Ok, let’s be honest, who all got bored out of their brains during history class in school? *awkwardly raises hand* It’s probably safe to say that most of us did. Learning about empires and who conquered which kingdom was not exactly like Game of Thrones. So how does one make history relevant and interesting?
Tania Kamath and Ulka Athale, authors of a children’s history book ‘Flashback: Pune – People And Places Around The 1700s’, managed to do just that, and how! A content consultant, Kamath has worked with NGOs and corporates, while Athale has worked for the Heritage India magazine and now works in corporate communication. This month, BnP talks to the authors about some intriguing nuggets of Pune’s history that they uncovered. Don’t miss the third question!
Tell us, what drove you to pen down this book?
UA: So, Tania was keen to produce a children’s book, and I’ve done a fair amount of editing on Indian heritage. We both feel strongly that kids are interested by history and culture, but very few people are talking to them at their level, and about things in history that interest them. Instead of compiling a fact file, we decided to focus on the city’s history that we see around us, like the iconic monuments in Pune which still survive from the golden era of the 1700’s – and build a story around that.
TK: We wanted to form a link between the past and the present, and bring historic places alive. Steering clear of empire narratives, we chose instead to focus on how people lived in those days, what they did in their free time, where they worked and what kind of professions they pursued. So it’s more about people like you and me.
How did you go about this project, and how did children play a central part in the process?
UA: We were curious to know what interested children in history rather than imposing our views on them. So we took them on a heritage walk in the old city, starting from Shaniwarwada, through Kasba Peth and ending at Vishrambaugwada. In the royal courtyard there, we held a small art workshop where the kids were free to draw whatever caught their eye. We also listened to the questions that they were asking.
Our illustrator, Paul, wandered around, sketching and illustrating, and his team worked on the layout in combination with the kids’ drawings. We are very grateful for the enthusiasm shown by the schools that supported this – The Orchid School, Vidya Valley and Akshara International, among others. We also made it a point to weave in activities so that the reader remains engaged in the book.
Tell us some of the most fascinating discoveries you made about Pune during this period.
TK: There are so many! For instance, people don’t know that we had travel insurance for goods way back in the 18th Century, or that the ground floors of wadas (mansions) did not have windows for safety reasons, or that there used to be a tax for celebrating festivals called ‘Gulalpatti’. In the 1700s, street lighting consisted of diyas (oil lamps) placed in the niches of outer walls. Though Pune today seems very congested, back then it was a very well-planned city.
Wow! That’s fascinating. A lot of this context seems to be missing in history textbooks. Which brings us to the question – how can we breathe new life into the way history is taught in schools today?
UA: The biggest issue with studying history in schools is possibly that our approach is still one where we aim to convey the maximum number of facts. Our educational system is still catching up to the idea that facts are at our fingertips, and what we need to teach is an understanding of how and why things came about, and seeing the interconnections between people, places and ages. Storytelling and visits to heritage sites will definitely help in changing the focus from memorisation to comprehension.
Agreed. So, on a very fictional note, if you could go back into history, which person would you like to meet and what would you talk to them about?
UA: I’d probably want to have a cup of tea with Jane Austen, with no particular question in mind, just to converse with her. Also, I’d love to ask Shah Jahan if he ever intended to build a ‘Black Taj’ across the Yamuna connected by a silver bridge, as legend has it. It would be great to put that rumour to rest one way or the other, and to see the peacock throne.
TK: I would love to meet Tarabai, the widowed daughter-in-law of Shivaji Maharaj. She handled the estates for almost a decade and lead the war against the Mughals. Back then, women used to learn everything – from horse riding in a nauvari sari to archery and wrestling. I would like to know what all she did and how she did it all.
And lastly, if you could learn an ancient language, which one would it be, and why?
UA: This is a tough choice – I would love to be able to read what is written on the Harappan seals.
TK: It would have to be Sanskrit, hands down. And I would also like to learn Pali. It’s just fascinating how much knowledge is contained in ancient scriptures.