On NASA’ Voyager space probe, hurtling into the farthest regions of space mankind has ever reached, is a golden vinyl record. Stored within are images and recordings of earth and its culture. One recording is of the voice of Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar, singing a rendition of the raag Bhairavi, ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’.
Kerkar’s style of singing is practiced only by those from her Gharana (familyhood) – an association of musicians bound by lineage or apprenticeship. Her voice faded from this earth in 1977, but will remain in space for eternity on the Voyager probe, to be hopefully found and appreciated by some faraway alien race.
Gharanas represent a form of culture that is precious – all the more so for its fleeting nature. Should a generation of her familyhood emerge that doesn’t take up singing, the tradition they represent will die out with them.
UNESCO calls these examples of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), with a list that accompanies those of the World Heritage Sites. India has preserved much of its theatre, dance, rituals and music through oral tradition. As tribal languages decline, the few speakers that remain bear a poignant burden carrying the last surviving vestiges of their culture.
Nations are invited to send in their nominations every year – to be inscribed into the UNESCO list. The UNESCO also keeps another special list for cultural elements in urgent need of safeguarding.
The Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) is India’s nodal center for coordinating her National Inventory of ICH. According to an official who works with the agency, this isn’t a list most nations want to be on, as it reflects poorly on their preservation efforts. This explains why the list is so short.
Pointing out why such traditions are dying out, the official said that the main reason these heritage forms are dying out is a lack of economic sustainability for the artists.
Living has become difficult and expensive for them. So many practitioners have not encouraged their family or children to take it up. For example, a Nageswaram player doesn’t want his son to be a Nageswaram player – he wants him to do I.T.
“[There is] only one technique of making Saraswati Veena – with probably three people left. One in Mysore, one in Bangalore, one in Thanjavur. Their children are not ready to do all this…they’re all abroad, or have become doctors or what have you. It takes a lot of time to do it. We’re [also] doing a lot of work on Thattera, which is a brass metal making technique from Jandiala Guru, Amritsar. They say ‘we’ve not told our kids to do this thing, so we’re very few people left, maybe around 10 families. They want their children to go to urban places and live, and run a different kind of life.”
While some professions can’t be monetized, the UNESCO listing has helped in the past. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are often swarmed by tourists following recognition, and some intangible art forms can find a market in the fashion industry. SNA helps where they can. As regards the Thatteras, “they usually make huge vessels. We got them to make miniature vessels so they can be sold… these big ones are sold as planters, and they’re not used for cooking. Today, nobody is cooking in brassware.”
India has 13 inscriptions on the ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. Some countries keep a list of Living Human Treasures, but India does not.
With many traditions in need of institutional aid and resuscitation, various government institutions, departments and NGOs have started compiling these art forms. However, the scattered nature of the attempt points to a need for a single database.
The Ministry of Culture is preparing a ‘Culture Map’ of all these forms and traditions, with 5.5 million artists already registered – and will be the only unified database of such treasures once it is ready.
No Shortage of Intangible Cultures
Some examples of ICH submissions are everyday sights in South Indian cities.
The practice of making ‘Kolam’- intricate drawings and designs made on the floors near households and temples – every morning is a quintessential South Indian practice. The labyrinthine designs are said to capture evil spirits.
One accepted submission, the meditative chanting of Ladakh’s Buddhist monks, can go on for 40 days at a time. Each sect and monastery has their own style, and dialect, of chanting.
Sometimes, intangible cultures will know no borders. The nomadic Baul singers, added under Bangladesh’s list in 2013, are a blend of Bhakti and Sufi traditions – in folk music. Rabindranath Tagore was deeply inspired by the Baul singers he encountered, and allowed it to influence his work.
One day I chanced to hear a song from a beggar belonging to the Baul sect of Bengal… what struck me in this simple song was a religious expression that was neither grossly concrete, full of crude details, nor metaphysical in its rarified transcendentalism….it was alive with an emotional sincerity.
The 2016 entrant, Navruz (to use only a single spelling), is a form of celebrating New Years found in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – all countries lying on the Silk Road.
Some submissions are appropriated into political messaging, such as the BJP’s use of Kerala’s Ottan Thullai to mock the UDF government before the elections.
Regardless of political appropriation, these intangible art forms are carefully crafted over generations and passed on in the hope of surviving eternity.
President Carter’s recorded message on Voyager best expresses the need and intent of cultural preservation.
This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.
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