If one drew a line from Afghanistan to Bhutan, and another from Kashmir to Sri Lanka and Maldives, one finds that there is no break in communication between any two contiguous points. Communication breaks down only on extreme points of the scale. Given the multiplicity of Languages, Cultures and Ethnic Groups in the SAARC region, an extension of this premise to the entire South Asian region is certainly not beyond the realm of fact.
The SAARC region while apportioned by geopolitical realities, is also united by its cultural realities. The break in communication can only be political and not cultural.
Folklore, as part of our Intangible Heritage, is the most potent civilisational link among nations of the SAARC region, extending to even Burma (Myanmar).
Of all the emotional linkages, our Intangible Heritage and FOLKLORE is of most vital importance, because it emanates from our centuries-old historical memories, and goes back to centuries of civilisational evolution of this region.
Besides sharing our clouds and monsoons, our birds and animals, our oceans and rivers, our flora and fauna, we in the SAARC region share long civilisational journeys, horizontally and vertically, on micro and macro levels.
Folklore and Intangible Heritage represent our ever-green roots, with centuries-old moisture soaked in their entrails, the roots which spread out across the region, and give us our unique cultural ethos.
Our Intangible Heritage and Folklore are vitally important for us, and bringing them to the foreground of our urgent concerns acquires urgency, because in the whirlwind of globalization and vulgar consumerism, it is only the moisture in our roots which sustains us.
Our Intangible Heritage includes Folklore and our Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Historical Memories of thousands of years, since the Indus Valley Civilisation.
The genesis of all cultures is in the oral tradition which has been responsible for passing on, from generation to generation, the pristine grandeur and haunting fascination of memories, narrated in our Folklore. Every SAARC country’s culture bears the imprint of that oral heritage.
With the passage of time, the society gradually changed, and the oral tradition slowly became less visible as some of the human languages acquired scripts. That gave rise to the written mode of human expression, which was a double-edged blessing, sparkling with the brilliance of modern times. But it also lost something very precious and valuable for the mankind : our oral traditions and ancient knowledge systems.
Our intangible heritage and folk culture defines our identity as it is tied up with our historical memory.
The Intangible Heritage and Folklore of the SAARC countries has a strange continuity and similarity of our feelings and age-old experiences, since the beginning of mankind, in this civilisational belt.
This is the culture which does not depend on the elite. It is the culture of the folk: Tribals and Adivasis, and the common masses. It is the culture still living, throbbing, thriving in the mud-huts of villages, in the fields of the farmers, in the forests which are the dwellings of the Adivasis and the Tribals.
The people living in the 21st century must have an idea of the glory of those bygone times, from stone age from where we get proof of folk paintings on the stones of caves in which man lived, when human civilization was in its inspired youthful phase. Ideas were fresh, expression was new, and the zest for life was infectious. Culture was a way of life, something in which everyone was involved – young and old, men and women. It gave a unique dynamism and pristine aura to the existence of man. The youthful exuberance was an expression of the inherent energy and the ingrained aesthetics of the human society. They knew what life really meant and they lived it to the hilt, in unique symphony with nature, birds, trees, animals, rivers, streams, elephants and little ants.
Folklore makes the fabric of a culture more attractive, more intense and more humane. A society or a community which has not been careful in preserving its folklore, becomes a rootless plant or a rudderless boat. The disappearance of folklore is a great threat to culture. The society has to wake up and make all-out efforts to preserve the cherished heritage of folklore.
For taking the idea of exploring the Intangible Heritage and Folklore of the SAARC region and presenting it, preserving it, documenting it, and making the younger generation aware of it, we are working on a couple of workable plans :
Annual SAARC Folklore and Intangible Heritage Festivals
Research and Documentation Project on Intangible Cultural Heritage
Research in Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous knowledge systems are defined as knowledge held by indigenous peoples, or local knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. This is different than western resource management systems which are designed scientifically to lock out feedback from the environment and to avoid natural perturbations.
Traditional knowledge and resource management can best be assessed in terms of their own long-term survival, as evidence of ecological sustainability. All groups of resource users have powerful, built-in incentives to conserve the resources on which they depend. In many cases they do conserve them, provided they can control access to the resources and can work out rules for collective action, that is, solve the exclusion and jointless problems of common-property resource management. Indigenous management systems have provided adaptations for societies to cope with their environment.
Indigenous Systems of Local Knowledge is also Ecological Knowledge :
Local knowledge systems are based on the shared experiences, customs, values, traditions, lifestyles, social interactions, ideological orientations, relationship with nature and other living beings co-habiting the planet, and spiritual beliefs specific to communities. These are forever evolving as new knowledge is obtained or generated.
The importance of this research also emphasises the fact that contemporary literature and research and cultural programmes focus on the intelligentia and the elite. The whole cultural thrust ignores the voice of the masses, which can be heard and understood through oral traditions of folklore and folk songs which are lying at the root of historical and cultural memories of our SAARC nations.
It is a terribly ignored subject, particularly in our SAARC region, where languages are dying, and so are the folklore traditions. It is high time that mad and committed people like us, and intelligent people like you should wake up to the SOS call of our oral traditions of folklore, and try to resurrect and save a vital part of our cultural and civilisational heritage.
