A drop of water, if it could write its own history, would explain the universe to us. – Lucy Larcom, American teacher, poet and author
A digital museum about water! When Dr Sara Ahmed floated this idea among friends and colleagues more than six years ago, she faced scepticism. But having been engaged in water in all its dimensions for 30 years, the project was dear to her heart. She launched the digital Living Waters Museum in early 2017 at the Centre for Heritage Management at Ahmedabad University, where she was appointed adjunct professor.
The Living Waters Museum is the first digital museum on the theme of water in the country. Its main objective was to make the youth aware of their water heritage and work towards a sustainable, inclusive and equitable water future.
“Our role as a museum was knowledge generation and dissemination through various means – website content, exhibitions, workshops, cultural events, heritage walks, outreach activities in educational institutions, and other activities surrounding water,” says Sara. In her vision, a museum can be an agent of social and behavioural change.
The museum leverages the power of storytelling and technology to celebrate India’s water heritage and inspire the youth to bring about change.
Currently, the museum is housed at the Centre for Water Research at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, where Sara is an adjunct faculty. The Living Waters Museum is a founding member of the Global Network of Water Museums (WAMU-NET), endorsed by UNESCO’s Inter-governmental Hydrology Programme in 2018.
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The museum has a repository of over 100 stories related to water. The stories explore the rivers of India, community and livelihoods, water and the arts, design and architecture, traditions, rituals and practices, and ecology and nature.
Among the topics covered in the stories are – life on the floodplains of the Yamuna in Delhi, the Indus in Ladakh, where the river ends in Assam, bhistis (water carriers), the saltpans in Kutch, the ‘kulams’ (tanks) of Tamil Nadu, the ‘kenis’ (shallow wells) of Kerala, ‘ahar-pynes’, a participatory irrigation technology used in Bihar, and marine litter.
The website content is adapted when it is taken to schools and made more child-friendly. The museum is not just about the website. Education and outreach are critical activities, asserts Sara.
“We have just finished a project called ‘Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures’ with educators and NGOs in Pune to develop modules and interactive classroom sessions for middle school children. We tested it on 25-30 children from six schools in Pune who came to IISER for workshops every Sunday for two months.”
Focus on inclusivity
“Whenever we accept a story idea, we set up an inclusive framework for the writer to look at equity issues like gender and caste,” says Sara. In the exhibition of Mumbai’s water history ‘Confluence,’ there were stories on human rights and water. One of the stories relates how, in 1927, Dr B.R. Ambedkar led thousands of Dalits to drink water from a common water source (a lake) in Mahad which is a village in Maharashtra.
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The gender differences in the kinds of utensils men and women use to carry water is another interesting insight from Water Varta, an exhibition organised by the museum.
While women carry ‘matkas’ on their heads to fetch water over long distances, men don’t carry the load on their heads.
Leather bags or ‘mashqs’ are used to carry water by male travellers, signifying their greater mobility, says Sara. Another story, part of the Water Seekers Fellowship, focuses on access to toilets for transgenders in Delhi.
Deep interest in water issues
How did she get interested in water issues? “I went to school at Woodstock in Mussoorie in the early 1980s. I recollect being taken to the under-construction Tehri Dam. As students, we interacted with activists protesting against the dam. My school triggered an interest in me in the environment, forest and water resources, and how they were shared and used,” she says.
In 1986, she started a PhD at Cambridge. Rajiv Gandhi had just announced the Ganga Action Plan to clean the Ganga as a people’s programme. “I was curious to understand how belief systems affected participation since people thought of the Ganga as pure and sacred. I worked extensively in Varanasi during my PhD years with the Swachh Ganga Abhiyan and the Sankat Mochan Foundation,” says Sara.
