India’s diverse heritage can be sustained only by engaging with people, and provided voices of sanity do not drown in the din of regressive ideas
THE WORLD OF BUILT HERITAGE—traditionally the domain of the experts who list, protect, restore and interpret monuments and sites—is expanding its role in the public sphere. This rise in profile is to be welcomed, though it brings with it hazards as well as opportunities, as the hegemony of the experts is challenged by others who stake their claims. This was apparent at a recent event in Delhi that, on the face of it, marked a good end to 2017 for the experts. From December 11 to 15, they gathered in force to host the triennial General Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). This was a hugely prestigious event. With a global membership, ICOMOS is the largest private organisation devoted to the cause, and is the body that advises the UNESCO on World Heritage listings. The recently revived Indian chapter got its act together in short order to host the largest assembly ever convened, with over a thousand delegates representing more than 100 countries.
As with any GA, much of the business was about the internal housekeeping operations of the society, including the election of Dr Rohit Jigyasu as the first ever Indian member of the international board. The intellectual sustenance took the form of a two-day scientific symposium with some 200 presentations spread across four parallel sessions. The overarching theme, selected by the Indian hosts, was ‘Heritage and Democracy’, prompted partly perhaps by the thought that these are two commodities that India possesses in abundance. Surely these are matters on which India can speak with authority to 100 other nations.
The question is, how do they fit together? How does preserving the built heritage serve all the people, and can it do so equally? How can the general population participate in conservation, not just as mute observers but as policymakers? Such questions are not idle. Even the conservation of A-list monuments like the Taj Mahal is not without controversy, because conservation policies always impose constraints on people in the neighbourhood. Put simply, you feel very differently about a famous landmark monument if it happens to be in your backyard. And—contrary to what one
might suppose—the problems are greater with lesser monuments in small town India, where the exigencies of daily life (never mind development) place strains on all the available infrastructure, be it heritage or not. Converting a historic structure into, say, a primary school does not seem improper to people whose priority is to educate their children, when no one is offering them any other space.
In this context, the Delhi Declaration, issued by the delegates of the GA, assumes some significance, not least because it has been ratified both by the UNESCO and the government. The declaration casts heritage as a fundamental human right, but also as a shared responsibility; it asserts that democracy accords both rights and duties; and it sees both as key ingredients in a people-based approach to sustainable development.
Beyond the idealistic headlines, the details explore certain core issues. One is the widening of the notion of heritage to encompass not just monuments or groups of buildings but their settings and landscapes. This change is not merely an expansion of our comprehension of the physical fabric. It arises from a perception that people’s understanding of heritage sites is embedded in the larger context and thus the broader approach is more inclusive and democratic. It takes account of—indeed it foregrounds— people’s belief systems and values.
EVEN A-LIST MONUMENTS LIKE THE TAJ MAHAL ARE CONTROVERSIAL, BECAUSE CONSERVATION POLICIES IMPOSE CONSTRAINTS ON PEOPLE
So having ratified the declaration, the government might pause to reconsider its attempts to dilute the provisions of the 2010 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites (Amendment and Validation) Act, which was passed by Parliament unanimously. The act established prohibited and regulated zones around monuments. The intention was not just to put a stop to encroachment: it arose precisely from this expanding concept of heritage, based on people’s (not just archaeologists’) understandings of sites. But now it is proposed that the provisions may be set aside for the sake of ‘public works’. So one is bound to ask, who is this ‘public’ that appears to be at odds with the people? In the old opposition between conservation and development, the rules of the game have changed. It can no longer be typecast as the obsessions of the elite pitted against the needs of the poor. It is about the needs of all people to include their heritage in a sustainable future.
But what exactly is ‘their’ heritage? What makes it theirs? In the light of the declaration’s observation that ‘legislative protection of heritage is the responsibility of all levels of government’, governments in India might also pause to consider the concluding lines which emphasise an inclusive understanding of heritage. ‘It is our duty to conserve the significance of the multicultural, multidimensional heritage we have inherited and hand it down to the following generations.’ It is only by engaging with people and guiding their understanding of heritage that we can sustain the plural legacies of the past.
India’s heritage is not homogeneous. Given India’s diversity, that may seem like an inescapable fact. Maybe so. But even a fact is not an irresistible force. Just as we are shaped by our heritage, so we shape it. It does not assert itself without our agency. Our interpretations and narratives about heritage fashion it to be what we want it to be; to make it make us what we want to be. And it seems increasingly acceptable and common to propose interpretations that are homogenising and exclusive.
Called upon to address the inaugural session of the ICOMOS GA, the yogi and recent Padma Vibhushan awardee, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, seemed a little bemused. He had the humility to describe himself as ‘uneducated’ in the presence of so many experts. But he went on to expound a vision of Indian culture as something that seemed to require not just conservation but recovery, ‘as we were occupied for a thousand years’. There was barely a murmur of dissent—perhaps out of deference to his prodigious charitable work. But the implication was clear. Those who profess a religion of foreign origin cannot be counted as Indian, not even after a thousand years; and whatever was produced under the rule of people of those religions, is not Indian culture. So, Indian heritage is not diverse: there is one true tradition, which needs to be protected from all accretions.
Sadhguru’s version of Indian history called to mind the recent refusal of the central government to support the dossier submitted by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to ICOMOS, in a bid to get Delhi listed as a World Heritage city, reportedly on the ground that the districts highlighted—Shahjahanabad and the Lutyens Bungalow Zone—were not thought to be representative of Indian culture. Such pronouncements are no longer rare or seen as eccentric. In a similar vein in the year gone by we heard a pronouncement from a minister in Uttar Pradesh that the Taj Mahal—seen by many around the world as the ultimate symbol of India—is not an example of Indian culture.
The first textbook survey of Indian art that I read as a student (published in the 1950s) covered the period from the Indus Valley era up to 1200, implying that Indian civilisation terminated then, to be replaced by something else. The book itself was superseded by another which covered the Mughal architecture, but stopped around 1750. You get the drift. Both were written by foreign authors promulgating closed and bounded interpretations of Indian culture. By the turn of the millennium, there were surveys by Indian scholars that included modern art, not with any artificial attempt to identify essentials that connect the art of our time to that of the past, but simply in a spirit of celebration of the ever-varied, ever-changing character of Indian art.
My fear for 2018 is that in the public domain we will increasingly hear regressive and essentialist definitions of Indian heritage, by people who regard them as the necessary corrective to the messy pluralism of the past, and that they will meet with less and less resistance. My hope for 2018 is that heritage experts will engage with an ever expanding range of monuments and sites, irrespective of denomination or date, and that, in a spirit of democracy, they will learn how to take the public along with them on that journey.
MY FEAR FOR 2018 IS THAT WE WILL HEAR REGRESSIVE DEFINITIONS OF INDIAN HERITAGE BY PEOPLE WHO WANT TO CORRECT THE MESSY PLURALISM OF THE PAST
Giles Tillotson is an art historian, his books include Taj Mahal and Jaipur Nama: Tales from the Pink City