Valuing the Devalued Tangible Cultural Heritage.

“Bombay has the second largest number of art decor buildings after Miami. However, unlike Miami where an entire precinct was restored, making it an international tourist attraction, here we do little to preserve our heritage.” 

-Sharada Dwivedi, veteran historian and researcher.

Mumbai, as we all know, is a land of plurality due to an amalgamation of many cultures. Each culture needs a platform to showcase its elements of tradition, belief, value and knowledge systems, which ultimately gave rise to the notion of cultural heritage. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has described heritage as, “The entire corpus of material signs – either artistic or symbolic – handed on by the past to each culture and, therefore, to the whole of humankind. As a constituent part of the affirmation and enrichment of cultural identities, as a legacy belonging to all humankind, the cultural heritage gives each particular place its recognizable features and is the storehouse of human experience.” (Draft Medium Term Plan 1990-1995, UNESCO, 25 C/4, 1989, p.57) However, due to unpleasant defacement practices showcased by citizens of Mumbai, the city’s epitomized glorious cultural heritage is nearing its end.

However, the on – going processes of urbanization and modernization has lead humankind to reach a stage of ‘anomie’. With reference to French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, one can say that humans have become more and more individualistic as opposed to their primitive counterparts whose societies were closely knit, where sharing was the norm. This progression towards individuality has made humans confused about their role, further confused about why the past should matter.

In Indian context, citizens too find themselves in this ‘state of anomie’ in relation to cultural heritage. The majority of citizens of the country have deluded themselves into assuming that there are no strict laws which are propagated towards the preservation of these monuments, therefore making citizens believe that it is acceptable to project any sort of defacement to the heritage monuments. What intensifies the situation is that even though there are laws present to prevent defacement crimes, they still seem to offer minimal form of protection.

The most primitive works of art have been items such as totem poles, engraving on caves, painting on slabs and fertility dolls. As these end up being heritage sites in today’s times, what makes them unique is the presence of ‘aura’ around it. Critical theorist Walter Benjamin (2003) in his book ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, has closely examined the concept of aura and termed it as authentic. However, it must be noted that what gives rise to this authenticity is the amount of rituals that go into the making of a heritage site.

There is a cultish characteristic associated with a heritage site, this includes; emotion, vision and religious significance which is strictly observed by the artist during the making of the site. According to Benjamin Walter (2003), The artwork’s use value was located in its central position within ritual and religious tradition. Hence, the aura illuminated from the monument is the after math of the work of art being uniquely woven into time and space. 

However, today the world experiences a ‘loss of aura’. This phenomena stems from the fact that people are unaware of the holiness attached to the monuments and hence end up destroying historical sites instead of preserving them. This not only results in the destruction of the aesthetic experience of the monument but also ends up disorienting the intimacy present between the maker and the site. This intimate bond is the onetime-ness of the experience. What is meant by this is that, the moment where the object meets the maker that very situation cannot be replicated or reproduced, therefore must be preserved through various conservation projects.

As the issue of authenticity is a fragile topic, Abdul Rehman (2011), a renowned professor of architecture remarks “In any conservation project there may be three areas where one has to be very careful to look into the different aspects of authenticity. These aspects are to maintain, to preserve, and to safeguard authenticity.” If these three aspects are taken into consideration, only then can the claim of preserving and conserving of a heritage site  be authentic. Sadly, in the city of Mumbai, many do not seem to understand the loss of aura and authenticity around heritage sites, consequently resulting in these sites to be threatened by uninviting acts of tobacco spitting, graffiti, urinating, throwing of food and plastic bottles or infrastructure projects.

Co-founder of Infosys, N. R. Narayana Murthy has effectively highlighted the crux of the situation in one of his speeches given at Indian Institute of Management. He has stated that Indians have a certain loyalty towards their family. However, this loyalty is only reflected in the family sphere and not in the community sphere. Murthy (2003), “In the West – the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand – individuals understand that they have to be responsible towards their community.” Furthermore, he states that the primary difference between Indians and the West is that, the Westerners have a much better societal orientation. They care that they have for their society is much more than the Indians have for theirs. Furthermore, this links to enhancing the quality of life of Indians.

Apart from a dire need of social change, it is advisable that more security personnel should be appointed at heritage sites to preserve them, along with that it is necessary that the security personnel are made aware of the historical background of heritage structures so that they have a strong will to protect heritage sites. Another issue to be focused on is that of creating orderly environments with respect to heritage sites, as that would encourage adherence to social convention and overall conservatism, whereas disorderly environments would encourage people to seek novelty and unconventional routes (Stenger, 2013).

Furthermore, with the implementation of smart designs and concept of placemaking, pathways could be construed with biodegradable and non-biodegradable dustbins at every 3-4 metres so that visitors have no where else to throw waste. Also, indigenous people people who have been living around areas of heritage sites must be asked for their opinions regarding preservation and conservation of heritage structures, as they have existing ancestral knowledge regarding techniques of maintaining the integrity of heritage sites.

Thus, India being so diverse, so vast in terms of geography and cultures, if citizens actively seek to preserve what little is left of the past, what will enhanced will be quality of life along with the nation’s aesthetic beauty linking people together as human beings.

Author: stutikakar

Stuti Kakar holds a Master's degree in sociology, and is currently pursuing her M.Phil in sociology from Mumbai University. Her areas of interest include gender studies, art history, culture and Identity, and critical studies of science and technology. This blog reflects her interest in contemporary debates.

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