Diversity as Asset: Towards a Cultural Policy for India

The Chief of Culture Sector UNESCO, New Delhi speaks of the relevance and function of heritage in our times, and the urgent need to combine the values of intangible and tangible heritages

LILA: Culture has often been linked to many other aspects of life – such as economy and livelihoods, education and civility, social identity and relations, etc. How important does it become then for a country to have a national cultural policy? What, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), would be some of its key components?

Junhi HAN: Heritage and creativity have always been two major pillars for the programmes in the field of Culture for UNESCO. Heritage constitutes a source of identity and cohesion for society, while creativity helps build open, inclusive and pluralistic societies. As a UN agency specialised in Culture, one of our most important tasks since inception in 1946 has been to provide a basic ground where the member states can formulate their cultural policy as well as adequate legislation related to heritage and creativity.

Towards this, UNESCO has adopted the relevant conventions, recommendations and universal declarations which provide a holistic cultural governance system based on human rights and shared values. These international treaties[1] endeavour to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage – such as built heritage, intangible and underwater heritage, museum collections, oral traditions and other forms of heritage – and support creativity, innovation and the emergence of dynamic cultural sectors.

As a result, UNESCO has also brought, since the 1980s, a paradigm shift in the notion of “development”. This began with the World Conference on Cultural Policies held in Mexico in 1982, which marked a major breakthrough in the notion of “culture”, boldly casting it in an anthropological frame. Before that, ‘culture’ was commonly understood as arts, literature, archaeological sites and historic monuments. The Conference led to the emergence of a wider yet more effective definition, which is still used today: “Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or social group, and… encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (Preamble to the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity).

The Mexico Declaration, the outcome document of the Conference, affirmed that “Cultural identity is a treasure that vitalises mankind’s possibilities of self-fulfilment.” By placing “man” as “the origin and the goal of development”, it advocated (for the first time at an international level) that culture constitutes a fundamental dimension of the development process and that growth needs to be conceived in a qualitative dimension as well, namely the satisfaction of man’s spiritual and cultural aspirations. It highlighted, therefore, the need for cultural policies that will protect, stimulate and enrich each people’s identity and cultural heritage, and establish absolute respect for and appreciation of cultural minorities and the other cultures of the world.

After nearly two decades, clear signs of a shift in thinking about development emerged, with the old economy-centred notion of development giving way to a new people-centred human development paradigm. The international community, including development banks, began to place culture in the agenda of development since the late 1990s.

LILA: The discourse on development is now being pushed to move beyond the human-centric approach and onto an ecology-centric model. How do you see the discourse on development and culture evolve today, especially considering claims that indigenous and tribal communities hold the answers we need on the ecological front?

JH: Yes, definitely. An ecology-centric model is also part of the human centric approach, because our well-being cannot be achieved without dealing with environment issues.

In my opinion, issues related to the environment go even beyond indigenous and tribal communities’ knowledges. There is no secret in dealing with environment. Most of the problems in our environment are triggered by our harmful practices, for example, the use of plastic. We have to reduce the quantity of garbage and recycle as much as possible. One of the sectors which needs considerable re-thinking is construction, which is one of the major responsible sectors for CO2 gas emissions.

Everybody can contribute to it. In India, I believe that it should start with people’s habit in dealing with garbage. That was a cultural shock I had when I arrived in India in 2018. Seeing garbage everywhere was a real shock for me. Municipality should take full responsibility and launch various measures and each citizen should take more ownership for their street, area and city. South Korea launched a strict system for garbage collection and imposed considerable amounts of fines on people who did not respect it. Everybody complained, but I recall that after one year, the result was that South Korea reduced almost 30% of garbage!

To me the environmental question is one of the most serious issues which will challenge real sustainable development, i.e. development which focus on the well-being of the people. One of the reasons that cities have become the most important partners in the development agenda is actually related to the pressing issues concerning the environment. But I feel that if we continue, our talk can go into a slightly different direction such as greener, smart and sustainable cities. In this context, I would also like to mention that UNESCO elaborated the UNESCO Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscape in 2011. This recommendation has great potential to serve as a tool for heritage-based urban development for historic Indian towns. Recycling historic buildings through adaptive re-use can greatly contribute to greener environment besides preserving its historic value.

LILA: While the idea of heritage, ironically, has come to be identified with artifacts and archaeological sites, we find living artisan communities gradually fading away. In this context, UNESCO’s focus on intangible heritage and creativity presents an important opportunity to reflect on the ideas of ‘living heritage’. Could you share some ideas on the distinctions between tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and how this distinction can help us think about and act on matters of cultural heritage today?

