I arrived at my fellowship post at Khamir, just outside Bhuj, Gujarat, in Kacchh district, in mid-September. Immediately, I was struck by the campus, built in 2007 by architects who focused on utilizing indigenous materials and techniques, and how it seemed alive with activity (human and non-human).
On my first evening, I wandered into the main hall following the sounds of Kacchhi pungi (double-flute) and dhol (drum) and skulked along the back wall watching a performance of folk musicians for a group of visiting students.
The experiences of my first day came together in my mind around a specific theme, one relevant to Khamir’s mission of revitalizing the traditional craft heritage and industry sector, and the project I will be embarking upon to raise awareness and disseminate information about crafts for local students: the importance of preserving indigenous cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible.
This theme was one that I explored further during my first real hands-on experience for Khamir: from October 3-7, I helped set up and run craft workshops during Living Lightly, an exhibition of nomadic pastoralist cultures in India, with a specific focus on the pastoralist peoples of Kacchh. The exhibition, which included performances, workshops on pastoralist goods (including
camel milk products) and social policy (particularly the Forest Rights Act), and displayed many photo essays—including photos taken by pastoralists themselves in an attempt to learn from within (a term I prefer rather than “learning from below”).
Culture encompasses the beliefs, knowledge, rituals, and all material creations and products used within a community. Therefore, when we refer to cultural preservation there is inherently a double mandate to preserve the tangible—things like buildings, furniture, crafts—as well as the intangible—beliefs, traditions, and knowledge. Both of these go hand-in-hand; a craft is certainly lost if we preserve the final product but not the knowledge of how it was made. Ephemeral cultural objects, such as performance-based arts, are also an important part of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Cultural preservation, therefore, plays an integral part in the field of international development.
Living Lightly focused on raising awareness of pastoralist communities throughout India, with a focus on the region of Kacchh, in order to showcase the rich, erased history and culture of those peoples. During the Raj, these communities’ ways of life were outright criminalized—they were regarded as “Denoted Peoples” and monitored as criminals and deviants (akin to the treatment of Roma and Sinti peoples in much of Europe). This legacy continued after independence as well. Partially due to these policies, many nomadic pastoralists settled into cities and towns and forgot how and why their ancestors cared for livestock. Even today, colonized attitudes persist toward nomadic pastoralism and traditional livelihoods and these populations face marginalization. Regardless, millions of Indians rely on traditional modes of living to support themselves and many choose to cherish their cultural heritage—which is a right in and of itself.
During Orientation for the Clinton Fellowship, our cohort underwent a process of co-creating our values for the class. One suggestion I put forward was that we should be deliberate about our actions to enact decolonization in the Indian context through our work in the field. I’ve been constantly reminded of this term as I reflect on the preservation of cultural heritage—because acknowledging and preserving material and intangible culture of marginalized peoples is a form of pushing back against colonial and neo-colonial imperialism. It’s asserting that those on the margins matter—at the least, reminding the status quo of their existence, their resilience, and their own forms of rejecting mainstream ways of life.
At the same time, we must be careful not to romanticize the lives of nomadic pastoralists, because facades of a culture do not do them justice, and are their own form of erasure. There are very real problems facing marginalized cultures—from resource scarcity to climate change—and there is a need to understand culture itself as dynamic (and at times needing of change). Who dictates when and how change happens, however, is a key component of ensuring social policy is occurring along with enacting decolonization. We must learn from within these groups, alongside with them, and facilitate development in a way that allows them autonomy over their own culture.
During Living Lightly, I monitored a series of craft workshops facilitated by expert artisans for interested members of the general public. Each day a different workshop was held on a precious craft tradition, including hand spinning wool and embroidery by artisans from Kacchh.
Although I wasn’t able to catch all the nuances of the instructions, which were often in Gujarati or Kacchhi, I could clearly understand how important it is to conserve knowledge about how these objects are created and why. In addition to preserving unique and beautiful art objects, what we’re really preserving are the stories of a culture.
For example, the artisan from an village of lacquer woodworkers explained to the crowd how his community traditionally collected lacquer resin from trees and added natural pigments, and how they utilize a simple hand-lathe to create enough friction to apply colors to a wooden object, but simultaneously he told of years-long Hindu-Muslim interdependency and camaraderie prevalent in his ancestral village—a topic I’ve been interested in learning more about given Kacchh’s location on the border with Pakistan. The stories of these communities were intertwined with the creation of the craft, and it’s important to spotlight these sorts of experiences if we are to learn about tolerance in a pluralistic society.
Although I wasn’t able to see everything or understand everything at Living Lightly, I could grasp the importance of such educational events, and how the general public responded positively to learning about traditional ways of living. Outreach and education about marginalized populations, with members of those communities as partners in the endeavor rather than static objects of study, has an important ripple effect on changing policy in a democracy, as more people are made aware of the challenges facing these communities, and more resources are eventually directed toward them (possibly first through civil society organizations and eventually through government means). Uncovering and treasuring erased knowledge and ways of living are an entry point understanding how different communities relate to their environment, to each other, and to society as a whole.
Living Lightly will be showcased once again in Bangalore next spring, and I encourage anyone in the area to check out this unique opportunity to walk alongside pastoral communities of India to learn about their journeys, experiences, and cultural heritage.