In the context of the SAARC region it is proposed that an institutional framework be put in place for the long-term study of Indigenous knowledge systems. This institution could be one of the existing SAARC Apex bodies like FOSWAL in Delhi, which could work as a Nodal body to coordinate and supervise all activities undertaken under its frame of reference.
Winter School of Folklore and Intangible Heritage : For Students from Across the SAARC Region
The duration of the course could be anywhere between 6 to 12 weeks. The faculty should be drawn from the best in the field from all over the world. This school / Institute should offer courses specially designed for the purpose and they would cover all areas of the Study of Folklore and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
We are planning that this programme may be instituted in collaboration with other National and International Professional bodies such as the Indian Folklore Congress, the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, and the International Cultural Studies Association.
SAARC has a rich and varied cultural heritage. In most instances, when we talk of the cultural heritage of a country or a region we tend to look at the tangible heritage, such as old monuments, palaces, temples, mosques, tombs, churches, gurudwaras and other heritage buildings; physical sites of forest cover and sacred groves; natural monuments and the like.
It should be our endeavour to study the intangible heritage also besides all the tangible heritage sites in all the SAARC countries.
This would not only give us a better understanding of monuments and sites, but it would also give us an insight into the minds and hearts, living conditions and architecture, city or habitation planning, and the cultures that created these sites, right from the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Among the younger generation who are gradually losing touch with our ancient civilisational and cultural heritage, collective and continuous awareness and studies are required to explore all our common civilisational memories. And also to reinvent ways to share, improvise and innovate ancient craft skills, and ancient, skillful, artistic, innovative methods of creating livelihoods by acrobats, jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, balladeers.
Ancient skills of goldsmiths, ironsmiths of mainly the nomadic tribes, leather craftsman, potters, painting colourful murals on mud walls of village huts and earthen ‘choolahs’ : the cooking places, the grain storage earthen pots, rare craftsmanship of carpenters, the marble inlay craftsmen, mask-makers, enamel inlay work, zardozi work, tailoring, hand embroidery, all these skills can be harnessed and shared with the modern world : a mechanical, insensitive crowd of people indulged in the rat-race of more sophisticated killing machines.
In these days and in this age, the younger generation needs sensitivity towards these ancient knowledge systems, innocent rituals which establish and reaffirm man’s relation with nature, with plants and animals, with birds and clouds, with rivers and streams, with the changing seasons, with the changing colours of the sky, with millions of stars in the cosmos !
Let me add, they must realise that when they are saving a tree from being slaughtered, when they are saving a river from pollution, when they are giving protection to even tiny blades of grass and little birds, when they are participating in the ancient skills of ordinary craftsmen, sharing the songs-tales-theatre-dance of ordinary folk, they are adding a million stars to our civilisational heritage.
Such a project of creating awareness among the young students, would also create the basis for a cultural map of the region which will take into consideration all the diversity that exists in the region as well as in the constituent countries. Approaching the mapping from this angle, would take care of all the shortcomings of the traditional culture mapping projects in Anthropology. The map that emerges will be greatly useful not only for academic research in the future, but it will also be a highly evolved document that would prove invaluable in the formulation of public policy and strengthening of relations in the region.
Another important programme which should be taken up, relates to the Study of Border Cultures.
One of the most obvious features of cultural mapping is boundaries; yet boundaries are misleading, because in reality, socio-cultural variation is often continuous rather than abrupt. Therefore, groups near boundaries almost always become “intermediate”, and are often skipped over. It has also been seen that, many traits cut across Culture Area boundaries since socio-cultural variation is complex and not easily reduced to geographical patterns.
We in FOSWAL are convinced that our folk culture defines our identity as it is tied up with our historical memory, the way we look at life and the universe, at the nature around : the planet earth that we share, changing weathers, rains and sunshines, birds and animals; our attitudes, habits, customs, myths and legends; our relationship with our environment, nature’s bounties and furies; and our social, religious and political evolution — in short, our whole civilization.
We in FOSWAL realised long back that if we were seriously endeavouring for cultural connectivity in the region, we must explore the cultural roots, lying intertwined under our earth, of the entire SAARC region, including Afghanistan and Myanmar.
We almost created history by underlining the cultural connectivity of Afghanistan and Myanmar as part of the SAARC Region, and invited writers from both countries to participate in our First-ever SAARC Writers Conference in 2000.
It was for the first-time that 2 poets from Afghanistan, of Dari and Pushto languages, participated in our SAARC Writers Conference in April 2000.
Gradually, even the Government of Afghanistan became aware of it, and applied for Membership of SAARC which was granted by collective approval of Heads of States in 2007.
Ever since, poets from Afghanistan and sometimes from Burma too, have been participating in our SAARC Festivals of Literature.
In our SAARC Folklore Festival in December 2007, Folk Singers from Afghanistan came to perform, and Folklore Scholars to share their deliberations.
These are ongoing programmes : some of them already launched, the others waiting to be launched.