JH: Artifacts, monuments and archaeological sites, often termed as ‘tangible cultural heritage’ at UNESCO, are the physical inheritance of particular societies and of humankind as a whole. Intangible cultural heritage can be best defined as spiritual and intellectual inheritance. If cultural heritage is seen as a major vehicle of human aspirations, tangible heritage is its physical shape, and intangible heritage is its motor and steering mechanism. Both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, in this way, are sources to provide creativity, which is then directly anchored on cultural diversity. Seen this way, intangible and tangible heritage take on a dynamic relationship, where each shapes the other over time in defining the common cultural wealth of humankind.

It is quite recently that UNESCO began using the term ‘intangible cultural heritage’, although it has always worked for and promoted this concept across the world under different titles, such as traditional music or traditional theatre. It was towards the beginning of 2000 that the term ‘Intangible cultural heritage’ emerged and was officially adopted after an intensive debate between intangible cultural heritage and other terms such as folk for the title of the Convention.

In reality, many heritage sites embed in their physical attributes intangible cultural heritage value, therefore ideally speaking, in dealing with conservation and management of various sites, we need a holistic approach that can also embrace its intangible value. Sometimes a tangible heritage site’ s relevance can be considerably enhanced thanks to its intangible value.

I can bring a concrete example[2]. I had an opportunity to visit  Koodalmanikyam Temple in Irinjalakuda near Thrissur in Kerala. I was hounored to receive pooja from the temple and was lucky to visit the 500-year old Koottambalam, next to the Temple. I do not know how many temples in Kerala still have a Koottambalam (only a few I guess). This Koottambaam, with its intangible value, definitely can enhance the significance of the temple and both would together create the locus of a rare temple in Kerala which remains intact in terms of its integrity. I was very impressed seeing it. Therefore, I would like to recommend that the government of Kerala look into their temples from this new perspective. There is great potential in them. The Government should consider various measures to protect these complexes (a few remaining temples along with their Koottambalam) in the future and they could be maintained and conserved as a single complex and not separate entities.

On the other hand, let me highlight here that already since 1990s the notion of tangible heritage has been enlarged considerably at the international level. The World Heritage Committee launched the Global Strategy in 1994 in order to make the World Heritage List truly credible, balanced and representative of the whole of humanity. It strongly encouraged countries to identify their cultural heritage sites which categories were under or little represented in the World Heritage List – for example, industrial heritage, cultural landscape, vernacular architectures, modern heritage, etc.

A Global Strategy is particularly relevant for countries like India which have great diversity in their cultural heritage. India currently counts 38 World Heritage properties, out of which 30 are cultural sites, most of which are under the category of monuments, such as temples and forts/palaces. India’s cultural heritage goes far beyond temples and fort/palaces and it is high time attention is given to other categories of heritage so that the diversity of India’s cultural heritage can be adequately represented in the World Heritage List of India.

LILA: For any meaningful work on culture, it is important to connect its essence as well as activities with the larger public. What are your thoughts on the current practices towards this — such as museumisation and static preservation? Can you suggest ways in which such an engagement can be developed more effectively? 

JH: In 2002, the World Heritage Committee had identified four strategic objectives to promote the implementation of the World Heritage Convention: Credibility, Conservation, Capacity-building and Communication. In 2007 the Committee adopted a fifth ‘C’ – Communities – to involve local communities in conservation and management of the World Heritage sites, and other heritage sites. In general, it became one of the most important strategies for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, and all the state parties were invited to promote inclusive and community participatory heritage management.

More importantly the World Heritage Convention stipulates that each state party should adopt a general policy which aims to give the cultural and natural heritage “a function in the life of the community”. This shows the World Heritage, which was drafted nearly 50 years ago, was a truly forward-looking instrument. Unfortunately, even today this request from the Convention is yet to be materialised in many parts of the world, including India.

Indeed, some World Heritage sites have been traditionally conserved and managed by local communities and their place as main stakeholders has been fully and duly acknowledged. UNESCO strongly promotes this kind of practices involving local communities as main stakeholders.