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On what motivated her to set up a digital museum on the theme of water, she says, “All my work in terms of academia and advocacy has been in the area of water – and how access is shaped by gender, social equity and power. The discourse on water in India has been quite polarized between the government and NGOs. In the early 2000s, I met several artists at international water forums working on issues of water and climate change. They were using a diversity of art forms to communicate and raise awareness. I thought that was an excellent idea,” explains Sara.
Her friend, Basia Irland, who is an artist, has been the inspiration behind Living Waters Museum.
Basia came to India in 2004 and together they visited stepwells in Gujarat and Rajasthan. They even contemplated setting up a physical museum in a stepwell but that would have been very expensive and would have required clearances.
So, Sara decided to begin by creating content – collecting stories around water. The main advantages of a digital museum are that it can be ‘located’ anywhere, you can engage a wider audience, and it is interactive. This way the diverse water concerns across the country can be addressed, she explains.
Projects in the pipeline
“We have a few projects in the pipeline. At Woodstock School in Mussoorie, our work on water has stimulated interest among students and faculty,” Sara says.
As part of a course on environment and social studies, class 10 students documented several local water issues.
We are also going to look at what the school is doing in terms of water use and how we can support efforts at water conservation and sustainability. We hope to build the ‘Mussoorie Water Narratives’ with help from local partners and NGOs in Dehradun such as CEDAR (Centre for Ecology Development and Research), and alumni around the world.
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“As Living Waters Museum looks to the future, we hope to strengthen institutional sustainability, build leadership, and develop new partnerships. In Goa, we will be exploring several water challenges through local research fellowships with institutional partners. And similarly, in the coastal region of Tamil Nadu, work on visualizing the impact of climate change on the local communities has started,” Sara says.
A ‘living’ museum
“I have received criticism about using the term ‘living’ in the name of the museum. Critics have said museums are related to inanimate objects. But I disagree. Firstly, water is one of the most important resources and is a source of life. Our bodies are at least 60 percent water. Water is also intrinsically linked to livelihoods be it farming, industry, or the crafts. Also, the concept of a museum has been evolving and is fluid. Just like water. That’s another reason for the word ‘living’ in the name of the museum,” explains Sara.
“When I started I had no blueprint to look at. Now, there are so many water festivals being held across the country. I spent the first year giving talks in India and abroad on what a water museum could be, the power of a digital museum, and why the relationship between water and the arts is so important,” she says.
The Living Waters Museum has organised several online exhibitions. Among them are Punyache Paani (Stories of Pune’s Waters, 2022), Confluence (Water Stories of Mumbai. 2021), Steps of Hope (Stepwells of Ahmedabad), Women, Water & Work (2019), and Water Varta (2018). This year, Jal Jharokha (windows to water), developed in collaboration with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur was held. The Living Waters of Kolkata is to be launched later this year.
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Confluence and Punyache Paani were large online exhibitions held during the Covid years around World Water Day in March 2021 and March 2022 respectively, looking at Mumbai and Pune’s water heritage and livelihoods. They also examined the challenge of differential access to water, especially in the context of the pandemic.
In 2020, one of the popular events held during the pandemic was a long conversation between the founder of the Indian Ocean band, Rahul Ram, and a Bangladeshi musician discussing music and climate change.
“Another initiative during the pandemic was ‘Paani ki kahani’. People were invited to send short videos of performances around water – dance, drama, music and poetry. Ten of the best entries were selected for a small cash prize. All performances are hosted on the museum’s YouTube space,” says Sara.
The Living Waters Museum launched an eight-week fellowship programme called the ‘Water Seeker Fellowships’ with a Delhi-based NGO, Social and Political Research Foundation (SPRF) in 2020. “In our first year, we received 120 applications for five fellowships. In 2022, WWF-India joined us as we were looking at flowing waters/rivers. After three rounds of these fellowships, we have now mutually agreed to end this collaboration as it was getting difficult to manage. We are looking to integrate the fellowships with our new chapters in Goa and Auroville in Puducherry. We are looking to involve young, locally-based researchers,” says Sara.
(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru. She writes on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes.)
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