Heritage Points: Q&A With Khaki Tours Founder Bharat Gothoskar

Khaki Tours’s Bharat Gothoskar (centre).

There hasn’t been a single weekend over the last six months in which we haven’t listed a walk by Khaki Tours. The two-and-a-half year-old group of local history enthusiasts, led by founder Bharat ‘BharGo’ Gothoskar, conducts over a dozen walks across south Mumbai. Unlike a lot of similar organisations, Khaki Tours doesn’t limit itself to the areas in and around Churchgate and Fort, where they have eight jaunts, but also covers neighbourhoods such as Bhuleshwar, Byculla, Gamdevi, Girgaum, Chowpatty, Lalbaug and Parel.

In November last year, they launched ‘urban safaris’, a series of private jeep rides through heritage areas. In April, one of the members, conservation architect Tapan Mittal, helped in the extraction and conservation of a milestone that was discovered during a demolition drive in Parel. They were alerted of the discovery by assistant municipal commissioner Vishwas Mote, who they have invited on walks in an effort to help spread what Gothoskar calls “heritage evangelism”.

That same month, ahead of Ramzan, they began food walks and in May, they started Khaki Kids, workshops in which they teach children about heritage conservation. Soon, they will carry out their hundredth walk. To mark the milestone, we met with Gothoskar to ask him about how Khaki Tours came about, their most popular offering and their plans for the rest of the year. Edited excerpts:

How did the idea for Khaki Tours come about?
I started doing walks under the name Khaki Tours in January 2015. As a concept, it was established in my mind in 2011. This was like that café that you want to open in Goa, which never happens. It was a fantasy.

From the maternal side in my family we have an old cold drink house in Girgaum. (Some) equipment (was) required (for it) so I had to go to Tambakata (the market) in Kalbadevi. I took my car into Bhuleshwar, which I thought was the shortest route looking at Google Maps. Then I realised how crowded that area is, probably one of the most crowded areas in the world. That’s when the idea came (to me) that people will never land (up) in this area. If you have an open jeep, which passes through (it) then people will be able to appreciate (the) things around. So I said let’s give it a shot. Then I said, let’s start with walks because I had done walks before for friends and relatives.

In January 2016, when we were completing one year of doing walks – we had only done six – we said we’ll do a Banganga walk. Some 125 people said (they were) coming (and) 203 people landed up. After that, we said we will have to restrict the number of people and the best way is to charge people but I was working and the others were also working so we said let’s raise funds for charity. We raised money to educate some 50-odd girl children through different walks.

What started as once a month became twice a month, then once a week, then twice a week. Today we have as many as eight events a week. Some are private, some are public. Things were getting out of hand, and I thought I need to take a sabbatical (from my job at Mahindra Lifespaces) to establish the organisation and a platform for what we call ‘heritage evangelism’. I quit in September 2016, and in October we launched the Urban Safari, an open jeep safari to show (people) heritage (areas). We have done 200-odd rides in the last six months. They’re private (tours), as in you call up and you book. Initially we used to sell by the seat but that was not practical. So you book a vehicle, whether one person or five people come, the rates are the same. The logic was to create an experience where from the comforts of a car, you can take a lot of photographs, you don’t get tired and you cover as much as six to seven walks.

From where does your love for local history stem?
I’ve been interested in history since my school days. The first time I wrote a letter to the editor was in 1995 when heritage conservation laws came and they were focused on the Fort area. I had written (a letter titled) Suburban Riches. There’s so much beyond Fort that needs to be conserved that we need to look at a more holistic view. Then when I did my MBA, in 2000, my final year project was about the marketing of heritage; that you need to sell heritage to make it viable. Somehow it just lay dormant for a while.

As my sister says, I have a habit of collecting random crap and now I package that random crap. Being a marketer with 16 years of experience, I know how to package it in an interesting manner. I’ve always loved (to make) counter narratives, which are backed with research. So if people do (walks with) a lot of Brit history, I also show how Indians have contributed. Or if somebody is talking about an area which is very local, I show what are the influences which have come from other parts of the world.

