Peculiar Gift Bombay’s Irani Cafes and Mumbai’s Heritage - an oral history

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This thesis has two main aims. It first examines changing perceptions of history and heritage in Mumbai, India. It does this by using the prism of Mumbai’s Irani cafes, street corner sites of sociability across the 20th century. The sustained emotional engagement with the Irani café – evidenced through ever widening streams of cultural production and most recently in ersatz commercial ventures –testifies to these cafés as a significant site of personal memory making. Framings of Mumbai as a ‘heritage city’ since the 1990s have seen heritage become a catchword that sustains a formal state and professional sector working to gazetted heritage guidelines that were the first of their kind in India. Heritage ‘value’ in the context of Mumbai works mostly through the preservation of the colonial-elite built form. While Irani cafés stand as sites of ‘Bombay heritage’ in popular narratives, they are unable to be recognised as sites of social significance or collective memory within the current parameters that guide formal heritage management in Mumbai. Secondly, the thesis considers the recent emergence of history and heritage projects in Mumbai working with the vernacular, online through the web and social media; and on the street through walking tours. These bring into sharp relief the breach between what the formal heritage sector values and where and how people make historical meaning. These projects confront the absence of diverse voices in history in the formal galleries, libraries, archives and museum (GLAM) sector in India, and challenge the historical academy to work in ways that engage with non-elite understandings of the past. For some participants underlying their search for a deeper understanding of Mumbai’s ‘heritage from below’ sits a rejection of the parochial, chauvinistic agenda that first took root through the Shiv Sena in Bombay and has taken a firm hold as Narendra Modi enters his second term of office as Indian Prime Minister. In acknowledging a relationship to personal heritage identities from below lies the potential for a memory activism that confronts social inequity and spatial divisions. Methodologically, the thesis uses oral history interviews, textual analysis and autoethnography. It documents some of the forms in which Bombay’s 20th century past is being articulated through memory across the second decade of the 21st century, and contributes to the emerging field of oral and public history that engages with Mumbai’s social memory.
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