After a frantic few days wrapping things up in Dehradun before the Christmas holidays, we headed to Uttar Pradesh, to meet the team from the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development. ITRHD is a new charity, headed by S.K. Misra (one of the founders and former chairman of INTACH), that is working across the country to develop rural areas through the protection and innovation of cultural heritage. One particular area of focus in the Azamgarh region in north/eastern UP, about 3-4 hours drive from Benares. Within a small radius there are three villages with unique craft traditions – hand-woven silk in Mubarakpur, black pottery in Nizamabad and folk music in Hariharpur. Despite this cultural wealth, these areas are underdeveloped and lacking in basic infrastructure. ITRHD´s goal is to introduce services such as schools, clinics and sanitation, in order to allow the villages to promote their heritage, and benefit from its commercial value more directly, through the introduction of ´sensitive´rural tourism. The ambition is to ´rehabilitate Azamgarh district´s reputation (currently tainted by its association with terrorism), so that it becomes known as a hub for contemporary craft activity with a strong historical legacy.
The specific project we came to see is a new primary school for Hariharpur, which is famous for its musicians. ITRHD places an emphasis on community engagement, and has encouraged the villagers to contribute to the project in ways that they can – the land for the school has been donated by a member of the community. ITRHD was having trouble raising money for the new building, but did not want to loose the faith of the community, so proceeded to train the teachers (local married women) and will open the school in February temporary accommodation.
The village community (of around 3000 people) is comprised of three distinct groups defined by caste: the musicians all come from an extended family of Brahims, and the rest of the villagers are either Yadavs or Harijans. Although located in the Brahim area of the village, the school´s pupils are representative of each of the communities, including 50% girls. Although we would be designing a school, the hope is that this building could act as a prototype that could be used as a performance space, and gallery space to exhibit some of the village´s valuable instruments. The challenge for us would be to use a structural system that can be easily replicated, but is open enough in terms of design to accommodate the input of the local place and the community. Although we all had some concern about the future of the village being dominated by tourism (however ethical this would be) it isn´t clear how else it will be able to retain its young people. The creation of opportunities for employment and social mobility in rural areas is the only way to stem the flow of people from villages to cities.