct Redevelopment. “We’ve also been working to design streets for better walkability, cycling and safety. Tourism happens on foot. You can have the best airport in the world, but if you can’t walk in the city, who’s going to come?” TIP:Buy local art and crafts. “Support the workers, no matter how big or small—it could be a stone sculpture from carvers in Bhubaneswar or a little piece of textile that costs 200,” he says.

HINESH JETHWANI FOUNDER, INDIAN HIPPY Before Photoshop and hi-res prints, vivid hand-painted posters were what greeted moviegoers. When the 2008 recession hit India, Jethwani’s IT business tanked, and he began tracking down the artists behind these old posters. “They were close to retiring for good,” he recalls. “Many had given up the paintbrush several years ago and changed careers.” Indian Hippy, a collective of Hindi movie poster artists, was the result of these conversations. “We wanted to get the younger generation fascinated and inquisitive about this beautiful hand-painted art form that existed much before the multiplex cinema culture came into vogue,” Jethwani says. It’s worked, too—over nine years, Indian Hippy has played an important role in upping the ante on vintage movie poster art appreciation. Their repertoire now includes customised portraits as well as elaborate 20kg wall canvases for restaurants. Jethwani is well aware that this may not last forever—only four out of the 12 artists who formed the collective remain. But he hopes that younger artists will pick up the craft and help ensure its survival.

HINESH JETHWANI FOUNDER, INDIAN HIPPY Before Photoshop and hi-res prints, vivid hand-painted posters were what greeted moviegoers. When the 2008 recession hit India, Jethwani’s IT business tanked, and he began tracking down the artists behind these old posters. “They were close to retiring for good,” he recalls. “Many had given up the paintbrush several years ago and changed careers.” Indian Hippy, a collective of Hindi movie poster artists, was the result of these conversations. “We wanted to get the younger generation fascinated and inquisitive about this beautiful hand-painted art form that existed much before the multiplex cinema culture came into vogue,” Jethwani says. It’s worked, too—over nine years, Indian Hippy has played an important role in upping the ante on vintage movie poster art appreciation. Their repertoire now includes customised portraits as well as elaborate 20kg wall canvases for restaurants. Jethwani is well aware that this may not last forever—only four out of the 12 artists who formed the collective remain. But he hopes that younger artists will pick up the craft and help ensure its survival.

ROMULUS WHITAKER HERPETOLOGIST “Snakes came to the fore when I was four,” Romulus Whitaker says, laughing at his pun. Whitaker’s career is now in its sixth decade. Born in the USA, he moved to India when he was seven and was always drawn to “little bugs and beetles and all that kind of stuff”. His interest hasn’t waned; a Padma Shri award-winner, Whitaker is at the forefront of reptile conservation. He set up institutions like the Chennai Snake Park in 1972, the Madras Crocodile Bank and Centre for Herpetology in 1976, and the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in 2005. It is work that has shaped the conversation around wildlife conservation in India. “I think people are pretty shaky about reptiles (Aaa, snakes! Eww, crocodiles!), but they look at us, our seriousness and our love for the animals, and I think they develop a more relaxed attitude to something they’re otherwise scared of,” Whitaker says. There’s a long way to go yet, he acknowledges. “We’ve hardly scratched the surface.”

FOUZIA INDIA’S FIRST FEMALE DASTANGO Growing up in Old Delhi, Fouzia loved listening to stories. If only momentarily, they let her set aside her humble beginnings and take on bigger adventures. She grew up to be the one to tell the stories, too, narrating grand, compelling tales in Urdu. For many years, those stories stayed in the narrow alleys of her neighbourhood while she focused on the real world. “I started taking tuitions when I was in the seventh standard to support my education,” she says. Fortunately, about 12 years ago, her love of stories and the performing arts drew her to dastangoi—an Urdu oral form of storytelling. “Until then, only men were dastango. People weren’t able to relate to a female dastango—to her movements, her sound. I had to carve out a space for myself, and that’s what took the most time,” she says. Today, there are more women on the scene. It may not be lucrative, but it is satisfying

