Wednesday, August 17, 2011

the cruelty of heritage

the usual clamour made by 'indians' about 'we indians' is that 'we' do not know how to respect and preserve our heritage, blah blah. look west, look east, its all so well kept, well showcased.. how much more pride in 'our culture and tradition' would 'we' be able to accumulate had 'we' shown even an iota of the same commitment that other, even smaller nations are able to...

(dangerously, some might go so far as to say: look at sri lanka! a nation hit by war, and yet they preserve and showcase their monuments so well. no matter that scores of people were brutally murdered, and scores of lives and forms of livelihood destroyed in a war that was fundamentally racist, and instituted through the agency of the government. oh  no, lets not talk of bygones.. their monuments are so well kept; tourism is flourishing.. such hospitality!)

the problem with india (and india has so many problems) is that, worse still, apparently the gatekeepers of 'our' heritage are steeped in politics.. so, damn the 'corrupt' politicians and the BIG BAD POLITICS! 

some might say: why, we don't even have our kohinoor... its sitting in the tower of london crested into the crown jewels.. what would we say to this? would we be able to say then that, at least its well kept there. the moment it reaches india, it'll be infested in a prism of POLITICS.. 

is heritage anywhere really not inflected through politics? indeed can there be a discourse on heritage that is not necessarily imbricated in a politics of heritage? why, what would the the British Museum be without all its Indian/Egyptian/ Mesopotamian/ Persian collections... oh those were acquired as gifts to the Raj. shall we start talking politics finally? they say gift, some would say loot. loot, you say? why, the erstwhile colonial masters could never 'loot'! (and mind you, some American scholar recently mentioned in the form of an anecdote [and most anecdotes suffer from a pathology of xenophobism i think] that the word loot supposedly originates from the word lootna in hindi - to steal. imagine the levels to which typecasting had reached in colonial times... to attribute a word, which is not just a word, its a state-of-mind, to an entire people.. )

it was the generous Indians who gifted it to the needless-to-state superior Raj. but they're no longer colonial masters. what might've been gift then, can just as well be considered loot now. and in any case, how can one 'gift' anything to a king? any such attempt, under circumstances of servitude (partial it may be) must necessarily be seen as an act of surrender. what do 'we' say?: so what if we cannot keep it safe and locked up in a tower? so what if it gets stolen? at least it gets stolen from here!

what happens next?

we come full circle to chant the usual clamour.. 'we have no respect...." blah..

and where do we go from here?


there's this song which has become a very popular rhyme..

london bridge is falling down...
falling down, falling down..
london bridge is falling down..
my fair lady..

one can only speculate why and how or whether it fell at all, and who 'my fair lady' that this song is adressed to, might be... also, there are varying versions of the next few stanzas, each with differing meanings and so on.. be it of rebuilding the bridge [build it up with wood and clay], or the repeated failures in being able to do so.. [wood and clay will wash away].. so the 'material' cannot replace or rebuild the structure; what was destroyed was not merely the bridge as material form.. it stood for something else...

in any case, in rhyme form, it is sung with much glee.. singing with joy about watching a building fall seems rather bizarre... a descriptive, narrative, visual account of fall...

and yet, if at all one wishes to historicize it, the rhyme-song seems to suggest a couple of things: the bridge stood as paramount symbol of oppression - signalling the destruction of a bastion of power - it is important to watch it falling... and to sing with joy of its fall... the other way of looking at it would be that, in its fall was engendered a collective will to rebuild, no matter the failures.. and so on..

the rhyme has been leeched of all other connotations, as is the case with most rhymes, but it is immensely popular..

but today, would it be possible to even speak - not sing - about destruction in any manner except with gravity? we are seeing images of london burning in riots over the last week or so.. of buildings being set to fire.. of shops being looted.. immediate thoughts are usually of mindless destruction; mob fury; re-construction and restoration; policing; stock market; and so on.

setting fire to, or pulling down architecture, public statuary and objects of cultural production that epitomize a dominant power structure has historically been a practice of many movements world over.. it especially made sense to destroy a building/ statue/ object precisely because it had been invested with a value of heritage. what sense would it make to destroy any ordinary building? none, if one considers the symbolic value of destruction as well, apart from pragmatic. the power to acquire such heritage was made possible in/through the subordination and oppression of many others.

however, nothing today it seems justifies the destruction of buildings of monumental value, those that are symbolic of a power that is simmering with a potential to unleash its oppressive nature..

and yet, it might still be possible to destroy with perfect ease minor structures.. for these are not structures of power.. they are structures of solidarity, of community..

in that sense, i do believe in marking a difference between major and minor architecture.. they both contain and signify immensely different meanings, contexts, and significances.. laughing over the destruction of a major object of cultural production, and a minor one, are entirely different things...

world over, would it be possible today, to laugh with glee, and jump with joy at the destruction of minor architecture, as it was possible with tremendous ease a decade or two back? and yet, how far is babri masjid demolition away from today? not very. how many statues of ambedkar have been repeatedly destroyed over the last many decades? scores.

maybe for the west it might not be possible to openly laugh and celebrate the defeat of 'enemy' figures/ territories/ lives/ objects.. but as far as india is concerned, i really don't have the courage to imagine that such cruel laughter belongs to a time bygone..

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