Thursday, May 3, 2012

The heritage crisis


Monuments and sites?!

Well, this news did not make the headlines but the world observed Heritage Day on the 18th April this year.

If you were to stop the average John, Jaani, Janardhan on the road with this story that did not break in India, he would shrug it off! In a country struggling under the crushing weight of poverty, illiteracy and corruption, any mention of heritage is treated with incredulity, “People are dying here and you are talking about preserving history!” Oh no, we are not a nation too high on heritage walks or recording of ruins! The appreciation of a glorious history is a luxury, as far as we see it, befitting races that are developed beyond the basic sustenance mark. Those are people who have sublimed beyond survival, with refined antennae for finer levels of cultural assimilation. 

But there is a crisis now and we need to change that perception quickly and how?

We are a country at a cusp in time. India was shining, and then the circus of coalition took over. Today we live in spaces wherein the traffic is berserk, the TV channels completely cacophonous and an entitlement oriented citizenry clamouring for their rights 24/7. We are so caught up with internal and external security threats that no one is watching the back door out of which, unknown to us, our history and heritage are quietly vanishing.

A far greater number of people study Sanskrit outside of India today, for one. Hindustani music and classical dances have more and more takers outside the country. The most authoritative and best researched books on our history, our culture, and our socio-religious nuances are written by non-Indians. We are oblivious, indifferent, and dismissive of our phenomenal legacy. If pushed, most Indians will claim a sense of pride in what is known as the “5000 year continuous civilization” but scratch some more and the shocking fault lines will show up.

In a typical Indian home, any talk of the hoary past is synonymous with excavating buried ghosts and likely to invite impatience! There is little sense of lineage or history inculcated in the children. Most learn from watching their family elders who do not respect or recall family lore. The contempt for what has gone before extends into school and colleges where History and Sociology are trashed as subjects inferior to the analytical Sciences and requiring only rote memory at that. There is nil acknowledgement of the urgent need to infect the new generations with the desire to claim, take charge of and guard their own historical narrative.

We forget that we are only as good as our stories. And to grow unscathed beyond our diversity, we have to come to grips with our past, outlined in our own idiom. To move forward with vigour and conviction, we need to constantly look back at our common cultural wealth. Those are our survival coordinates. It will give us strength and lasting power to know and interpret our monuments, our sites, our deities, our traditions, our beliefs ourselves rather than have others tell us what we are about.

I shudder to think, how wretched my daughter Asawari would have felt on a foreign campus, to meet others who perhaps knew more about her history and heritage than she did.

What is the matter with us, one wonders? How did our records come to be in such a terrible state of disrepair. It is no secret that we hang clotheslines on archive balconies and house our historical treasures in rooms with broken windows and leaky roofs. Pigeon poop on priceless papers is not unusual and the less said about the ill-trained and destructive staff, the better. Arguably, of the 1000 plus heritage structures in Delhi alone, many are soot covered on the inside from the squatters’ chullah smoke!

One does not hear any talk of the crisis need to preserve our heritage sites on any popular and mass forum. The deplorable fact is that there is no domestic labouring or analysing or applying or studying of our past. The state of our mental bankruptcy is such that we mock the intellectual scholar, declaring she is too serious! The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has been desperately looking for Heritage Walk Leaders to lead their week end meanders, to quote one such symptom! 

Jaya Basera
I have been on some of their walks with Jaya Basera, a young and passionate advocate for heritage conservation. The average size of the group she leads is about ten in all, an atom of the ocean that is Delhi! But the stories she relates and the facts she quotes, bring to life an achingly beautiful echo from the days done. Hidden under the dust and grime and foliage are sounds, sights and smells of a bygone era, a foundation on which we stand today. Ironically, India’s conservation quick fix for all these hauntingly charming monuments is to put a lock at the entrance and keep out the intrepid urinators, dogs, romancing couples and future cricketers.

Are we a nation then, not rich enough to afford the preservation of our past or not wise enough to sit up and take notice of the time running out? Is it money that we lack or do we suffer the debility of attitude and desire? Do we really care about where we come from? Or are we too caught up in the mundane grind to hear historic notes straining to reach us from our crumbling glory? What is the state of our common legacy? In what condition does our combined heritage exist? 

It costs just fifty bucks to take our kids on one of the heritage walks and sow the seed that might one day fill this void in our national portrait. 

The truth is that if you were to take away from us our history, literature, culture, we would cease to exist!

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