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It is through their specific knowledge that indigenous communities come to realize their identity. It is a form of constructing their culture, which forms a vital part of their survival means. Communication is an essential part of these knowledge systems. The perception of the general audience towards knowledge systems that evolve from indigenous communities in regional areas is rather one-dimensional. They tend to dismiss it as folklore – a highly misconstrued word. Folklore suggests myth, falsifications, assumptions, and distorted memory. It is rather, a discipline that transpires from a deep study of tradition. As stated previously, indigenous communities tend to share an intimate, survival-based relationship with the environment.
One such rich example is of the Neo-vaishnavite monks and the Sattra community in the river island of Majuli, near Assam, India. The largest river island of Asia is slowly being eaten away by the mighty Brahmaputra River, which takes away parcels of land every year. The landscape of the island is dotted with Sattras (neo-vaishnavite monasteries), where monks live with their disciples. Their daily engagements are through the religious worship of Lord Krishna, which occupies the center of their living quarters. Nature, religion and daily life are intertwined along with strict schedules and specific activities. These Sattras are also known for being centers of traditional crafts and performing arts (cite). Each monk in a Sattra is assigned a young male disciple, to whom he must convey the specific ways of living, the specific knowledge embedded in their religion, and the specific culture embedded in their natural surroundings. The materials used for their structures, their daily food and their daily occupation are in tandem with the forces of the landscape.
Every year in the island, there is the Raslila, a festival celebrating and worshiping Lord Krishna through theatrical plays, religious performances and prayers. Pop up theaters of bamboo spring up all over the island, traditional masks and costumes are made, songs are sung, lamps on high bamboo stands are lit, and the whole landscape is transformed. The festival exhibits the peoples shared knowledge which they pass on to the young disciples, with the hope that it survives as long as the island does. After the festival is over, all the ephemeral objects with it are wiped out, leaving only light traces. They come from, and go back to nature. Another annual phenomenon is the wrath of the monsoon. The Brahmaputra floods major parts of the island. As water becomes their new ground, they have to shift their means of living to adhere to modified methods of living. The river eats up not only the land, but the impalpable cultures, dances, language, food, stories, everyday practices and their memories. They have more strict forms of passing on their information, and hence their memories. Memory needs a social context to survive (cite). But in this constantly eroding social and physical context, how does one begin to conserve this regional memory? Another threat to regional memory is their relationship with specific forms of natural landscapes. Their knowledge systems depend heavily on engagement with nature, which is itself under grave threat. Predominantly, here the indigenous knowledge systems can survive only by safeguarding the environment due to which they are produced.
What happens when festivities are dissociated from the landscapes in which they emerge? The indigenous knowledge systems that stem from festivals celebrated in natural landscapes are dislodged when taken over to a more urban landscape. A certain cultural amnesia is bound to occur in this process. The harvest festival of Thai Pongal is celebrated with great spirit all over Tamil nadu. From the remotest village to the more urban centers and even Tamilians now living in different parts in the country engage in the festivities.
More traditionally, the harvest festival of the farmers is in honour of the Sun God, in giving thanks to Mother Earth, the rain, other natural elements, and cows for a bountiful harvest (cite). Earthern pots are filled with milk and rice, cattle are decorated with bells, decorative designs are drawn, temples are full of chanting prayers and songs. Old items are discarded and the new is welcomed. Earlier, old clay utensils were ritually broken and potters were asked to supply fresh stocks. Farmers celebrated them in their farmlands creating fire heaths of brick and temporary gathering spaces. Historically the strict caste- rules adopted by Brahmins allowed certain rites and spaces only to the caste privileged. Even as societies and ideologies have evolved since, yet in some villages, certain rituals are performed by certain rank of individuals in designated spaces.
Brahmins and Non-Brahmin still have disparities in their ways of celebrating in villages. These disparities evaporate in the more urban settings. The ideology of the festival shifts to addressing the more universal values of lifes renewal; forgetting the old that the festival embodies. The objects used and the procedures followed are modified to fit into urban scales and lifestyles. In some areas, in order to recreate traditional settings, food festivals are celebrated with stalls and dinner parties where the traditional meals are cooked and sold. Steel and plastic utensils are used instead of earthen ware and sticker rangolis (decorative patterns on a sticker paper) replace the powered-rice liquid medium. In such settings, many actions have a more symbolic nature due to the change in medium.
The indigenous systems morph into mere points of verbal reference. This removed context, although it makes attempts to safeguard the cultural memory, it is not without its loose ends. Connerton (cite), in his article ˜Cultural memory, discusses the experience of memory in the era of modernity. He states that the instruments of memory in the past century have significantly altered the way the modern man remembers or forgets things. He speaks of how laboratories, libraries, print media, documents, visual media that proliferate urban memory are an instrument of state.
Urban memory decontextualizes traditional cultural forms, while also creating its own layers of meanings. These are controlled by larger collective forces, which the individual is lesser and lesser in control of.
Memory in itself is intangible and can be inherently private. By choosing memory(ies), we are constantly adding, eroding and creating our cultural heritage. Intangible knowledge systems tend to be more fragile, since now they occupy lesser portions of modern collective memory. Another risk to indigenous knowledge systems is the methods of formal education. They adopt the Western science approach which seem more valid in a fast globalizing world. Warren (year) states that in indigenous systems, local knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society “ contrasts with the international knowledge systems which is generated the global network of universities and research institutes.
A large part of our collective memory is hence clouded by international knowledge systems in the present times. Indigenous knowledge systems are considered as being within the circle of the minority and the subaltern. The indigenous falls outside Western ideologies, and hence their knowledge is ignored easily by larger nationalist and political forces that govern the larger societies. The curated memories hence produced are the societys own moral versions of the past. The past is then not a foreign country, but a filtered and sanitized version of our own. Indigenous knowledge systems are also propagated as backward and isolated, hence they do not make way into contemporary consciousness. The erosion of indigenous knowledge is trigged by exogenous forms of communicating them.
Also, deliberate social and political amnesia has accompanied nationalist ideas since time immemorial. Indigenous Knowledge systems have specific solutions pertaining to social contexts. They add value to existing knowledge. Such knowledge can be used to foster empowerment and justice in a variety of cultural contexts. Indigenous systems are based on a history of tried and tested ideas, working in tandem with natural processes, with local sensibilities and available recourses. They have a sustainable approach to solutions, a sustainable means of communicating issues.
As the world grapples with increasing environmental problems, a slow realization of the values of the indigenous communities has occurred. However, this understanding is still a minority. Introduction of this knowledge into formal education programs is another means by which this change can occur. There needs to be drive to incorporate indigenous knowledge systems into sustainable development strategies. They need to occupy a larger consciousness, as a part of collective memory. Only then will emerge a more sustainable development approach. Our understanding of the concepts of memory in turn shapes our understanding of cultural heritage and its forms in the present.
To shift the ground, can we insist on the focus of the intangible, as equally important as the tangible, to shape collective consciousness? Perhaps this will provide room for more discussions in which the indigenous will have a stronger voice within the field of cultural heritage and also, in our memories.
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