Photo credit: Nazes Afroz

Students Bring History Alive in Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery

Last December, Think Arts and students from schools across Kolkata, India, opened a temporary exhibition at the South Park Street Cemetery. In the coming weeks, a new batch of students will have the opportunity to bring history to life in their own way in the same space. Read on to learn more about the project. (Feature image photo credit: Nazes Afroz)

The South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata is one of those iconic spaces in the postcolonial world that whispers to passersby of a very different time and place. The weathered, mossy stones now interrupted by trees and plant life that have had centuries to stretch their limbs invite you see the cemetery as an artefact of the past with little bearing on the bustling city outside its walls. Though largely forgotten by residents of Kolkata, it still has a pull for some people, like Ruchira Das. “Every time I visited the South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta, I have been moved by the gravity of the place. Not having grown up in Calcutta, I discovered this fascinating place quite by accident, during one of my visits to the city.”

But Das, founder of Think Arts – an organization geared to engage children with the world around them through the arts, in unconventional ways – was also keenly aware of the kind of history that the cemetery represented in the city’s past. “After I moved to Calcutta a few years ago,” she writes, “I got a chance to spend a lot more time at SPSC and was struck by the fact that the cemetery was in use during one of the most interesting periods of Calcutta’s history (1767 – 1830) – it was during this period that Calcutta was named the capital of British India, the Asiatic Society was founded, the Bengal Renaissance took its roots and the city saw several such significant events.”

Upon realizing that many of the city’s residents, including children like those at a school just a couple hundred meters away from the cemetery, had never entered the space, Das approached the Christian Burial Board, under whose management the cemetery fell.  The board mirrored her concern about the lack of public engagement with the space.

“Paradoxically enough, it was in a cemetery that the pages of history came alive for all of us.”

Das proposed a project wherein school children would spend six months researching and exploring the narratives buried in the site to develop an exhibition called ‘Our History, Their Times.’ The project was designed to encourage students to think about the spaces and stories that surrounded them through art forms they were familiar with: “Retracing a city’s history and presenting it using their [students’] forms of expression can be an involved, exciting activity with a tremendous scope for learning – learning outside textbooks.” For Das, the installations, which ran from the 7th to the 13th of December, 2015, represented a critical understanding and response to the histories to be found in the South Park Street Cemetery – an engagement that was as much about the form as the content in the physical pieces themselves. This emphasis on the value of art as an active site of learning is something Das believes in firmly, and was a driving factor behind the project. In her concept note on the project, she expressed a need to ensure “that the youth is involved in critical thinking – of investigating history, discovering stories, examining perspectives and questioning the accepted.”

The students, grades eight to eleven, came from schools across the city. They were captivated by the romance of the cemetery from the start. Reflections on their first visit to the site highlighted the picturesque beauty of the space, but also revealed a curiosity of the stories that lay behind tombstones and beneath their feet. “I thought that the cemetery was exquisite, but beauty certainly isn’t skin deep,” wrote one student. “The visit gave me the opportunity to make my way deeper into the stories of the people who lay there, and introspect on the lives that once were. It certainly had a great impact on me.”

The project was a huge success, both among participants and with members of the general public who poured visited the exhibition last December. Over the six months of the project, students explored the histories of individuals associated with and interred at the site, as well as those of the nameless Indians and Europeans who lived in Calcutta during that period. Working in groups with help from visual artist Nobina, and professor of English, Dr. Sudip Bhattacharya, students produced a number of different responses to the space, and explored various themes to bring the history of their city to life within the walls of the cemetery. Sunita Biswas, a teacher at Modern High School for Girls was as enthusiastic as her students about the project: “It’s been a wonderful learning experience for the entire team…teachers and students. It gave them a better understanding of Kolkata and its past. Paradoxically enough, it was in a cemetery that the pages of history came alive for all of us.”

Thanks to Ruchira Das and her students, the South Park Street Cemetery was bustling with live bodies for the duration of the exhibition, which brought in residents of the city from all walks of life who were curious about the colourful displays scattered between the trees and tombstones. “Our History, Their Times” was such a success that the Christian Burial Board has asked Das to facilitate the project again this year with a new group of schools. They will be starting their research and work on their projects in the coming weeks, and open up the cemetery gates for a second exhibition in December, 2016.

You can learn more about Ruchira Das and her organization, Think Arts on her Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/thinkartskolkata/.

