The politics of heritage

The politics of heritage

Or it might engender irritation and sniggering as images of well-heeled socialites and naïve conservationists pontificating in front of colourful crafts and older buildings flash by.More often, both reactions are possible at the same time, given the complex relationship we have with our bond to the past and desire for the new and with the deeply knotty relationship prevalent ideas about heritage share with larger political questions facing India. Today, ‘heritage’ is a concept, a perspective on the world, a politics if you will, an academic discipline and an industry.

The modern idea of heritage arrived in India, along with many other things, through colonial scholars and conquerors and was (as it continues to be) focused primarily on buildings and monuments. European and British Orientalists and Indologists identified structures and histories that promoted their quest to understand and/or conquer India and also help them develop a better understanding of who they were. Attempts to find the birthplace of the Buddha or conserve Buddhist monuments in Bodh Gaya, for example, were archaeological as well as political activities.

However wrong such an idea may seem today, for many colonists, Gautama Siddharta represented a case study of how most of the Subcontinent was brought under the sway of a single ideology, a subject close to the heart of inquisitive imperialists. Preserving and studying structures associated with Buddha also allowed Aryanists, Dravidianists, Anglicans, nativists, Theosophists and others to find in this body of historical materials a set of data with which to debate emerging ideas about race, human intelligence and creativity.

Studying heritage also became a form of market survey; the design features of native buildings and the craft forms practiced by millions of artists across the land allowed British industry to appropriate a huge amount of living artistic knowledge to serve as the raw material for industrial production in Britain. And when some thinkers, like EB Havell, thought about the effects of both scholarly inquiry and industrialisation on native communities, saving heritage became a way of questioning the form of British imperialism and ironically, lent an aura of progressiveness to the colonial enterprise.

Past reference

Even today, the number of times a Fergusson or Prinsep or a Daniell is invoked and thanked for the information they left behind for us archaeologists, art historians and heritage specialists has only increased, without a concomitant thought about what happens to us and our past when we look through categories developed in the context of conquest and profiteering. Even if we do not have a choice, since it is impossible to turn back the clock, it is a question that is worth holding on to as we always have the possibility of shaping the present.

When the nationalist movement took up the flag in protest of colonial rule and later for the cause of a new nation, heritage became part of the larger struggle. Antiquities and culture in general became the means to resist colonial inscriptions. Holding on to oppressive practices such as Sati became a matter of standing up for native traditions.
Even reformists turned to the past to excavate an ‘authentic’ Indic culture, shedding some institutions and practices and appropriating others.

The nationalist critique of the Devadasi and her eventual removal from social spaces and the later appropriation of her art by upper class Brahmin women is a clear example where a historical practice could be vilified a feudal artifact and recouped as intangible heritage. Indeed, the recasting of tradition, as one feminist has put it, is part of the process by which the past becomes ‘heritage’. The appropriation of dance provided an emerging upper caste bourgeoisie with an opportunity to identify an indigenous classical that served to demarcate this class from both the colonisers and the native proletariat.
Even the Dravidian movement, with its radical social vision, found the idea of a classical Tamil heritage useful to further its political agenda, though how much such literary forms of Tamil were shared by all social groups remains questionable.

Since Independence, our post-colonial state and society have developed two major ways of shaping and defining heritage. Starting in the 1950s, there was a largely state sponsored rediscovery of India, promoted by Nehru, funded by the Tatas and executed by intellectuals such as Mulk Raj Anand. In this early phase, there was not much nostalgia but more a sense of ‘rebuilding’ a nation after the struggle against colonialism and the tragedy of Partition.

Marketing tourism

Institutions such as the National Museum and MARG were created to archive, display and analyse the past and secularise it as national culture. Individual states turned to local sites and culture to create a regional heritage that supported the linguistic division of the states. And of course there was the growth of an indigenous tourism industry which needed a marketable set of monuments, events and crafts to attract the foreign traveller.

In fact, it is from the context of early tourism marketing that today’s ideas of heritage have emerged. Given that the princely states lost their autonomy and sources of revenue, the grand buildings that were left with them had to be maintained. Thus began the selling of travel itineraries based on consolidating remnants of a feudal society as heritage. Today two states with very different ideological formations and political histories, Rajasthan and Kerala, lead the way in parlaying the past as heritage into the hugely profitable tourism industry. The governments in both states and tourism operators in each region collectively work to sanitise the past, erasing suffering and conflict by highlighting romance and wealth (except where conflict and suffering adds to the romance as in the case of Chittorgarh), in order to market it as consumable heritage.

Given the ambivalent tone of this brief summary of the history and politics of heritage in India, it is perhaps best to conclude on a more uplifting note, and there is one, and it does not need to be manufactured in the interest of ‘being positive’.

All over the world today, and thankfully in India as well, oppressed, deprived groups and social movements are wresting heritage from its traditional, elite votaries. Groups and organisations like the Dalit neo-Buddhists, the Mithila Art Institute, the Union of Community Museums of Oaxaca, Mexico, the Reyum Institute of Art and Culture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the post-Apartheid community museums of South Africa are turning the balance and mobilising their inherited community knowledge and history.

They use heritage to serve the needs of the present and re-appropriation (as in the case of the Buddhist sites in the western Deccan) offers counter-readings of the past which contest academic or government archaeology, the tourism industry or elite cultural organisations. There are complexities in all these projects, but there is little possibility of wholesale sanitisation because in such endeavours, heritage is an inherently political, constantly negotiable idea.

(The writer is an art historian)