Author : Nilesh Bane

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Sep 07, 2018

India’s intangible heritage representation list is poor. It is time we actively work towards creating crucial databases.

Heritage beyond brick and mortar

In July this year, a cluster of 94 buildings in South Mumbai, which are built in Victorian Gothic and Art Deco styles, were declared as World Heritage sites at the UNESCO conference that took place in Manama, Bahrain. This is the third site after Ajantha (Aurangabad), Ellora (Aurangabad), Elephanta (Mumbai) and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus building (Mumbai) to be recognised as a UNESCO certified World Heritage site. Mumbai is probably the only city in the world to have three sites. This laudable feat has also made the number of UNESCO certified World Heritage sites in India go up to 37.

India is a treasure trove of intangible world heritage artefacts.

While this development needs to be appreciated, there needs to be a debate on the way we define heritage, the need of extending its scope, its preservation and looking at legislative interventions to make corrections to have a more inclusive definition.

In today’s age, when we talk of heritage, it is assumed that we are talking old buildings and monuments. But heritage is not a subject that is limited only to brick and mortar and externalities of buildings. Even UNESCO goes beyond stone and sand buildings. And its heritage list includes both ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ formats of heritage. While buildings, monuments etc. are included in the tangible list, festivals, languages, animals, traditions, music, handicraft is classified as intangible heritage.

India is a treasure trove of intangible world heritage artefacts, and very few find a mention in the UNSECO list. Apart from the Parsi New Year i.e. Navroz; Koodiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre tradition in Kerala; Vedic chanting, Yoga, Ramleela, Kumbhmela etc; India’s intangible heritage representation in this list is very poor. On the other hand, countries like China, Japan, and African countries have long lists, and it is time we actively work towards creating such databases and working towards their preservation.

While all the States in India could come up with long lists of intangible heritage, Maharashtra alone has so many hidden treasures that could definitely be recognised and pitched for recognition. For example, if the Dragon Boat festival which happens in China can be included in the UNESCO Heritage list; then the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur which is happening for more than seven hundred years and where millions of people participate every year, can definitely find a place on the list. If Gelede, the game of masks from Nigeria can be heritage, then the Dashavtar from Maharashtra or Yakshgaan from Karnataka should definitely qualify.

Culture, traditions are not bound by borders. These traditions, deities reach into far lands. The story of humans is constantly highlighted through the threads of human migration and the stream of beliefs.

In the era of urbanisation, urban heritage has gained much importance. Mumbai itself has several which go unnoticed in the daily hustle bustle of life. The community of fishermen of Mumbai, the Koli’s, have preserved their unique traditions and continue to flourish on the shores of the same sea to which the city of Mumbai belongs. Their festivals, deities, traditions have stayed much the same even after hundreds of years. The festival of Narali Pournima (offering coconuts to the sea) has gone beyond the tradition of the fishermen and is now a part of the cultural life of Mumbai.

Since we are on the subject of seashores, another important point is that culture, traditions are not bound by borders. These traditions, deities reach into far lands. The story of humans is constantly highlighted through the threads of human migration and the stream of beliefs. To give an example, a connection can be established across the India-Pakistan sea route between the Goddess Hinglayee which is situated on the shores of Versova in Mumbai and Goddess Hinglaaj in Pakistan.

Similarly there are references in literature where you will find religion connected to climatic conditions of a place. In case of Mumbai, which is humid, one sees the Khoklaai deity, the goddess worshipped to get rid of cough in compounds of the Kedareshwar temple in Worli or the temples of Prabhadevi or Shitladevi.

Cities like Mumbai have a heritage committee, but unfortunately, it doesn’t take account any intangible heritage and its role is limited to giving permissions for heritage buildings refurbishment proposals. It completely ignores the part of including aspects of cultural, religious and linguistic expressions. Along with architects, this committee should include people like authors, artists, historians, culture analysts. This committee needs to have specific rights, enough funds and not remain a force on the paper. The new Mumbai Urban Arts Culture and Design commission that has recently been put in place needs to consider these aspects while planning their way ahead.

Cities like Mumbai have a heritage committee, but unfortunately, it doesn’t take account any intangible heritage and its role is limited to giving permissions for heritage buildings refurbishment proposals.

Another aspect we need to consider is of economically exploiting the UNESCO’s World Heritage honour that we have received and putting it down in our tourism plans. Today we see so many tourists flocking European cities like London, Rome, Paris to see their heritage and in equally large numbers to the Peking Opera in China and the carnival in Brazil. This idea could be tagged with employment options based on travel, guides, art exhibitions, restaurants, bed and breakfast, hostels, souvenirs etc. This is particularly important at a time when the unemployment rate is high and the world economic growth rate is dropping.

An important and driving force in this whole debate is people’s participation and having the required political will. The UNSECO heritage tag that the Victorian and Art Deco buildings recently bagged was a concentrated 14-year effort put together by local citizens of Mumbai, and this could serve as a template for other areas that need to be preserved. Heritage conservation needs to be talked about right from schools and professionals too can be included in this conservation process. Funds for this purpose can be easily gathered through crowd sourcing through community groups. A few groups could actually adopt them and then preserve our heritage and heritage sites. To achieve all of this we need a strong legal framework.

We will obtain this framework through new cultural ideology and policy. Along with social and economic policies, it is also important to have new cultural policies. Today the success that we have achieved in the form of these heritage buildings should be cultivated even further. Only then can we claim to have fulfilled the pledge that we took in school to be the emissary of our prosperous and diverse traditions.

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