There is a great need to advocate and promote the role that can be played by local communities for heritage sites in India and in South Asia in general. In light of this, UNESCO New Delhi office has launched a series of workshops/activities aiming to re-connect the lost bond between local communities and various cultural heritage sites in India and other parts of South Asia. India has a strong civil society, and hence can play an important role in promoting inclusive and community participatory heritage management too. Since the adoption of the fifth ‘C by the World Heritage Committee in 2007, this has been quite widespread already in some parts of the world such as Europe and parts of Asia too.

LILA: For any regulation, there are always certain communities that stand to gain while others lose. What are the parameters that guide policies in such a context, and make them most inclusive? 

JH: Any regulation, if it is made with a long-term perspective, I believe can benefit all the communities at the end. One should not look at short term or arbitrary benefits. With high civism, the community together should look at the longer term and embrace truly inclusive regulations.

LILA: Several committees set up by the Ministry of Culture have concluded that the vast diversity in India makes it nearly impossible to have a national cultural policy. At the same time, as you have pointed out, it is certainly required to prevent exploitation and marginalisation of different communities. Given such a background, how can UNESCO’s varied experience with different countries and their cultural policies help in conceptualising a cultural policy for India? 

JH: For UNESCO, cultural diversity constitutes one of the basic and fundamental principles for any cultural policy. This idea was born in the World Conference on Culture (Mexico, 1982), which culminated in the adoption of the UNESCO Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity, 2001. All these efforts finally led to the establishment of the UNESCO Convention on Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions in 2005.

Therefore, cultural diversity should be perceived as assets, and a state like India can benefit more than other countries from establishing such a cultural policy. As a federal system, an overarching cultural policy would provide adequate and a much-needed guidance and framework, that should be based on informed, transparent and participatory processes and systems of governance. Such a cultural policy would provide a strong impetus for a healthier and more balanced growth to India’s cultural sector, including the creative sector.

LILA: Can you share some ideas on the methodology of developing a cultural policy. For instance, who are the different stakeholders in such an exercise and what is the nature of the stakeholdership?

JH: Of course, various governmental ministries and departments both at the level of central and states are first and foremost crucial stakeholders. Butivil society is also an equally important stakeholder. In addition, as we spoke above, consultation of local communities would be an additional important step. Here, local communities can vary depending on the sector. For the creative sector, for instance, it could be communities of artists.

LILA: India has many disjointed institutions that look at culture today — from a Ministry of Culture to various Akademis, grants providing organisations, and more. What according to you are the gaps that remain within India’s approach to a cultural policy today, and how can the governance structure for a national cultural policy be made more effective?  

JH: I may take an example of intangible cultural heritage in India. As per the definition of the UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Intangible Cultural Heritage is constituted of mainly 5 different areas, namely:

  • oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
  • performing arts;
  • social practices, rituals and festive events;
  • knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
  • traditional craftsmanship.

As you rightly pointed out, safeguarding and promoting these items in India is a function that is dispersed across several Ministries/departments and institutions, and at the central, state and regional levels. Several programmes and mechanisms exist at the Government level as well as at the Akademis, such as schemes for financial aid to support documentation and research and the Akademis’ fellowship programmes.

In my opinion, India’s intangible cultural heritage sector would benefit far more if there was an overarching and coherent policy framework that could coordinate and bring synergy among these programmes and stakeholders. India’s Intangible Cultural Heritage also has a huge potential if linked with livelihood and sustainable, community-based tourism.

The great diversity here also makes inventorying, safeguarding and transmitting (especially of endangered items) challenging. This makes it all the more critical to have an overarching mechanism or policy that can guide various such actions at the state government levels.   When we speak about transmission, I can’t help mentioning the precarious status of the practitioners associated with the traditional arts, including those listed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, such as Koodiyattam.

UNESCO New Delhi in co-operation with the Ministry of Culture of India will be organising a National Consultation meeting on these issues in 2020. The meeting will be an opportunity to re-visit the existing programmes across different ministries and Akademis to identify key issues in safeguarding Intangible cultural heritage in India from a policy perspective and evolve a set of recommendations to address them.

[1] Among others, the following are considered as major treaties and recommendations of UNESCO:

[2] Koodiyattam is a 200 year old theatre performed in Sanskrit. It is one of the 13 India’ s Intangible Cultural Heritage which are included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible cultural heritage of Humanity. Traditionally it used to be performed exclusively by only Chakyar and Nambiar castes for Brahmans and temples used to have a dedicated performance stage which is called Koootambalam. I understand that currently there are only a few temples which still keep their Koottambalam as the practice of performing Koodiyattam before Brahmans ceased some time ago.

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