Pass on the message

Pass on the message

'Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.'

- 'Four Quartets' by T S Eliot

The word 'heritage', a trendy word in today's parlance, is multidimensional. It engages with the past, present and future. Exploring the word in the present helps us understand our connections with the past and appreciate its impact. It gives us a sense of who we are and how we are connected. When we have done this, we also realise that we need to expose what we have found to our future generations, and encourage them to pass it on. We care as much about our past as we do about our future.

Heritage is a challenging word, and in a way it's amorphous. The moment you think you've pegged it down, the moment you've defined the word or covered all its aspects, something escapes and flows beyond the parameters you've set, and you are faced with a redefinition again. It reveals more challenges and more questions, and while some questions may be answered, others may not, and yet others may be partially answered. But if we do not seek and explore, it may stagnate or become static. It should be a movement forward and a process to anticipate with pleasure and enthusiasm.

Build on basics

What is heritage? It is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects and culture. It includes a range of contemporary activities, meanings and behaviours that we draw on. Heritage includes in its broadest sense both intangible and tangible aspects of life and culture. It does not begin or end with just a collection of old artefacts (although that may be a good place to begin.) And neither does it stop at excavation, preservation, documentation or restoration of whatever is discovered. Equal importance should be given to not just tangible historical monuments and archaeological sites, but also the intangible concepts, ideas, memories of songs, recipes, language, dances, family stories, photographs, sketches and many other elements. These intangible concepts reveal themselves in the most unexpected ways - showing us who we are, where we came from, and how we identify ourselves.

The mind boggles at this. Heritage is like an akshaya patra, or the fabled pot that never empties, of never-ending topics, each feeding into others and extending endlessly. It is not something that one can label neatly with a beginning, a middle and an end. That is the stimulation and the challenge. We have a duty to expose our heritage to the world's gaze. The subject raises a couple of questions.

Why is it important to preserve heritage and transmit it? Heritage is anything that is considered important enough to be passed on to future generations. It includes, among other things, cultural aspects like heritage sites, monuments, folklore and traditional activities. Heritage is not just brick and mortar or many-layered information about our ancestors, for without heritage there would be no family history, culture, or a sense of identity.

Archaeological and historical sites help us understand our ancient culture. This legacy of rich artefacts, as well as the intangible attributes of a social group that are inherited from the past, have to be maintained in the present and passed on to benefit future generations. These help people identify and absorb the components that make up our past.

Heritage also gives us a connection to certain social values and principles, religions and customs. It unconsciously allows people to identify with others of a similar mindset, thought process and background. It allows us to understand previous generations and the history of our cultural origins.

In this respect, mention has to be made of a community in Karnataka called the Helavas -traditional archivists who visit every household in different groups, read out the genealogy and add on details of new members. It's a unique way of finding out our genesis, and where we come from. They have documents containing the genealogy of almost all the families in their districts - a traditional and amazing practice.

When we realise the value of the gift of knowledge, we also begin to realise the importance of the gift. We are made aware of the significance of the tools that can be used by communities to better understand and conserve heritage. It is our responsibility to keep world history, or at the very least, the history of where we are, intact. At the same time, we also understand that future generations should have the same opportunity to learn about the past and their own roots as we have - helped by our ancestors.

When I was writing about the history of Bengaluru, I interviewed and took help from Suresh Moona, a teacher and founder of AARAMBH (An Association for Reviving Awareness about Monuments of Bangalore Heritage) who has linked hands with a local cultural organisation called Samyuga, with the aim of awakening people to the richness of their heritage. Moona had just come back from Japan and admired the fact that the younger Japanese had not only a bond with their city and nation, but also took a touching pride in themselves and their country.

Much has been done to conserve archaeological and historical sites, for we have a plethora of them: the difficulty is in choosing which ones to conserve. As my grandson said, rather exasperatedly, on our first visit together to Delhi: "Ammamma, every time I stub my toe on something, you say it's an ancient historical site!" We do have a strong and robust heritage, a blend of archaeology and poetry, detailings, intricate carvings that have stood the test of time and maintained the grace, beauty and poetry of an era gone by.

