For the last few years, Dr Chithra Madhavan, a scholar in south Indian temple architecture and iconography, has been called to conduct lectures from an institution not commonly associated with academia — the tour and travel company. Not too long ago, her place was commanded by the “all-knowing” tour guide who would liberally spin tall tales to keep the tips coming.
For instance, visitors to Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh fort were captivated with stories of Rani Padmini’s fair skin — so translucent that you could see the paan juice going down her throat. Travellers to Taj Mahal were awed by the legend of Shah Jahan cutting off the thumbs of masons who built the monument so they could never replicate it.
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These may entertain but visitors who would rather be enlightened prefer a more scholarly guide, schooled in their special interest to broaden the mind.
When an Indian travel company first asked Dr Madhavan if she would accompany a group of suits to Mahabalipuram for the day and introduce them to Pallava temple art and architecture, she had her doubts. Though she was accustomed to the public lecture, this was another kettle of fish. Where should she begin? How far in should she wade? She developed a technique: “I try to gauge my audience at the very beginning by asking them questions. That’s when I know how to pitch my delivery without making it too shallow or too complex,” says the scholar.
The explosion of 21st century travel in the slipstream of rising incomes has enlarged the tribe of the ‘road scholar’ (what a Boston-based travel company cleverly calls itself). This traveller’s interest in a place is specific. Not for her the broad contours of north India but more narrowly Mughal architecture and art; not simply the lay of Ladakh, but its Tibetan Buddhist identity. So increasingly, anthropologists, naturalists, geologists, textile scholars and others with a fine focus on a discipline are being commissioned by travel companies to conduct ‘intellectual tours’.
“Those who have a specific interest, and limited time prefer an interaction with an expert,” says Mala Tandan, director of Greaves India. The company’s roster includes historians like Sohail Hashmi (for Old Delhi); William Dalrymple: (Lutyens Delhi, Rashtrapati Bhawan); Raaja Bhasin (Shimla and Himachal) and conservation architect Navin Piplani, a core member of the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative.
Abercrombie & Kent commissions Sunil Raman, journalist and author (Delhi Durbar 1911 — The Complete Story). “Tidbits of trivia, literature, linguistics, political developments and personal accounts spice his walking tours through the capital,” says Rajesh Khanna, executive director, Abercrombie & Kent, India.
Abroad, the scholar-guide has long been a premium addition to a specialised tour, but it has taken years for academics in India to climb down from their ivory towers and mingle with the market. “Many academics have reservations about conducting tours for lay people, probably feeling they’ve spent years in deep research, and may have to convey a dumbed-down version to the tourist,” says Dr Madhavan. These savants admit they’ll readily take a specialist group around than a bunch of hobbyists. “The academic part of the tour can go for a toss when you have someone asking you for a good place to eat,” says conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, who showed Prince Charles around CST.
The job is well-paying for those willing to dip their beak in — from Rs 10,000 a day to Rs 50,000 depending on the expert’s celebrity, popularity, and the size of the group. Swapna Liddle, scholar and author (Chandi Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi) funnels her fee to INTACH (Delhi Chapter), of which she is the convenor. She conducts these tours to promote Indian heritage and INTACH. She says, “I think everybody has a right to be taken on a tour if interested. Who am I to discriminate and say I’ll only take serious scholars.”
While the expert-led tour in India is still peopled by Westerners, Indians are starting to queue up too. Shankar Ganesh, director of The Road Less Travelled, a six-month-old travel company, says Indians are keen to take travelling lessons from pundits. Ganesh’s clients, for example, have taken the high road with astronomers and Indian mythologists.
But even for the road-ready intellectual, making time for travel is not easy. Dr Mehreen Chida-Razvi, a research associate at the Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts (SOAS South Asia Institute), says the number of tours she conducts a year depends on the time she can spare between research projects and teaching. “Preparation for these is intense,” says the academic on email, “For an upcoming South India Tour with Archaeological Tours (a New York-based travel company), it means being prepared to talk about sites and different dynasties ranging from the 2nd-1st Century BCE through to at least the end of the 18th Century, with the cultural and historical background relevant to each site.”
Travellers too are expected to do their homework. Some travel companies furnish them with reading lists before the trip. Others encourage them to exchange emails with the experts beforehand, and signal areas of special interest. Usually, the traveller’s every question is addressed on the field. Save the odd one that demands to know why India doesn’t look after its monuments better.