SOAS University of London

€1.5 Million Research Grant awarded to the project ‘Heritage as Placemaking: The politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia’

1 October 2021

This four-year project entitled ‘Heritage as Placemaking: The politics of solidarity and erasure in South Asia’ is a partnership between four research institutions: Social Science Baha (Nepal), South Asian University (India), SOAS, University of London (UK), and Heidelberg University (Germany). It promotes diversity and inclusiveness through a better understanding of solidarities forming and disintegrating amongst communities invested in lived and living heritage.

‘With ten collaborating experts from the fields of anthropology, South Asian studies, geography, art history, criminology, conservation architecture, literary studies, and museum/heritage studies the project Heritage as Placemaking is truly interdisciplinary and transcultural,’ explains Prof Christiane Brosius.

Working in research groups, the project will explore the importance of commoning - that is solidaric practice of collaborating and sharing - in vernacular and performative heritage with Prof Christiane Brosius and Dr. Monica Mottin at the Heidelberg Center of Transcultural Studies. At the South Asian University (Delhi), where the team will consist of Prof. Dr. Sasanka Perera, Dr. Darshana Ashok Kumar and Tirangie Jayatilake (MA), the project sets out to document changes and transformations within transnational pilgrimage networks. Furthermore, at the Social Science Baha in Kathmandu, with Dr. Sabin Ninglekhu, Dr. Monalisa Maharjan, and Binita Magaiya (MA) will investigate heritage activism, the bureaucracy of heritage making, its lived gendered experience, and selective historicity. Finally, at SOAS, University of London, Dr. Stefanie Lotter, and Dr. Emiline Smith will engage with both - the discourse of development and the discourse of repatriation that both reposition heritage in the 21st century.

With jointly planned summer schools and public seminar/podcast series, this project will engage with international experts and audiences while focusing its research on eight sites – three cities in India and five in Nepal – lying within 350km from each other. ‘Through a critical and engaged analysis of power dynamics that underlie relationships among heritage stakeholders, we aim to produce with this project a framework for anticipating and dealing with natural and man made crisis in heritagization’, Dr. Sabin Ninglekhu (Co-I) states.

Together, the project team aims to create a better understanding of dynamic solidarities amongst different communities invested in the making, the upkeep, and the erasure of living and lived heritage. The methodological repertoire includes ethnography with qualitative interviews, oral histories, and participant observation, and takes up a relational and comparative case study approach. Archival material, bureaucratic frameworks and documentation, media analysis, and object studies will enhance the data repertoire. The data legacy of the project is guaranteed through open access documentation at Heidelberg University.

As part of the initiative that funds a total of eight projects, Heritage as Placemaking’s ambitious plan is to develop criteria to predict decision-making over heritage at times of global crises, ethnic tension, and nationalist chauvinism. It does so by analyzing power dynamics amongst diverse stakeholders including government agencies, community groups and NGOs.

‘This is why we seek to understand the conditions for placemaking, the transient solidarities amongst people that enable the making, upholding, or even the destruction of heritage’, Dr. Stefanie Lotter (Co-I), Research Associate at the SOAS Department of Anthropology and Sociology explains.

We foreground cultural heritage as a site for promoting social justice and recognition, as well as access to education and equality. To this end, the project explores communal resourcefulness, political will and bureaucratic attention critical to form solidarities and make place for the future. Prof. Sasanka Perera further exemplifies that ‘With an ambitious publication plan and outreach activities including heritage walks, minecraft events and even a graphic novel, we hope to engage residents (at the sites of enquiry), participants, and a wide range of academics in our overall approach. Doing so, we will push the academic boundaries in the understanding of solidarity and decolonization and bring our work to bear upon popular discourses as well.’