Let us consider intangible heritage that is more difficult to document and categorise, for the boundaries are so porous. This includes stories, family festivals, languages, photography, songs, music, painting, folklore, and very importantly, handicrafts.

Vijay Thiruvadi, an enthusiastic botanist who has made Lalbagh come alive in his walks through those gardens, talked about the need to make the next generation aware of the importance of linguistic diversity. For example, a tribal language in Himachal Pradesh has many words and phrases for snow, i.e., 'falling when the moon is up' and 'flakes falling on water'. These are but two of their 200 phrases and words for snow. This echoes the opinion of Dr Ganesh Devy, who embarked on a search for India's languages, for he realised the death of a language is always a cultural tragedy and marks the withering away of wisdom, fables, stories, games and music, all of which will be lost forever to future generations. So when a language is promoted, it should be accompanied by connected aspects of culture - such as songs, festivities and community celebrations.

Storytelling, one is happy to note, is happening all over India. It is a very Indian art. Remember all the grandmothers who, in the absence of TVs, kept us happily entertained with stories of valour and gave us mirrors to capture and reflect their exploits. Bengaluru has taken to storytelling clubs with gusto. It's an art where energy is passed on from the teller to the audience, and has a healing effect.

This is heritage, too

Priya Rajgopal Chetty, activist and lover of Bengaluru, says that stories are a bridge between the past and the present. They make the past come alive. In her sentimental piece titled 'Knights for Queens' about the old veterinary hospital in Richards Town, she speaks in the voice of an old mango tree and its precious cache of stories and memories "which are there even in its whorls." It is this feeling of being alive that makes one curious and interested in carrying forward that intangible heritage which would have otherwise been lost.

While change is inevitable, there is always something gained, something lost.

When puppet shows in Indonesia started to be shown on TV to urban audiences, something essential was lost - the atmosphere, the magic of the dark night, the crowds with infants in their laps, the sky above, and the noises of the night. What is heartening is that well-known people such as sculptor Balan Nambiar in Bengaluru, who researched theyyam performances and brought it to the urban milieus, can, by their involvement, encourage the spread of intangible cultural aspects. There is a resurgence of interest, but in such a vast expanse that is India, it is a phenomenal task to promote all that is present. The challenge would be to raise the three questions of what, how and where. Public debates might be a useful way of drawing people together to bring out ideas, or at least give people a platform to provide an explanation of heredity. Active public discussion of heritage - of individuals, groups, communities, and nations - is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.

UNESCO has come up with some visual arts educational courses, where there is interaction between adults and children, to bring up memories of old traditional games which can be reorganised and used to highlight the interplay between generations. Similarly, Singapore has an extensive Oral Archives - the accumulated stories from oral interviews by immigrants embodying not just the physical but also the social and psychological lessons that we can learn. In this respect, there is a project called 'Grandma's Story' from the UK. Stories and memories of migration and integration of an older generation are seldom collected or retold. Male immigrants may be credited for their contribution to their host countries' development. However, grandmothers played an equally important role in raising families, while sometimes working full-time. Through engaging young people of migrant or refugee backgrounds to record and share such stories, the project aims "to develop key skills in interpretation, heritage and media, in a setting of migration, tolerance and diversity."

No effort is too small or insignificant. My granddaughter Tara was fascinated by the stories around the four of us siblings as children, which brought in tradition, some meaningful practices symbolic of family unity. Every time we meet in Bengaluru, she and I go to our favourite place whose cold coffee with a dollop of vanilla ice cream is the best in the world, she swears. She fires questions and I try to answer them to the best of my ability. What she will do with the information I do not know, but I know that my memories are not completely lost. In the process, we have created our own memory and our own stories.

 

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