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,


Two Days until Staging Our Histories! Why we Can’t Wait

Excited for history to take the stage? You’re not the only one. Don’t take our word for it; check out why Ottawa, as well as the arts & academic communities at large, is psyched for history (a)live and off the page THIS SUNDAY! Get your tickets

Tweet us why YOU are excited for Staging Our Histories:  @stagehist

Staging Our Histories’ Venue & a First Glimpse at our Poster!

Our co-directors are pleased to announce that the very first Staging Our Histories will take place at the National Arts Centre‘s Fourth Stage, 53 Elgin St, Ottawa at 7:30pm.  After the evening’s performances and interactive talk-backs with the audience moderated by host Adrian Harewood a short reception will follow in the same location.

We’d like to extend our gratitude to Tannis Price for collaborating with co-director Arpita Bajpeyi on our eye-catching poster.


Carol Jones

Formée en danse et jeu, spécialiste en percussions corporelles, Carol Jones œuvre dans le milieu artistique depuis plus d’une vingtaine d’années.  La danse l’a menée au théâtre.  Diplômée à la maîtrise en théâtre, elle joue, danse et choréthéâtrographie. On l’a vue tant sur scène (Free, Pour filles de couleur,  Angélique); à la télé (Chez Denise, Les dames de cœur, Watatatow, 19-2) qu’au cinéma (Le Matou, Louis 19, Je me souviens. La femme allongée).

Fille d’un jazzman (batterie), nourrie par les rythmes africains, Carol développe sa technique de percussions corporelles, associant diverses danses percussives et rythmes de la batterie, qu’elle enseigne dans diverses écoles (UQAM, Rencontre Théâtre Ados, etc.). Également, elle collabore à des productions musicales comme celles de l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal.

Dans le cadre de l’activité « Qui a mis le feu à Montréal le 10 avril 1734? » initiée par le Centre d’Histoire de Montréal, elle crée le personnage Angélique qu’elle présente depuis 2007 dans les écoles et les bibliothèques.  Ainsi, chaque année elle amène quelques deux cents élèves à répondre, sous forme théâtrale, à la question. Tout récemment, le projet s’est mérité un Prix d’Excellence décerné par l’Association Québécoise des Interprètes du Patrimoine.

En 2010, avec l’aide du Conseil des Arts du Canada et de l’Unesco, elle présentait Free à la Salle Carpe diem. Cette pièce entièrement exprimée en percussions corporelles pose un regard sur le trafic humain contemporain. Son art la fait voyager : Brésil, Turquie, Trois-Rivières, Sierra Leone, etc. où elle participe à maints événements et festivals. En 2015, suite à une résidence de création au Collège Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Free prendra l’affiche au Théâtre de la Providence, salle annexée à ce même Collège.

Actuellement étudiante à l’American Dance Therapy Association, Carol achève une maîtrise en danse thérapie.

Trained in dance and theatre, and a specialist in corporeal percussion, Carol Jones has been active in the artistic field for over 20 years. Dance  led her to theatre. With a Master’s in theatre, she acts, dances and choreographs. She has been seen on stage (Free, Pour filles de couleur,  Angélique); on television (Chez Denise, Les dames de cœur, Watatatow, 19-2) and cinéma (Le Matou, Louis 19, Je me souviens. La femme allongée).

Daughter of a jazzman (drummer), inspired by African rhythms, Carol develops her corporeal percussion, associating diverse percussive dances and drum rhythms, which she teaches in various schools (UQAM, Rencontre Théâtre Ados, etc.). She also collaborates on musical productions such as the Greater Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra.

Within the framework of the activity “Qui a mis le feu à Montréal le 10 avril 1734?” (who set fire to Montreal the 10th of April 1734?) initiated by the Montreal History Center, she created the Angélique character, whom she has presented since 2007 in schools and libraries. Therefore, each year, she gets two hundred students to respond, in theatrical form, to this question. Quite recently, the project earned the Prix d’Excellence (excellence prize) given by the Association Québécoise des Interprètes du Patrimoine (Quebec Association of Heritage Interpreters).

In 2010, with the help of the National Council of the Arts of Canada and UNESCO, she presented FREE at the Carpe Diem Hall. This piece, entirely expressed in corporeal percussions, focuses on contemporary human trafficking. Her art makes her travel: Brazil, Turkey, Trois-Rivières, Sierra Leone, etc., where she takes part in many events and festivals. In 2015, after a residency at the Collège Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, FREE will be presented at the Théâtre de la Providence, a hall annexed to this same College.

Currently a student at the American Dance Therapy Association, Carol is completing a Master’s in Dance Therapy.


Martha Stiegman

Martha Stiegman is a passionate and engaged community-media and documentary filmmaker. Currently based in Toronto where she teaches at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, her work has screened in festivals around the world from Tunisia and New Zealand to Brazil. Her first two documentaries, In Defense of our Treaties (2007) and The End of the Line (2007) explore alliances between Mi’kmaq and non-native fishing communities in her home province of Nova Scotia. Honour Your Word (2013) is an intimate, behind the blockades portrait of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake and their fight to defend their traditional lands. Indigenous struggles and non-native solidarity have been the focus of Martha’s film work, community-arts practice and academic research for more than ten years.