Cultural Bridges


Academic Shernaz Cama on what do we mean by heritage and why should we look at it?

India has perhaps the greatest number of cultures and varying heritages, which may be tangible or intangible. Yet, we have little cultural studies. We do not have any seats or chairs of inter-faith studies nor do we have real culture studies of our Indian heritage. This is important from the point of view of understanding each other. The Everlasting Flame exhibition, the first major showcasing of a minority, under the government’s Hamari Dharohar — Our Heritage — scheme is, meant to create spin-off programmes to understand different aspects of Indian cultural heritage.
It has already gone into smaller parts such as Avesta and Vedic studies. One of the aims of Our Heritage, Parzor and Unesco (which talks about ICH — intangible cultural heritage of humanity) of which Parzor is a part, is to create a background where you can look at culture studies, not just in theory but also in practical terms. There needs to be awareness of both tangible and intangible heritage. In India, our tangible heritage is so vast that it is almost impossible to protect. It is also expensive to protect. But what is more dangerous is that we are losing intangible cultural heritage due to globalisation and linguistic losses. According to the Unesco endangered languages atlas, it is predicted that we would have lost 3,000 out of the world’s 6,000 languages by 2050. We are losing our linguistic heritage and traditions because of modernisation, urbanisation and the English language, which is taking over. These are parts of what the world has gone through. All this is inevitable in any place which is progressing. But should it be inevitable that we lose and then start rescuing? Isn’t it time that we tried to step in and show how much can be done with your traditions.



Wide canvas


Intangible cultural heritage covers many things — one is obviously history as well as traditions, myth, craft and even simple things like cookery. So, we wanted to create a programme where you had as many aspects of a very small community, which has done a lot in this world. That is why our programmes range from Anahita Dhondy of SodaBottleOpenerwala talking about her exploration along with the movie Café Irani Chai, Professor Spenta Wadia talking about Homi Bhabha to Boman Irani singing and a group of puppets from Azerbaijan. This is to show that a culture acquires so much in its life. It covers literally everything from A to Z. We had a photographic exhibition (My Family and Other Parsis) by Sooni Taraporevala and another on Udvada by Shantanu Das. Tiny Udvada, slightly bigger than a village, in Gujarat is the centre of Zoroastrianism today because it houses the Iranshah fire. Das has photographed around the Iranshah because Zoroastrians in India are not allowed to let people into the fire temple. Yet, he has evoked the complete atmosphere — the cultural heritage of the place — so beautifully. Without stepping into the temple, he has brought in the priest, people dressing up to go to a function, and so many things. So, it shows how much you can do even with the Parsi Zoroastrians and their laws. Even without breaking a law, you can evoke such a beautiful place. We have also had people in the movie commenting on the links between India and Iran. We are looking also at how the study or a glimpse of one culture can have a snowball effect to make you explore many other cultures.




The other point is why should we always have to travel West to study ourselves. It has been a sad part of our history as a nation or continent that we are always looking to the West to bring us together. The Everlasting Flame exhibition, because we worked so closely with Iran and have developed strong ties with it, celebrated Navroze with many Central Asian countries at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) recently since it is a common festival across the region and in Kashmir. We are trying to show the various ways in which we can interlink our continent, studies and encourage young South Asians or South-East Asians to look at themselves more critically from an academic as well as a cultural point of view. We have succeeded to a considerable extent because Iran’s cultural and tourism organisation made a large loan to the IGNCA and the National Museum. We could not obtain that in England (when the Everlasting Flame was held there) because of the sanctions against Iran. So, India has become a bridge between, say, SOAS (with which we have already been in touch) and the Iran government. This way, India can act as a very good facilitator for studies in the region and between the East and West. We are trying to be facilitators to show that while we belong, we can also stand back and study a subject academically. That is important because you need a certain discipline to study a heritage.

It is high time we became our own chroniclers and interpreters rather than waiting for a Western-trained academician to tell us how to think about ourselves. Take the training and discipline. But, with that training, let’s also interpret it ourselves.

It is my dream to see a chair in Zoroastrian studies, ideally in Pune because of its academic atmosphere, proximity to Mumbai — from where priests can visit — and the presence of the only Avestan calligrapher, Perin Pudumjee.


Literature helps


My English literature background helped me in the work. English literature opens your eyes to every aspect of life. I came into Zoroastrianism through William Blake. My PhD thesis was on William Blake and Zoroastrianism. Blake was an engraver who engraved Persepolis and did many Persian engravings, which he then used in his poetry. English literature makes you look at history, sociology, psychology, philosophy and of course, the classics. It also teaches you nuances, poetics, cadences. In any cultural study of a community, this is immensely helpful. Also, it teaches you to analyse and critique what you seeing. You don’t accept things at face value. You are always peeling the onion to go to the core. English literature helps you make connections. As I tell every new class, remember Forster: ‘Only connect.’ Once you make the connections, everything becomes one holistic vision. You have the ability to be critical but not unduly so. I am a proud Parsi but I also see the problems of being a Parsi. I recommend English literature to every human being.


(Cama is co-ordinator, International Everlasting Flame Programme, Co-curator, Everlasting Flame at the National Museum and Chief Curator, Threads of Continuity. She is also associate professor, department of English, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi and Honorary Director, UNESCO Parzor Project)


Published in The Education Times .