Treating the UNESCO syndrome

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Treating the UNESCO syndrome

Is UNESCO listing Yoga and the Kumbh Mela as intangible cultural heritage the success it is made out to be? For India, taking a critical view of international cultural conventions is a must

In 2017, UNESCO added Kumbh Mela under its list of Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) which was adopted in 2003. In 2016, yoga was added to the same list of this Convention. In both cases, the agency under the Ministry of Culture, which handled the nomination process and submitted the completed nominations, was the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Both, yoga and Kumbh Mela have been added to the 2003 Convention’s ‘Representative List’ which is meant for intangible cultural heritage that is well looked after by communities  (as defined under this Convention) and the state party (which means the country); whose future is in no way threatened.

These two additions in successive years to the UNESCO’s culture list (which now has 13 ‘elements’ of ICHs from India) signal the need to take into account several considerations concerning how our culture and heritage are viewed administratively and popularly. Likewise, it signals that the activities of the Ministry of Culture need careful scrutiny, and most importantly, we must be alert to the assimilation of a very recent internationalist invention to label knowledge and practices, some of which reach far back into our historical record as a civilisation.

In the late 1990s, with the 1972 World Heritage Convention already over 20-years-old, UNESCO commenced discussions on practices which celebrated and enabled the transmission of knowledge (values, techniques and meaning). This culminated in the 2003 ICH Convention which was ratified by India in 2005. Whereas, the World Heritage Convention is seen as a heritage embodied in structures, natural landscapes and tended landscapes; the ICH Convention is seen as encouraging the recognition of knowledge — the ways in which it is coded, the manner in which it is transferred between generations, the meanings and values attached to such codes, forms of transmission and their enactments. One is for built or natural form; and the other is for an abstract concept.

India has 36 listings under the World Heritage Convention (28 cultural sites, including monuments and structures, seven natural sites, one mixed site) and is, therefore, more conversant with this mode, considering the built (or landscape) cultural heritage.

Of the 13 Indian intangible cultural heritage elements, several can readily be identified with what the ICH Convention considers intangible, such as Sankirtana (the ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur), the Buddhist chanting of Ladakh, Chhau and the Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan. Moreover, there were 23 elements nominated during 2010-12 to the ICH Convention’s representative list which have not yet been considered for listing.

In a hurry to get as many of India’s ICH ‘elements’ pushed into the showcase list of the UNESCO’s ICH Convention (there is another called the urgent safeguarding list to which India has not submitted a single nomination), the Ministry of Culture and its autonomous organisations like the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts have overlooked both the important considerations mentioned earlier and have also overlooked the effects of not correcting some fundamentally weak areas of the ICH Convention.

This writer’s association with the UNESCO 2003 ICH Convention is almost a decade old, and ever since 2011, he has provided training and advice to a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region on how the Convention can positively assist in their identifying, documenting and safeguarding endogenous knowledge systems and associated traditions and practices. This, the writer has done, keeping in mind the objectives of what UNESCO calls a “normative instrument” — ie, its cultural conventions, including the 2003 ICH Convention — which do not necessarily coincide with the objectives of the Ministry of culture, or arts. And, therefore, especially while approaching fundamental concepts and terminologies, one must particularly be sensitive to not deliver an abstract ‘international’ package into a local environment thus, displacing local means of describing knowledge, its value, functions, contributions to social and community identity and terminologies.

Unfortunately, neither the Ministry of Culture nor the Sangeet Natak Akademi or the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts have invested serious efforts to determine the correspondences between the international terminologies and the concepts of a ‘normative’ cultural instrument such as the UNESCO 2003 ICH Convention and Indic systems of knowledge and worldviews where there is no distinction between tangible and intangible. According to the writer, there is one fundamental difference: That the living practices that form our intellectual and artistic heritage are not compartmentalised, as is done by the UNESCO cultural Conventions (including also the 2005 Convention on Diversity of Cultural Expressions).

There is another fundamental difference and that is the religious and spiritual core that breathes life into our intellectual and artistic heritage. But this, in the 2003 Convention, is not a consideration. That is why we find in the text of the yoga nomination file that there is not a single mention of ‘yoga’ being one of the systems of Hindu philosophy and also not that it is an ‘Upaveda’. Its description instead includes “Yoga is a time honoured Indian holistic system of personal, physical, mental and spiritual wellness” and “Indian mythology traces the origin of yoga to the God Shiva”.

With yoga having become popular in the West several decades ago; and as today it is known and followed worldwide, it is yoga’s ‘universal’ (to employ a preferred cultural convention term) trait that is more favoured in descriptions than its Vedic and later Vedic origins. Giving such an emphasis is naturally less feasible with the Kumbh Mela, which is described in its nomination file correctly as the largest human gathering in the world, but is qualified strangely as “a congregation of pilgrims mostly Hindus” and further with “the festival though particularly revolves around the Hindu rituals and mythology, it is in reality, an all encompassing, religiously tolerant and inclusive festival”.

The use of phrases like these that are agnostic in nature or at best religion-neutral may have to do with the perceptions held by the Ministry about the outlook towards practices and knowledge systems held by the 2003 ICH Convention. Examining the yoga and Kumbh Mela treatment for this Convention, the perception which appears to have been held is that the religious or spiritual aspect of practices and knowledge systems must be muted and that their textual interpretation will gain in validity only if adequately glossed through gender, inclusiveness, tolerance and caste/equality.

In my view, the listings of yoga and Kumbh Mela in the representative list of the 2003 ICH Convention brings several adverse consequences. First, by the listing, an entire system of philosophical thought and practice has been reduced to ‘ICH’. Identifying and safeguarding ICH is good and benefits, especially, traditional cultivation, handicrafts, hand weavers, rural household industries and the festivals and social practices associated with them. But Indic intellectual, artistic and customary heritage is far more often than not considerably greater than the very recent, rather Eurocentric vision which formed the Convention.

Second, the ‘success’ of these two listings is likely to encourage both the Ministry and the State Governments to proffer what they consider candidate ICH elements to the 2003 Convention in a race for recognition. This writer’s experience with countries that have done so is that the effects on the tradition bearers of ICH are more negative than positive. A UNESCO listing inevitably means encouraging a hierarchy in which the listed ICH — such as the 13 from India — are accorded a status superior to those unlisted, provincial or local. In the absence of a national or state means of according equal recognition to our vidyas, kalas, natya and nritya, arts humble and mundane — all of which are a source of identity for their participants, listing becomes a liability.

Third, professionalism that UNESCO circulates to countries concerning the mechanics of its Conventions and the minutiae of its nomination and reporting processes tends to be mistaken both for knowledge about culture and how to document that knowledge. The two are completely different — one concerns a country’s cultural, knowledge, practices and built or natural forms; the other concerns an inter-governmental process. This is the most adverse consequence for it causes entirely endogenous viewpoints and tools (definitions, vocabularies, values and meanings, roles, sciences major and minor) to become subordinate to what is a detailed administrative manual. If not guarded against stringently, within the course of two generations, the very modes of perceiving our extraordinary diversity of intangible cultural practices and forms will have been replaced.

(The writer is a UNESCO Asia expert facilitator on intangible cultural heritage, and Adviser, Centre for Environment Education Himalaya)

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