Karan Grover is bringing school students in western India into meaningful contact with their natural environment by way of their architectural heritage. In so doing, he is deepening and spreading urgently needed social commitment to the conservation of both endangered historic buildings and rapidly depleting water supplies.
India's architectural heritage, a vast archive of accumulated technical know-how, is being drained along with its rivers and lakes. Today, whereas the inconsequential renovation of a private house in Delhi requires a municipal permit, a 15th-century temple may be demolished without even a second thought. Across the country, supermarkets, cinemas, and office blocks are swallowing up the tombs, forts, and shrines of earlier eras. The state government of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, has recently approved the construction of a commercial complex behind the Taj Mahal. During communal conflict, too, ancient religious sites are the first to be targeted for destruction by warring extremists. The same forces consuming India's irreplaceable architectural legacy are also eating their way through its natural resources. Nobody in western India can deny that there is now less water than ever before. But as squabbles ensue between adjoining states, hamlets, and households, few have tried to address the issue responsibly. One thing that is clear, however, is that the matter cannot be left to government alone to address.
This situation demands new answers. In fact, many can be found in old places, but up to the present they remain buried under centuries of dirt and neglect. India's ancient buildings contain a rich vocabulary on effective environmental management. The step-wells in particular are spectacular examples of water conservation in semiarid regions, bringing engineering and cultural excellence to bear on this deeply social concern. Yet such structures are being ignored, in part because they are also buried under layers of apathy and prejudice. Heritage is misunderstood as something to do with piles of old stone with no significance for modern society. As such, it fails to excite interest. It is also viewed as an elite fieldfar removed from the needs and day-to-day affairs of the average citizen.
These attitudes are reflected in schools and compounded by other aspects of the way students are taught to understand their society, the environment, and themselves. Teachers rarely take students out of the classroom, and in the fast-paced learning environment, do not encourage pupils to stop and think about the world around them. In the rush for university places and good careers, students become divorced from the realities of their society; they live from day to day and lose an important sense of meaning and identity that comes with an awareness of what has come before. Little wonder that the language of their predecessors echoing through ancient architecture does not speak to them. Meanwhile, professionals working on historical sitesarchaeologists, architects, historianshave in the past done little to make their work appealing to the wider society, particularly to young people, and so it remains marginalized when it ought to be in the mainstream.
Diversity among the student participants is also important. The club breaks barriers of class, caste, religion, and physical appearance by bringing together and actively mixing students of all different backgrounds. Among its members are pupils from government municipal schools, elite convents, private schools, and special schools for disabled children. In addition, the programs also involve resource persons, like master craftsmen from different parts of the country.
During the programs, the children create exhibits and performances that they use to generate public interest in preservation of the threatened environments. The exhibits evolve daily, incorporating work and photographs from the day before, thereby enhancing the students' sense of involvement and self-worth. At the end of the work on-site, they are taken back to schools for display and to stimulate discussion among other pupils and teachers. Before that, however, parents, television crews, and government officials are invited to view the work. The students use these occasions to advocate strongly for better management of heritage sites and natural resources. Standing alongside a step-well, for instance, they point to the merits of water conservation in earlier centuries evidenced in the structure. They speak with confidence before the cameras and invited guests, perform impromptu theater containing pertinent allegories, and challenge the inaction of politicians on environmental and conservation policy.
Since making the connection between water resources and heritage sites, the profile of the club has risen, and the prospects for expansion are now greater than ever. While the number of club members has swelled to 3,500, the real growth possibilities lie in establishing similar clubs elsewhere in India, as well as in cooperative work with international agencies. Within India, Karan is now looking for partners through INTACH, a nationwide grouping of architectural conservation branches, of which he heads the only completely autonomous chapter. The national Department of Culture has expressed an interest, and corporate clients have been willing to sponsor on-site programs. Karan has used his position as a prominent architect and conservationist to speak on its latest developments at every available forum. In February 2003, he chose to talk about the Heritage Club at a gathering of UNESCO delegates from over 60 countries rather than discuss a site for which he is attempting to gain a World Heritage listing. In 2005 the Heritage Club will host an international gathering in Gujarat on the theme "World Heritage in Young Hands." The event will involve over 1,000 children from around the world and from about 100 schools across India. Karan has also proposed that the next UNESCO World Children's Congress be held there on the theme of "Water and One World." The World Bank Water Sanitation Project has likewise followed the club's recent evolution with interest, supporting a program at a step-well on Global Water Day and publishing its 2002 calendar for distribution throughout South Asia for that event.
Ultimately, Karan's spread strategy is flexible and he is always keen to grasp any opportunity to expand the work. Currently, for instance, he is considering how to establish heritage sites and museums as repositories of learning for children to operate jointly with schools. He hopes to house the first of these in a historic building, and recently found that the old terminus of the Gaekwad royal train is available. Investigating further, he found that such unused royal train terminals exist across the country. He is now examining ways to create a network of museums in these discarded valuable buildings.
In 1985 he began the Heritage Trust, a professional group advocating protection and preservation of historical sites. However, membership remained small and the group inactive. By 1991, it had some 50 members, and Karan was disillusioned by its lack of progress in the face of the deepening heritage crisis across the country.
It was at this time that Karan's wife, Nisha, who works with disabled children, suggested that he set up a Heritage Club as a way to get youth involved. Karan began without much thought, making some badges that were bought at-cost for membership by some 20 students. As they set out doing walks, adopting buildings, and raising awareness, the numbers soon grew past 200. With the increased interest, Karan felt emboldened to take the work to the next level, organizing the first on-site program in conjunction with schools, and calling on university student volunteers. The program, situated at an ancient tomb, involved around 800 students and was a great success. Later, Karan saw a group of boys wearing the club badges while playing football, and he stopped to ask why. They replied that they felt proud to be members of the Heritage Club so they wore the badge at other times. Karan realized then that what had begun as a simple experiment was going much further than he had anticipated.
In 1999 Karan had the idea of deepening the work of the Heritage Club and investing it with a greater relevance to modern society. During a time of drought, he was reflecting on how preceding civilizations in western India had managed and honored their water resources through the step-wells and related architecture. He became convinced that the real value of the Heritage Club lies in making these connections, to the profit of the natural environment, heritage, students, and society alike.
Karan had always expected that his great achievement would be his two decades' work on the Champaner site. However, it is the Heritage Club that is now dearest to his heart and where his greatest expectations lie.