FOUZIA INDIA’S FIRST FEMALE DASTANGO Growing up in Old Delhi, Fouzia loved listening to stories. If only momentarily, they let her set aside her humble beginnings and take on bigger adventures. She grew up to be the one to tell the stories, too, narrating grand, compelling tales in Urdu. For many years, those stories stayed in the narrow alleys of her neighbourhood while she focused on the real world. “I started taking tuitions when I was in the seventh standard to support my education,” she says. Fortunately, about 12 years ago, her love of stories and the performing arts drew her to dastangoi—an Urdu oral form of storytelling. “Until then, only men were dastango. People weren’t able to relate to a female dastango—to her movements, her sound. I had to carve out a space for myself, and that’s what took the most time,” she says. Today, there are more women on the scene. It may not be lucrative, but it is satisfying

VISHALAKSHMI PADMANABHAN FOUNDER, BUFFALO BACK COLLECTIVE Nine years ago, Padmanabhan left the bustle of Bengaluru to set up home on the edge of the Bannerghatta National Park, about 35km away. In the city, she had worked as a chartered accountant, but she was always more interested in wildlife and forest conservation. In her new home, she spent time understanding elephant movement and the distribution of water resources in the drought-stricken area. It was work that couldn’t be done in isolation. “It’s imperative that the different members of a society work together, especially in rural areas,” she says. So, she worked with the local community to bring back older, organic ways of farming. Today, Padmanabhan and her team at Buffalo Back Collective grow a number of native varieties of grains as well as fruit and vegetables. “Gourds, beans, pumpkin, brinjal, methi and a couple of amaranth varieties come from the backyards of houses in the community,” she says. Shops in Bengaluru now stock the collective’s produce, and a home delivery service is in the pipeline.

VISHALAKSHMI PADMANABHAN FOUNDER, BUFFALO BACK COLLECTIVE Nine years ago, Padmanabhan left the bustle of Bengaluru to set up home on the edge of the Bannerghatta National Park, about 35km away. In the city, she had worked as a chartered accountant, but she was always more interested in wildlife and forest conservation. In her new home, she spent time understanding elephant movement and the distribution of water resources in the drought-stricken area. It was work that couldn’t be done in isolation. “It’s imperative that the different members of a society work together, especially in rural areas,” she says. So, she worked with the local community to bring back older, organic ways of farming. Today, Padmanabhan and her team at Buffalo Back Collective grow a number of native varieties of grains as well as fruit and vegetables. “Gourds, beans, pumpkin, brinjal, methi and a couple of amaranth varieties come from the backyards of houses in the community,” she says. Shops in Bengaluru now stock the collective’s produce, and a home delivery service is in the pipeline.

SHUBHENDU SHARMA FOUNDER & DIRECTOR, AFFORESTT “It made more sense to make forests than to make cars,” says Sharma of quitting his job as an automobile production engineer at Toyota. In 2008, he worked with acclaimed Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who was growing a forest on the factory premises to help production turn carbonneutral. It was an encounter that changed the course of his career. Afforestt, which Sharma established in 2011, adopts the Miyawaki method to grow wild, maintenance-free native forests. There’s a science to forest-making, Sharma explains: natural forests are surveyed to identify native tree species, the soil is studied, farmers are consulted, and then a formula for forest-making in that area is cracked. But when forests are being cut down at an alarming rate for commercial projects, how does he keep going? “Our focus is on making tangible forests,” he explains. “Right now, in Delhi, 16,000 trees are to be cut—but this has been happening for a long time and there are people who are much better than us at stopping it. Our time should be spent on forest-making

SHUBHENDU SHARMA FOUNDER & DIRECTOR, AFFORESTT “It made more sense to make forests than to make cars,” says Sharma of quitting his job as an automobile production engineer at Toyota. In 2008, he worked with acclaimed Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who was growing a forest on the factory premises to help production turn carbonneutral. It was an encounter that changed the course of his career. Afforestt, which Sharma established in 2011, adopts the Miyawaki method to grow wild, maintenance-free native forests. There’s a science to forest-making, Sharma explains: natural forests are surveyed to identify native tree species, the soil is studied, farmers are consulted, and then a formula for forest-making in that area is cracked. But when forests are being cut down at an alarming rate for commercial projects, how does he keep going? “Our focus is on making tangible forests,” he explains. “Right now, in Delhi, 16,000 trees are to be cut—but this has been happening for a long time and there are people who are much better than us at stopping it. Our time should be spent on forest-making