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Baguette makes it to UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list: What is it, why it’s significant in France?

What is intangible cultural heritage? What are some Indian items and practices on the UNESCO list? We explain.

Baguettes in a basket are pictured.Baguettes in a basket are pictured. (Photo: AP)

Baguette — the staple French bread — was inscribed into the UN’s list of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) on November 30. UNESCO, the international body which aims at promoting peace and cooperation among nations through education, arts, sciences and culture, recognized the “Artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread” as a world cultural heritage.

What is a baguette?

The baguette is a long and thin loaf made of flour, water, salt and yeast, and is consumed as a staple in France. Some believe that it was invented by August Zang, a baker and an entrepreneur from Vienna in 1839, who introduced the world to the taste of crusty bread with softer insides, using a steam oven. It gained its official name in 1920.

The history of the bread is uncertain, some also believe that Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military leader, ordered thin sticks of bread for consumption by his soldiers as they could be carried from one place to another more conveniently.

Why did France nominate it for the UN list?

In March 2021, France nominated the baguette as its candidate for consideration within the UNESCO ICH list. It drew attention to the steady decline in the number of bakeries in the country as around 20,000 of them have closed down since 1970. The nomination by the French Culture Ministry stated, “In 1970, there were 55,000 artisanal bakeries (one for every 790 residents) compared with 35,000 today (one for every 2,000), often in favour of baguettes produced industrially.”

About 10 billion baguettes are consumed every year in France by a population of 67 million, according to the data website Planetoscope. One loaf is priced at around 1 Euro. However, people are increasingly becoming inclined towards purchasing products from supermarkets, rather than the traditional way. This method interferes with the quality of the bread, according to an AP report.

French officials were seen raising the loaf in celebration, as soon as the decision to include it within the UNESCO list was pronounced in Morocco on Wednesday.

What did the announcement say?

The President of the French Bakers’ Confederation, Dominique Anract, while addressing the gathering in Morocco said, “The baguette is a living heritage which follows us through life. When a baby is teething, his parents give him the tip of a baguette to chew on. When a child grows up, the first errand he carries out on his own is to go and buy a baguette at the boulangerie” (bakery). He added, “For our elders, buying a baguette at the boulangerie is sometimes their only daily social contact.”

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The United Nations cultural agency’s chief Audrey Azoulay said the decision recognizes the “savoir-faire of artisanal bakers” and “a daily ritual.” “It is important that such craft knowledge and social practices can continue to exist in the future,” added Azoulay.

The French government, upon baguette being granted the status, added that it plans to introduce an artisanal baguette day called the “Open Bakehouse Day,” to enhance people’s connection with the heritage.

What is intangible cultural heritage according to UNESCO?

UNESCO defines “intangible” as “expressions that have been passed from one generation to another, have evolved in response to their environments and contribute to giving us a sense of identity and continuity…”

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According to an official document by UNESCO, ‘intangible cultural heritage’ includes “oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

It ascribes importance to “the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next,” which necessitates their preservation. The document states that the safeguarding of an ICH means ensuring that it “remains an active part of life for today’s generations that they can hand on to tomorrow.”

The adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the ICH by the General Conference of UNESCO in 2003 was a crucial step towards preserving intangible heritage from across the globe. UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was established in the year 2008.

What are the criteria for the selection?

There are three criteria for an intangible cultural heritage to be inscribed in the United Nations list. The entity must “(1) be recognized by communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals as part of their cultural heritage, (2) be transmitted from generation to generation and be constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history and (3) provide them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity,” according to UNESCO report.

What are India’s intangible cultural symbols on the UNESCO list?

This year, India nominated Garba, a traditional dance form that originated in the state of Gujarat, for inscription on UNESCO’s ICH list.

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The elements which have been on the representative list of intangible cultural heritage from India in the past decade include Kolkata’s Durga Puja (2021), Kumbh Mela (2017), Navroz (2016), Yoga (2016), traditional brass and copper craft of utensil-making among coppersmiths of Punjab (2014), Sankirtana, a ritual musical performance of Manipur (2013), and the Buddhist chanting of Ladakh (2012).

Before 2011, the list included Chhau dance, Kalbelia folk songs and dance of Rajasthan, and Mudiyettu, a dance drama from Kerala (2010), Ramman, a religious festival and theatre performance of Garhwal in the Himalayas (2009), and Kutiyattam or Sanskrit theatre, and Vedic chanting (2008).

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Ramlila, a traditional performance of Ramayana, was also included in 2008.

Who manages nominations to the UNESCO list in India?

According to a press release by PIB, several autonomous bodies within the Ministry of Culture actively function towards promoting and preserving intangible cultural heritage within the country.

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Sangeet Natak Akademi is the nodal organisation which looks after this function, and files nominations of intangible cultural entities from India, for evaluation by the international body.

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The Ministry of Culture also launches regular schemes, in an attempt to preserve, protect and promote intangible cultural heritage in the country. Among them, the “Scheme for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Diverse Cultural Traditions of India” aims to “professionally” enhance “awareness and interest” in the safeguarding, promotion and propagation of ICH.

First published on: 02-12-2022 at 06:04 IST
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