Cities in search of cultural tags  10/11/2019 11:30:10 

Think about it  the ash gourd candy called petha, which originated in the kitchens of Shah Jahan, has given Agra its distinct GI label. One bite of petha conjures up images of the Taj Mahal and the enigmatic emperor who built it. The confection and the city share an unshakable historical and cultural bond.

The links between places and products can indeed go back a long way: many cities and towns have made distinct cultural offerings, even if they arent as well known as Agras petha. Aamir Khan starrer Piku features a small town brought back memories of train journeys out of Lucknow, where I had first tasted a ladoo, and my first taste of another, rather unique ladoo. The train used to stop at a little town called Sandila, which I would have easily missed but for the eager hawker who proffered an earthen pot with a few soft, pale ladoos, a country cousin of the glamorous boondi ladoo. Sandila in Uttar Pradesh from then on was never just another stop, it was the destination of a delectable treat.

D for Detroit

Cultural identity is distinct from a commercial tag; it evokes an ethos rooted in the place and its people. Societies are organically attached to cultural practices. They identify with it, own it.

A commercial tag, on the other hand, is transient: else Detroit would not have vanished from the map as the motor city. Petha may still be redolent of Agra, but cars no longer recall Detroit.

Sadly, not much is being done to identify, revive or establish these cultural identities of small towns and cities. Either crass commercialisation has uprooted local produce or products from their point of origin, or the rapid homogenisation of cities has erased their cultural underpinnings. Take, for instance, the nondescript town of Pratapgarh in Rajasthan. It is the birthplace of that intricate gold-glass fused jewellery called thewa. Beginning as a family tradition some four centuries ago, thewa has gone places, but its birthplace does not even ring a bell.

No effort has been made to nurture the exquisite craft here, nor does the town identify itself with this tradition. I am convinced that just a little spark of imagination on the part of the city administrators can turn things around. And it could do a world of good to the city too.

Bareilly shows us how. The story of the jhumkas, the dangling earrings lost in the streets of Bareilly, has been part of popular culture for over half a century, thanks to the famous lyricist, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, who wrote Jhumka Gira Re Bareilly Ke Bazaar Mein for the film Mera Saya.

The jhumka has finally caught the imagination of the Bareilly Development Authority, which has drawn up plans to install a giant earring, 12-14 feet high and 2.43 metre in diameter, at the city centre. This out-of-the-box proposal has been sent to the National Highways Authority of India for approval.

Only by preserving the unique identity of a place, real or imaginary, can its distinct character be saved from homogenisation. Cities need cultural, not concrete, bonds with people. And its by far a better idea than renaming cities endlessly.

The independent writer is a researcher and academic.

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