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Performed Journeys of India

Fulbrighter Navina Jafa uses walks and performances to promote India’s cultural heritage.

The Condé Nast Traveller guide to Delhi suggests walks with Navina Jafa as one of the experiences in the city not to be missed—“Her walks will make you experience the city like you can never imagine.” 

Jafa promotes India’s cultural heritage through well-organized and well-researched tours of Delhi and other parts of India. Her tours link the past and the present through the lenses of culture, history, sociology and economics. Her walks are considered unique as they promote cultural heritage through performative acts. 

Jafa is a performer and academic—she is a kathak dancer and holds a Ph.D. in socioeconomic history of performing arts from Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. She is also the vice president of the Centre for New Perspectives, a think tank working on sustainable development, cultural policy, innovative tourism and green skills. In 2005-6, Jafa was a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C., where she worked on the themes of “Cultural Management and Cultural Diplomacy.” She has also authored a book, “Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks.”

Excerpts from an interview. 


Please tell us about your experience at the Smithsonian and how it helped shape your career?

For my Fulbright program, I was associated with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the National Endowment for the Arts. These interactions allowed me to not only critique my body of work, but also to reposition both theoretical and practical constructs that touched ideas on exhibiting culture through the modality of heritage walks and academic tours, which manifested themselves in a book. 

While in America, I reached out to various sectors of American culture. From dancing with African Americans near the Anacostia River, conducting storytelling sessions for children through the Washington Storytelling Society, performing at the [John F.] Kennedy Center [for the Performing Arts] and sharing ideas on Indian food with my colleagues at the Smithsonian, to creating dance journeys with American dancers and multimedia artistes, these dialogues between the unique aspects of American culture and knowledge of Indian traditions opened a new world.

Please tell us about the concept of “academic tourism” in the context of India. 

I have both a copyright and a trademark of the term “academic tourism.” It is an interpretation of a heritage landscape through multiple perspectives, including sociological, political, historical and so on. It also brings in tradition bearers and community voices. 

Academic tourism implies not checking boxes when traveling, but something like what Adam Douglas’ work is about—a scientific aspect inspired to create real-life innovative experiences. 

Let us take the delta of the Ganges, known as the Sundarbans, as an example. The themes are not only about the natural heritage, but also those that cover anthropological aspects of the trade between West Asia in the Indian Ocean, which gave birth to the fascinating forest goddess Bonbibi, having both Muslim and Hindu aspects. The entire academic tour is not merely about visiting sites, but includes interactions with tradition bearers and bringing live issues to the table. 

You have worked on heritage education within different cultural institutions in India. What type of work do you do within these organizations to promote heritage education?

The work is largely on traditional knowledge, covering a wide set of subjects such as crafts, performing arts, health or medicine, cuisine, lifestyle, scientific knowledge related to agriculture, and issues such as water harvesting. The bottom line is conservation of cultural traditions through a multipronged strategy, which includes methodologies and practical programs. The most exciting recent projects that we are doing at the Centre for New Perspectives are creating inventive sustainable livelihood programs for marginalized streetfolk performers and launching a massive environmental youth leadership program in different parts of India, called the Green Foot Soldier. 

Many famous people have participated in your guided heritage walks, including two former U.S. Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice. Please tell us about your popular walks in Delhi. 

When one is commissioned to present Indian heritage to important world leaders, there are limitations related to their security, age and time. Taking all these into consideration, the site of the Humayun’s Tomb, Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the Qutub Minar and Red Fort [in Delhi], and the Taj Mahal [in Agra] have been most popular. Other popular walks in Delhi which I conduct are “Jugaad,” economic heritage in Old Delhi, socio-politics of transgender heritage, and gateway to Sufism.

Your book, “Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks,” discusses art and politics of cultural representation. What role can heritage studies play given the increasing globalization of cultures and values today?

Heritage is usually a record of how human communities have responded to natural environments and resources, which manifests itself in how they live, trade, eat, dress and so on. Heritage studies can be a platform to explore unique ways to create sustainable development programs for tradition bearers, often living on the margins. And, it can be a distinct way to evolve local leadership programs to address environmental issues, seek conflict resolutions and provide advocacy for developing a globalized culture. 


Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.