Safe, never expires
Safe, never expires
Yesterday was World Heritage Day. The theme for 2021 is ‘Complex Pasts: Diverse Futures’.
Reading about it, I realised, that if we want diversity in our futures, we must mine it from our past, where it got buried.
Speaking to a friend last year about the must-see places in Kolkata, the home of my childhood, I realised we spoke of the small experiences: The stroll through the central greens with a paper cone of peanuts. The sunset river crossing in a humble wooden boat. The slow tram ride past the potters' colony where clay waterpots are made alongside idols of gods and goddesses; where giant serving and cooking utensils for wedding feasts line the streets; where sandesh is rapidly hand-moulded for the sweet shops' display case.
Rowing boats under the Second Hoogly Bridge over the River Hugli-Ganga at dusk, Kolkata. (Image by PDPics from Pixabay)
These are as much our heritage, though they don't often make the official lists or even appear in many guidebooks. It is easier, of course, to locate, preserve and visit the big edifices, state-sponsored or belonging to the rich. We celebrate the names of artists who had patronage and a recorded history, renowned names—take Indian classical music—while the everyday arts and crafts (like folk dances or weaving fine grass mats) sit on the lower rung.
Yet India was lucky that the Swaraj movement against the British Raj actually help up the 'common' crafts as worthy of preservation and honour. Handloom become a symbol—even if the artisan, who learnt their crafts as a child at their parents' knee, still remained unfeted.
Even into my generation, we knew and prized some of these traditional weaving and dyeing techniques, those unnamed Kolhapuris—which are very much Indian heritage. Summer started with a new chikankari kurta all through childhood, a habit that has stayed with me as an adult. Every Durga puja in autumn, once the mucky monsoons finally moved back, I pleaded for another handwoven saree.
Still, there were silences and gaps. I would be an adult before I understood the beauty of a Sengottai dosa kallu or Long Pi pottery, before I even saw the woven language of the different Naga tribes with their distinctive colours and motifs. We knew 'our' things—and only some of 'theirs'.
Today the world is, happily, a little smaller and better connected. My child is lucky to go to a school where art classes revolve around Gond, Warli, Madhubani techniques as well as the Great Masters of the West. They have worked on a potter’s wheel and on a farm. But… they have never seen a bandhni dupatta being tied and dyed. They can’t pick out a nalukettu from an ikra, though they can identify the Eiffel Tower, Gateway of India and the Sydney Opera House.
Somewhere, it is the everyday of the past, the creations of the lesser peoples, that gets swept off the board of ‘heritage’. They become declasse—and are superseded. And that’s what this year’s Heritage Day theme looks to—ensuring a diverse future really means we learn from the past, all of the past, not just that stamped with the approval of kings and conquerors.
Today, then, I want to talk of a bunch of toys and activity kits that revive the heritage of the everyday achievements of common folks—now becoming uncommon, sometimes even in danger of disappearing off our maps.For your youngest architect friend, a crash course in the commoners’ dwellings from across the country—not the haveli or fort that became the heritage hotel from your last holiday, but something that might just inform the technologies of tomorrow for a greener lifestyle in futuristic cities, if we don’t forget them first! There are models here of mud houses, bamboo houses, painted houses, woven houses… A simple starting point that can live on their shelf for a long time, reminding them of the deep roots India dwells in.
What’s so heritage or complex about a set of books on the seasons, you ask? Well, let me tell you how many years I struggled to find my child a wall calendar, perpetual, cloth or magnetic maybe, where they would be able to themselves place signs of the seasons. Eight years. Why? Because I wanted the six Indian seasons I grew up reading, talking, singing of. Now, I recognize the seasons are not the same all over India—and not all Indian cultures divide the year into six phases. Yet, it is so common to find the four-season pattern in books and toys and even clothes that came from more temperate climes! With nary a monsoon in them—that defining feature of India. It helps that these books also showcase India’s cultural diversity in the everyday context of young children. We love them!
These are the merest basics we took for granted, my generation and my mother’s. Pressed flowers. Origami bags. Handmade paper. Binding books and weaving on a lap-loom. Tie-dye and block print and papier mache. I’d like to pass some of these on, to preserve and to keep alive.
Yes, that’s right—after all this talk of unlauded skills and artisans, I am talking big monuments instead. But this series is important to me for one reason here: it reminds me and teaches my child that India’s heritage is not singular, nor linear. Indeed, the India I remember has ‘complex pasts’, plural. And the India I hope my child will grow up to see would be a place of ‘diverse futures’.
The closest many of even my generation will have come to these board games is the mythological stories of the Mahabharata or other folk tales. Lagori, Puli Meka, Ashta Chamma, Pachisi, Vamana Guntalu… not just my child, it was a chance for the adult here to discover a new-to-me but ancient way to play.
Have a great time reviving our heritage together!