What are your main sources of research?
We speak to a lot of people; we have a lot of books which we refer to, books in English, Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi. Then there are other people like you who collect a lot of random crap, so you meet them and create a network, which keeps information coming. (For instance, right now we’re researching why) all four of Bhendi Bazaar’s agiaries moved out. There’s an old map we came across. Somebody else said they remember reading an article that the Karani Agiary and the Mevawala Agiary were originally in Bhendi Bazaar.

One of the things that distinguishes your walks is that there’s less focus on architecture and more emphasis on anecdotes and trivia.
The only difference between our walks and many heritage walks is that most heritage walks rely heavily on architecture because many a time, they’re conducted by architects, which the common man might not be interested in. We keep (it to about) 20 per cent architecture, the rest is about stories because stories make things memorable. We try to put a lot of sex appeal into heritage. The way the Urban Safari ride has been created is to make you attracted to heritage.

We also make it relevant to what is happening today. So if we’re talking about (the history of the) railways (then) we talk about the current experience of people protesting against land acquisition for the metro. Putting together a walk is an art. You have to keep people engaged. A heritage walk in my view is not about giving information, it’s a performance. You have to keep them hooked to you for two-and-a-half hours, which is not easy.

The other thing that distinguishes Khaki Tours is that your walks attract more Mumbai residents than tourists.
All our walks are focused on making Mumbaikars proud. If tourists come, it’s a bonus. For tourists, the Urban Safari makes more sense because you get to see much more in a limited time. We do a lot of private walks for tourists but we tailor it as per their requirements. So if the person is French, then we highlight the French connections in Mumbai. If the person is Jewish, then we highlight the Jewish history of the city.

Which is your most popular walk?
The Gamdevi walk. (That’s) what most people have said and I agree. It’s the most diverse walk. There are people staying in the precinct who have not seen 80 per cent of the things I show. You do a Banganga, it’s spiritual; you do Fort, it’s British history. From the Independence movement to spirituality to women’s liberation to films to music, Gamdevi has layers and layers. The latter half of the nineteenth century was the real boom time in the city in all aspects, in terms of performing arts, business, architecture. That was the time when Gamdevi developed.

Queensway Parel is something that I love because it’s one straight road and has monuments spread over 16 centuries. Lalbaug is also very diverse.

Tell us about the rest of the team.
There are 15-odd people, out of which five to six conduct walks, the rest help in coordination. The team comes from very diverse experiences. Somebody’s a conservation architect, somebody is an amateur historian, somebody knows how to put good communication in place, somebody understands digital better. People have volunteered on their own as per their capabilities. There are no employees except for the driver of the jeep. Our model is very asset light. Everybody is a volunteer. They can get a share of the collections. But there are some people who are employed so they donate their share to charity.

What do you have planned for the next few months?
We currently don’t have an office. It will be set up by September in a 70-year-old heritage building in Girgaum. We’re putting together a library where people can come and access all the information about the city. Tomorrow if you’re looking at a particular community, you can come to this library and read about it. It (will be) a repository of everything about the city and the state.

There are 70 walks (that can be conducted) in the city, and I’m not even talking about the suburbs. Every month, we’re opening two new walks. There’s a Dhobi Tales walk in Dhobi Talao and surrounding areas. We’re starting a Ghost Walk in Girgaum, with ghost stories (that will take place) from 10pm to midnight. I’m planning walks in Bandra and Sion. We have not fixed a date, (they will be launched) post-monsoon most probably.

We’re planning outbound (tours). We did Alibaug. Right now we are focusing on day trips but eventually we’d like to do outbound trips to heritage locations such as Hampi, Champaner, Pavagadh. Another intention of Khaki is to create a conservation cell, which will look at how to make conservation viable. Suppose you have a heritage building and it’s going to cost you Rs5 crore to restore it, how can you market that building and get rentals so that it sustains the conservation exercise? We will have a cell, which will help you to make it economically viable. (The new) Zara (store in Fort) is a good example of how an old building was utilised and revitalised for commercial purposes where heritage conservation has paid for itself.

For updates on Khaki Tours’ walks, follow their Facebook page.

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