How not to lose of what little is left behind

Eastern philosophy is about changing, living traditions but Western outlook prefers a stricter, pristine conservation.

 |  8-minute read |   06-10-2015
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So what's going in the international circles in the field of preservation of art and culture? If you don't want to know that now, chances are you will never need to know about it. Especially when even in cosmopolitan places like Delhi, considered the heart and hub of culture, celebrated Madhubani artist Ganga Devi's painting was brought down. 

There are important questions that need to be asked. What to preserve, how much to preserve and what to let go? Added to this, is the contrasting, Eastern philosophy and the Western idea of preservation. Whereas the West believes in preservation in the strictest terms and any tampering makes you lose the "heritage tag", the Eastern philosophy is about incorporating change and views culture or the arts as a way of life. While the Eastern philosophy is about living traditions and incorporating change as a way of life, the Western concept of heritage has been more about keeping a precinct in a state that it was created in or as close to the original as possible.

As international organisations and conventions were formed post the Second World War the emphasis was on preserving tangible or built heritage and the norms that were prepared incorporated a Western idea of heritage and culture. So what went into the list of World Heritage Sites (WHS) usually were palaces and forts built by the rich and the powerful and the common man's heritage which was less exotic and had adapted over time, did not find a place on these lists. However come 2003 and the Convention of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the international community acknowledged that culture cannot be put in a box, that it is vibrant and that change has to be regarded.

gangadevi-embed_100615102742.jpg A Madhubani painting by Ganga Devi.

However, when it comes to the ground reality, this idea not only becomes difficult to work around with but also a bane of contention. While attending UNESCO's Buddhist Sangha Conservation project's review meeting, I remember how the Buddhist monks had refuted the idea of conserving their tangkhas and mandalas as they believed in change and their religion taught them to not conserve the old but develop new ones for the future. Juxtapose this to your life, imagine if we were to preserve the rangolis or kolams instead of making new ones each morning or for every festival.

It's probably about the concept of life, where the old and weak perish and the new takes over; it's the law of nature. And the Buddhist religion works closely around that idea. And the same is perhaps true for similar practitioners from Africa, south and east Asia and India. Traditions and culture cannot be put in a box, more so because, when you mummify them, it is then that they decay, rot and die. Why these traditions have lasted so long, is because they were vibrant, they were adapting and changing with the time, they were relevant to the daily life of people. Even sites which did not find a place in the daily life of people, died a slow death. Perhaps the ancient temples lost and later found in a dilapidated state are an example, and the recent ones would be the museums and cultural centres, losing out to malls, if we do not adapt them to the needs of the times.  

Now if we understand folk traditions, these are living traditions which formed part of the daily lives of people, be it folk music, dance or art. They formed a part of their lives from events which spanned from their birth to death and that is where the Madhubani art emerged from. It was part of the domestic activity of women and usually undertook during festivals and rituals at home including elaborate marriages in the Mithila region in Bihar. It was a living tradition, where the commencement of marriage would bring this art to the bridal chamber as was showcased by late Ganga Devi.

Surely in the village houses, the same chamber was redone with every new nuptial in the house or to mark an important occasion or festival. This is true for other folk art traditions in the country as well, be it Warli paintings, which depict the socio-cultural life of the tribe on the walls of the village houses or Pattachitras which depicts tales of Hindu deities or similar Gond art in Madhya Pradesh.

ganga=kolam-art-kera_100615103029.jpg Kolam art of Kerala.

Take the instance of Kalam (Kolam) in Kerala which is a ritualistic art practiced in temples and sacred groves by drawing the figures of deities accompanied by music and songs. This folk art, Kolam, is erased immediately after the ritual is over. It is almost the same case as repainting our houses every now and then to keep them clean.  

This brings us to two important observations, one, that we should have enough artists to carry on these traditions and two, retaining interest in the public to carry on these traditions. The former can be dealt with if we continue to be part of our own folk traditions, and impart the art to more people who may wish to learn or go back to schools and include folk art into the traditional classroom to both impart them a skill and to ensure the furtherance of our culture. The latter may be an off-shoot of the former, the more we are attached to our traditions and aware of them, the more likely we are to continue with them.

gangadevi-embed2_100615102801.jpg Ganga Devi at work.

How many of us today are aware of these traditions? Forget about folk art which was not as widespread, and was more specialised as perhaps folk dance or music. How many of us are aware of the folk music traditions, per se the songs which our grandmothers if not are mothers were surely singing.  We've missed the bus perhaps two generations back and we can blame it on the society at large, our parents and grandparents who perhaps did not insist enough, culture czars and czarinas who didn't do enough, the government itself who despite having the mandate did not manage to engage people in preservation and furtherance of art and culture and with that ensuring that the traditions were kept alive even after 65 years of the existence of the respective ministries. And now perhaps to ourselves as we also seem less likely to educate our next generations about our ancient culture and folk and living traditions.  

In the government much can be blamed on the disinterest in culture itself, which is not regarded as an important ministry irrespective of which political party or ideology is in power. Even bureaucrats don't deem culture portfolios as an important portfolio. Also to blame is the non-coordination between the ministries of culture and HRD (education), who've existed without each other and formed policies that weren't integrated to ensure that culture was preserved and imparted to the future generations.  

Coming back to the Ganga Devi mural in the Crafts Museum, the points I wish to make are two, one it does seem illogical to break down the mural in the first place in a museum which is not necessarily about living the living traditions but about housing them and showcasing them to the people. A museum is anyways about the idea of preserving and showcasing works for posterity. Why then would you bring down a mural instead of conserving it? I have myself used the crafts museum along with my colleagues at UNESCO and specifically that painting to work with children. We had hosted some wonderful sessions with children exploring our folk traditions and making the museum come alive for its audience. No doubt the museum needed refurbishment, but at what cost?

The second point, however, that I wish to make is about folk traditions itself. In folk traditions, it's not the artist that mattered but the art itself. It has always been about change, these traditions were handed down from father to son and mother to daughter and lived and adapted and changed with times in communities as community arts. The emphasis always being about living them, talking about their day-to-day life. It's unlike the art of these times which is about "a particular" artist, about how that particular artist views, say, the body of a woman or gods and goddesses.

Folk art is about the art itself and how it weaves itself into the life of the people, how it emerges and gives meaning to different aspects of life. How it remains relevant to the past, its present and to the future.  

So though we should have made all efforts to conserve the Ganga Devi mural in the Crafts Museum, we also should ensure that these art forms are passed on to the next many generations, so that we have Ganga Devi's in every house, creating their own murals in their homes and in their classrooms, in offices and in malls. And perhaps as they prepare these murals also sing the traditional songs of love, life and loss.


Shaguna Gahilote Shaguna Gahilote @sgahilote

The writer is an education, art and culture expert and has also extensively worked in the area of peace

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