Tapping into the Potential of India’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

On April 18, the Ministry of Culture released the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, to commemorate the World Heritage Day. The list, comprising of 106 traditions and practices across India, has been broadly categorised under five domains.

The first category is oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage. This includes the Buddhist Chanting of Ladakh and other regions of Kashmir, Tradition of Vedic chanting practised across India and the Kinnar Kanthgeet of the transgender community. Second, performing arts such as Parsi theatre, Veena music and Rawat Nach, a form of folk dance from Chattisgarh. Third, social practices, rituals and festive events like the centuries-old Kumbh Mela, the death rites of Phayeng in Manipur and the practice of turban tying in Rajasthan. Fourth, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe comprising of Yoga, the Songs of Shaman in Arunachal Pradesh and Sowa-Rigpa – an ancient medical healing system propounded by Lord Buddha. The fifth category is traditional craftsmanship which is preserved in form of Kolam, the ritualistic drawing of patterns at the threshold of homes and temples in South India; Patola: Double Ikat Silk Textiles of Patan in Gujarat; and Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, the traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making in Punjab.

The classification of India’s ICH under these five categories is in accordance with the 2003 UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Furthermore, thirteen traditions incorporated in this extensive list have also been recognized by UNESCO as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. These include, inter alia, Sankirtanam, a form of ritual singing drumming and dancing native to Manipur; Chhau dance hailing from the tribal regions of Jharkhand and Orissa; and Ramlila, a traditional performance of Ramayana most common in Uttar Pradesh.

India’s intangible cultural heritage, both enlisted and excluded, is not just a repository of knowledge traditions but also reflects on the civilizational ethos of the land. Heritage practices are neither clustered in a particular geography nor confined to a certain sect of society. Rather, it spans across the length and breadth of the country, is diverse in forms–from performing arts to solemnities of life–and inclusive of all communities across the social strata. Second, the emphasis on maintaining an equilibrium between nature and humankind and upholding the ideals of sustainability is integral to our beliefs and customs. From tribal musical renderings to Narmada Parikrama, the Indic civilization has put harmony with nature first and foremost. Third, and perhaps the most distinct feature of India’s ICH, is the fact that several practices are imbued with India’s spiritual and philosophical fabric and have been continuing since millennia. The Vedic chants, Kumbha Mela or even Yoga hold the same relevance and reverence for individuals and communities today, as they did centuries ago.

Moreover, India’s intangible heritage is its intellectual legacy, underpinned by ancient wisdom and larger meaning behind every thought and action. Knowledge, considered to be the highest quest of humankind, was neither understood in silos nor imparted as disparate academic disciplines. For example, the architectural genius of Indian temples demonstrates the close link between science and aesthetics. Similarly, shipbuilding and sailing were made possible by the combined knowledge of mathematics, geography and anemology. Furthermore, since these skills were practised by a particular community, knowledge was passed to subsequent generations through oral traditions or through experiential learnings. This also enabled an economic model which was community-owned and community-driven, thereby leading to social cohesion and strengthening of shared cultural values within the community.

However, with the changes in societal organization and diversification of economic activities, these traditions and practices today are buoyed only by a limited group of dedicated individuals. The release of the ICH list by the Ministry of Culture, which is still in its draft stage, can provide a much-needed impetus in reviving and preserving our cultural legacy in newer forms. It can pave the way for extensive research and documentation of these traditions. It could also help establish the contemporary relevance of these traditions through innovative interventions such as films, festivals and visits of cultural delegations. This, in turn, can create avenues for knowledge sharing and cross-cultural exchanges between various communities inside India as well as with other nations, many of whom share a civilizational connect with India.

India has been a cradle of learning, a land of knowledge seekers and creators. The wealth of our knowledge is not just relevant to India but has a lot to offer to the world, especially in times when the whole humankind grapples with social and economic disruptions. India’s intangible cultural heritage is a universal wealth and amongst the strongest aspects of Indian soft power. The initiative by the Ministry of Culture in this regard, is a step further in fulfilling the ideals of its Vision 2024 that aims to preserve and promote all forms of art and culture. Moreover, it is a reminder of India’s timeless and invaluable wisdom that is a gift to the entire humanity.

Photo Credits: Sangeet Natak Akdemi