Giles Til­lot­son

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.


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.


Giles Til­lot­son is an art his­to­rian, his books in­clude Taj Ma­hal and Jaipur Nama: Tales from the Pink City

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