Y ears ago, visiting a historical ruin or religious shrine would entail dealing with the pesky touts and guides. They would swarm around the visitor, often with the ignobility of being crooks and cash-greedy. Yet we would pay them to know the history and cultural value of bricks and pillars. Today, there is a growing tribe of men and women who are trying to educate the masses about the cities they have lived their entire lives in, but don’t really know of it gems. The walks are conducted by professionals who introduce the inhabitants as well as visiting travellers to stories, characters and episodes which are intricately woven in the culture-scape.
One of them is 30-year-old Deepa Nandi who founded the RaahGeer citywalks. A Mumbaikar since birth, she pursued architecture in Nagpur’s Smt Manoramabai Mundle College. When she graduated in 2011, she followed the age-old tradition of joining a firm of architects. Meanwhile, she also became involved in theatre, and this was the step that would lead, quite dramatically, to a very different future.
We tend to think of turning points as singular incidents that shape a person’s life. But most often than not, there’s a series of them that inevitably change the course of action. For Deepa, it was a gradual realisation of her love for both the performance art as well as architecture, the combination of which would lead to storytelling to live audiences, on the streets, in the heat and rain, bringing life to men, women and parts of history lost in obscurity.
Four years ago, when walking tours where yet to become a trend, she and her friends were walking around Ballard Estate in South Mumbai, discussing the various iconic buildings around. They persuaded her to get a few people together and do one more of such walks.
“I was extremely sceptical about why people would opt for such a walk. Yet, that first call was answered by almost 35 people and I realised that many are very curious to know about the cities they live in. I don’t concentrate only on heritage buildings, but also bring in present-day relevance, the people and places alive today adding soul to these cities,” says Deepa.
Four years later, she has opened chapters of RaahGeer in almost 30 cities across the country, partnered with schools, colleges and TEDx and given secret tours to diplomats and embassy officials.
“When I am deciding on a route, I completely immerse myself in it. I visit it every day until the locals know me, tell me their stories. I become a familiar face and inject myself into the social fabric of those places. Defining a route and doing live talks aren’t easy and one can’t do it unprepared. One has to be emotionally invested in it to be a good storyteller,” says Deepa.
It’s a gruelling experience, and exhaustive as well — extensive research followed by knocking on strangers doors. Often she faces curiosity and plain doubt, most locals not being able to fathom why she would want to tell their stories to strangers and make foreigners walk their cobblestone paths.
For Deepa, every walk, even the hundredth on the same route, brings out something novel. “I love walking around the streets and bylanes, shops and buildings. It is amazing how little we know of our own backyard. Most of us spend our childhood and our entire lives in the same locality but wouldn’t know much about the buildings and people around,” she says.
Having given up on a conforming, stable career, Deepa is now full-time dedicated in generating social awareness and spreading knowledge about the places we inhabit. “For me, it’s a journey of self-awareness. Every time I learn something new about this city, I discover something new about myself. These walks are important because I want the others as well to take this journey. Knowledge of places, it’s historical and social significance, leads to not only awe but also awareness. This growing awareness will in turn help with preservation and a sense of pride.”
Walking or cycle tours of cities are quite common in foreign countries, specially in Europe, where they are mostly free, but it has never been an option or promoted by the government of India because of the ill-repute brought by the guides and touts of yesteryears. The concept is slowly coming of age in India, and the public is more receptive to such tours. Maybe, just maybe, the hidden gems of the city, will now find an audience.