How do you revive interest in a fort that had once been the site of a historic battle but was now reduced to being referred to as “the forgotten fort,” no longer significant even to those who live around it? For starters, you could get students interested in it. Get them to do some research, and organise guided heritage walks through it. Throw in a shadow play about the historic battle fought there and stage it on the premises. Scale things up and stage an actual play at the fort, recreating the events that happened once upon a time. Invite people from all over the city, and those living in the shadow of the fort. And then, watch the conversation unfold.
That’s what Bangalore-based Centre for Public History did, when it was faced with the daunting task of bringing to life the heritage site of the Bangalore Fort in Kalasipalayam, where the critical Third Anglo-Mysore War was fought, and the ruler associated with it, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. The public history project, titled “The Tiger Comes to Town,” was undertaken in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India, and took place over four months, concluding with two public lectures in January. “Public engagement with any historical site is low. And many Bangaloreans don’t know the history of the fort, so it evokes no feeling in them, because they don’t have a context,” says Aliyeh Rizvi, former curator at the Centre for Public History, and one of the people spearheading the initiative. “We wanted to look at the fort and use that as a venue for various events and also retell the stories associated with it that are now forgotten,” says Indira Chowdhury, who founded the Centre for Public History. The initiative was executed largely by the students of the Srishti School of Design, under the guidance of Chowdhury and Rizvi. “By the end of it, they became very protective of Tipu,” says Chowdhury, with a laugh. But they also had to accept that Tipu was a polarising figure, which they initially had trouble coming to terms with. Rama Lakshmi, an independent museum consultant, who helped put together the heritage walk, put things in context by asking them to imagine themselves 200 years later, looking at newspaper clippings about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, many of which would be laudatory, while some would mention the Gujarat riots. “The students were silent for a long time. That’s how they realised that they would also have to address the complexities and controversies of history,” says Chowdhury.
The project also involved documenting oral histories, which meant recording detailed interviews with the people living in the proximity of the fort, who might have some associations with it. One of the interviewees, a priest at a temple near the fort, belies the impression of Tipu as a destroyer of temples, by pointing out that he had had a Hindu advisor and that he often took shelter in Hindu temples while travelling. The oral history segment is something the Centre for Public History hopes to continue working on. “The Tiger Comes to Town” drew to a close with two public lectures, one by professor Roddam Narasimha, the well-known aerospace scientist, on the fascinating subject of Tipu’s rockets and another by professor Sharada Srinivasan on wootz steel (a special grade of iron ore, used by Tipu) and the Damascus blade.
The aim of the project was to get the public involved, and Rizvi feels that the response it evoked exceeded their expectations. “It was amazing how people took over. The events became a conversation and it truly became a public history project,” says Rizvi. “As someone pointed out, the Forgotten Fort had come to life.”