by Priya Chhaya
My day job (when I’m not thinking about blog posts for HomeSpun) is working as an employee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). We’re a non-profit organization that works to preserve and protect the places that matter to all Americans—through advocacy work, education, and community development. Most recently we released our annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list which spotlights places across America that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy. This year’s list included Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, the John Coltrane Home in New York, and China Alley in San Francisco, California.
While most of our work is focused on saving places within the United States, we are also a member of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO), an international network of National Trusts and similar non-governmental organizations that are committed to conserving and sustaining our shared heritage. One of the other members is The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and about a month ago I attended a week long training program and got to spend some time with an employee of INTACH, Suresh Sethuraman—who for nine months is working in Washington, DC at NTHP.
Interview with Suresh Sethuraman, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)
Priya: Tell me a little bit about your background, and what brings you to the United States?
Suresh: I am basically an archaeologist with a Ph.D in Classical Archaeology. I am here as a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow affiliated to the NTHP and the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of the University of Maryland. Under this Fulbright fellowship, I am working on the American system—laws, policies and problems—of the preservation of heritage buildings and sites and comparing it with the system in India.
Priya: Tell me about INTACH and how it works.
Suresh: INTACH is the NTHP’s counterpart in India. It is, of course, much smaller and younger than NTHP. It was started in 1984. It is modeled more on the English National Trust than on the NTHP. It is supplementing the role of the Government of India in the arena of heritage preservation. It has small offices in almost every part of India. I am the Tamil Nadu State Convener for the Tamil Nadu (South India) Regional office.
Priya: Can you give me an example of the educational and recruitment programs of INTACH, and how they try to pull in young people?
Suresh: INTACH, since its inception in 1984, was, for many years, a small group of volunteers interested in heritage preservation. Slowly, it has now expanded to be a major voluntary organization, in fact, the largest cultural voluntary organization in South Asia. The headquarters of INTACH is located in New Delhi. They have initiated a major program for the restoration of old buildings and historical artifacts not protected by the government. They have also started a special program aimed at school students with a view to inculcate the ideas of heritage preservation in them. Through children’s books, group discussions and competitions, the students learn more of our heritage and the need to preserve it. Presently, this is one of the major activities of INTACH.
Priya: As the Tamil Nadu State Convener are there any specific projects that you’ve worked on that might be of interest to the readers?
Suresh: INTACH has small offices or chapters in different parts of India. The Tamil Nadu State office in South India is one of the oldest regional offices started a few months after INTACH was inaugurated. It is also one of the most active chapters of INTACH. We do many activities in schools and colleges. We have helped establish Heritage Clubs in over 50 schools in South India. These Clubs are manned by the students, with academic and technical guidance by INTACH. They do a variety of activities including tours to historical places.
Priya: What differences do you see in the way American’s think about preserving their cultural heritage, and the way Indians approach the same issues?
Suresh: India is very rich in cultural heritage. But the sensitivity to preserve it is not as much as one observes in U.K. or U.S. INTACH, through its educational and awareness programs, aims to create this sensitivity amongst students and others in rural and urban areas. It is a slow process. But the trend is catching on. People today are more particular to save old buildings than they were twenty years ago. But we have a long way to go. We can learn a lot from the NTHP experiences—their Main Street Program and other programs.
And vice versa. One of the things I find fascinating about INTACH is their commitment to preserving the intangible heritage of India—including dying languages, traditional knowledge and cultural practices (such as dance). Their work with Heritage Clubs also demonstrates how important it is to start at the student level—investing time and effort in educating the younger generation about their heritage, in order to create a greater number of stewards as they grow older.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.