December in Delhi is when the migratory birds fly in, as do foreign scholars. Some of these will be part of the General Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which opens on December 11. Since 1965, ICOMOS has worked with Unesco on World Heritage Sites. Its members are “heritage-ists” — gardeners, stone masons, architects, community leaders, historians, restorers, and a hundred other people with distinct skills. What is truly energising about “heritage” is that while it has always been with us, its frontiers, both conceptual and geographical, keep expanding. For Indians, the conference will provide perspective, and the clarity to recognise those who take care of our beautiful landscapes and edifices. It will make them think, with examples like Romania before them, of the frightening ease with which these can be destroyed, and along with them, the spirit of pluralism, our country’s “outstanding universal value” (the term which has to be carefully defined at each of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites).
The theme for this year’s symposium is “Heritage and Democracy”. This has four sub-themes: How diverse communities can be involved in the task of heritage management, how cultural heritage can be used to bring about peace and reconciliation, how digital media can be used to “protect” and interpret cultural heritage, and the need to explore people’s relationships with natural landscapes.
In India, we have seen how our democratically-elected governments have not been able to halt the slow atrophying of our heritage by neglect — few officials are passionate enough to invest time and thought on their charge, to have a sense of urgency and to go the extra mile. It does not help that the Ministry of Culture controls the Archeological Survey of India, and the Ministry of Urban Development oversees “heritage”. Peace and reconciliation have been seen in terms of political and diplomatic moves, but “heritage” could be made a regular component of Track II diplomacy. T.M. Krishna’s concert in Jaffna in 2011 did in one evening what years of talks could not.
“Interpretation centres” are often promised in proposals connected with monuments. But “interpretation” is not easy. An interpretation centre is not a random collection of objects and photographs. A clear, honest narrative is needed, as also a subtle way of instilling in the viewer a sense of empathy for something from another time or of another people. The services of a creative writer or artist is needed as much as that of the archaeologist.
ICOMOS’ call to turn away from the centuries-old exhortation to “tame the land” and connect with “natural landscapes” has to be echoed in India, where urbanisation is flattening out and draining the resources of mountain, desert and coastal areas. We need many Komal Kotharis, who will seek understand the relations between natural landscapes and the ecology and cultures they create, carrying echoes of traditional myths as well as the struggles in the lives of the people.
Make real the ideal — of official agencies sharing the care of monuments with local communities (plural, and not in the corrupted sense where a “community” is equated with a religion), of seeing animosities melting away, conversation becoming more open-minded and interesting, presenting history, cultural expressions and skill development through carefully-designed interpretation centres, respecting India’s natural landscape.
Democracy in its most liberal sense should underpin the protection of heritage. But the hierarchical and disaggregated forms of democracy have discouraged individual initiative. Democracy is powerless to change a mindset, to make us shed our individual egos and develop a sense of exhilaration in working together. This was what distinguished our nationalist movement, that fires organisations like SPIC-MACAY. Our administrators, historians, architects, need to be charged with the sense of co-operative effort embodied for centuries — by the panchala (the five smiths) who have fashioned India’s monuments, and by the jugalbandi of carpenter, artist and musician across the country, from Manipur to Rajasthan, who perform for us. What an advantage India has, which
many countries lack, where traditional crafts have vanished.