A Chat with our Co-Directors Part II: An Awesome, Mind Blowing, Intellectually Stimulating Show

IMG_3180On Nov. 29th, the three co-directors of Staging Our Histories (Arpita Bajpeyi, Sinead Cox and Marie-Anne Gagnon) met with colleague Christina Parsons via the magic of the internet to talk about the concept and their expectations of the event. You can catch up with Part I  of the the discussion here.

Christina Parsons: Do you feel that you may encounter some contention between people who have experienced certain histories differently?

Marie-Anne Gagnon: There are so many pages of history to choose from that it would be a big coincidence. But if so, I don’t think that would be a problem, but rather a great opportunity for exchange and fostering understanding.

Arpita Bajpeyi: Absolutely! Part of the event will be opening up the floor so that the audience and performers can have those conversations in a positive, constructive space. But I think the very nature of the performance implies each history will be a personal interpretation.

Sinead Cox: There will be the talk-backs. And as much as performance can be very cathartic and personal for a performer when they’re talking about history, I think an audience can also have a very visceral reaction, positive or negative. The day we had our performances [at Carleton], I remember it being very draining: they were incredible, but it was emotional. I think performance is great for engaging you intellectually and also getting you right in the gut.

Marie-Anne: We have left the theme very open-ended so that people can bring forward whatever project they would like. In future years (if we are lucky enough to make this happen again!) it could be interesting to narrow the subject to see different interpretations of the same topic

Christina: Very true, it would be great to see many facets of the same topic.

Marie-Anne: As Sinead was saying, in our experience, people chose very personal topics, that had to do with their own history or that of their family.I guess we wanted to see that happen again. Because it was so powerful.

Arpita: Those are the stories that were the most powerful.

Sinead: It’s interesting how commonalities pop up even when the topic is broad. I think patterns emerge. Like grandparents.

Marie-Anne: Did you know genealogy is the most researched thing at LAC? Just proves that people care about where they personally come from. Henry VIII can seem rather far.

Christina: Being able to share personal stories on a larger scale can be very affirming to someone who does not usually have that platform.

Sinead: Yes! And I think as much as [submissions] can be about a personal history, they can also be about NOT having that history. Of being divorced or alienated from your history, or conflicted about it.

Arpita: And that is something we’re hoping to provide, for sure. A space for histories that are typically overlooked or ignored because of the way that they are told, or because of who is telling them. And those can be incredibly powerful pieces too.

Marie-Anne: But I suspect we might also see performances about parts of history that interest the participants, even if they are not directly connected.

Sinead: What speaks to people isn’t always directly close, for sure. Maybe someone feels very connected to and passionate about Henry VIII! As long as they’re telling that story in a new way, we’d be interested.

Marie-Anne: Most historians study not their own culture. Part of being a historian is having a curiosity for what you don’t personally know.

Christina: Are you making an effort to include indigenous or counter-colonial narratives?

Arpita: I think the three of us definitely gravitate towards those kinds of narratives, for various reasons. I’d be surprised if none of them appear in the program!

Marie-Anne: Indeed.

Sinead: I hope so. Attention all of you with counter-colonial narratives: please submit!

Arpita: That’s part of the fun of this experiment. Seeing what comes our way.

Christina: What mediums are available? For instance, will you have audio/visual equipment?

Arpita: We will provide most equipment, unless it’s highly specialized.

Sinead: That’s a good question! We’re definitely interested in film and multimedia. So we will try to accommodate the proposals we accept within the limits of the venue.

Marie-Anne: We should probably mention how long the performances should be, and how long the evening will be.

Arpita: The evening will begin at 7:30, and performances and talk-backs will run until 9:30, after which there will be a reception. Performances should run between 5-20 minutes.

Christina: Also, for posterity, what day is it?

Arpita: Sunday May 31.

Marie-Anne: If you’re coming to Ottawa for the CHA AGM, please drop by! [It will be] an awesome, mind blowing, intellectually stimulating show. (You don’t need to include that. Just a fact.)

Sinead: It may need to be the title!

Keep an eye out for exciting news and updates about Staging Our Histories in  the days to come, including the official announcement of our venue! Many thank yous to Christina Parsons for her time, and for her thoughtful questions as our moderator. You can hear much more from Christina in her upcoming podcast, H is for History and read her work at History Watch.

You’ve read how the co-directors envision the outcome of Staging Our Histories, but the reality will be up to you, and the challenging, surprising and powerful work you submit by January 9th! Read more about the submission guidelines here.

If you have any queries for Arpita, Marie-Anne or Sinead before you submit, email us at StagingHistories@gmail.com.