Long live heritage


What is heritage? Is it a habit, a monument, a song, a story, a vintage dress, photographs, a ritual or just a tale handed down over generations? Vithal C. Nadkarni tells us it is all this and more. It is humanity’s collective birth right, he says.

So you thought genes were the only things you inherit? What about those vintage jeans (pun intended) you ‘inherited’ as hand-me-downs when your sibling flew off to Lady Liberty’s Land? The word `Heritage’ comes from the old French word heriter which refers to “that which may be inherited”.

As applied to an individual, heritage would cover your father’s antique pocket watch, your mother tongue and grandmother’s heirloom jewellery. Collectively, heritage would include such awe-inspiring beauties as the Taj Mahal or the monolithic marvel called Sri Kailasanatha temple at Ellora.

All things big and small
But heritage does not necessarily have to be big and brash; bold and beautiful. Nothing is too small, insignificant, remote or too drab when it comes to culture and heritage. Literally, everything is grist to the heritage mill. By that token, heritage is to be found in the Mumbai CST building, which bristles with gargoyles, domes and spires.

Heritage resonates in the ragas of Haveli sangeet and in sakis and Sufi qawwallis; not to forget the dhuns of the Nathas and kirtans of Gurubani. Proverbs, recipes and all our quaint ways of doing things or not doing things (like the way a Gujarati woman drapes her sari versus a Coorgi or a Parsi), everything is worthy of being branded as ‘heritable baggage’ of humans.

Faced with such a grand vastness of things and non-things inheritable, “heritage” inevitably turns into a protean term of gargantuan proportions. This brings to mind St. Paul’s astonishing metaphor of “becoming all things to all people” (in order to save the souls of some by all possible means). We should, however, remember that what’s `heritage’ for one generation may not necessarily be so hoary or meaningful for another.

Also, it would be impossible to save all (heritable) things for all time. For Time is a mighty leveler. How mighty can be seen from Percy Shelley’s well-known poem Ozymandias: In 13th century BC, the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II calling himself “King of Kings”, ruled over a vast empire. By Shelley’s time, nothing remains of Ramses’s giant statue except a shattered bust, a noseless eroded visage and “trunkless legs” surrounded by “nothing” but “level sands” that “stretch far away”. Shelley is thus alluding to our fragility and the fate of artefacts and cultivated things that count for our heritage.

But hold on. Not everything is lost. We still have the heritage of the Pharaohs in the form of the poem. So how did they recover the Pharaoh’s identity from his statue? Through language of course; because of the inscriptions on the pedestal – “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits”.

The keys to conserving heritage
Language and memory are the keys to inscription, re-visitation and resurrection. This ensures continuity in the face of inexorable change. Of course technology helps. As does economy. Or more specifically, moolah, slang for what the good doctors of charity and endowment would refer to as Vitamin M. The regular infusion of this is recommended for the continued cultural health of our body politic!

Let’s consider some specific examples. How many of you know a bhajan called Raghupati Raghav Rajaram? Well, you also ought to be flattered to know that the same song was also a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi. Now let’s see how many of you know the exact words of the first line of this iconic song? Raghupati Raghav Rajaram / Patit Pavan Sitaram. I admit I did not have to Google this because I learnt the lines in childhood. But what if I hadn’t learnt the song? It doesn’t matter because I am still able to access it thanks to YouTube. The video-sharing website has several versions of the Raghupati Raghav song. Their existence on the internet can therefore be cited as an example of successful preservation of our collective musical heritage.

Now a caveat. There is more to preservation of heritage than number of hits or blind TRPs. The Raghupati Raghav song, for example, has a fascinating history that is not recorded on YouTube. Moreover, the commercially recorded version available on the site does not preserve the entire song.

You have to go to Wikipedia to discover that this commercial version sung by Pandit D.V. Paluskar was set to music by his father, the visionary musicologist Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. The fact that this song was sung by Gandhi and his followers during their 24-day Dandi Salt March is what makes it a historically significant piece of our collective cultural heritage.

But the Wikipedia only reveals a partial genealogy of Raghupati Raghav. The lyrics favoured by Bapu were adapted from an “original Hindu text Shri Nama Ramayanam written by Lakshmanacharya”.

By digging elsewhere one finds that Lakshmanacharya was a Sri Vaishnava devotee. He collated the 108 names of Sri Rama, ostensibly in the17th century, by placing the names chronologically as in the cantos composed by the first poet (AdiKavi) of Sanskrit, Valmiki.

But who changed, “Sundaravigrahameghashyam/ Ganga tulsishaligram” to “Iswar Allah tero naam/ sabko sanmati de bhagwan”? The name of that anonymous poet eludes your humble writer despite considerable sleuthing and prowling done in the highways and back alleys of a most magical place known as Scriptland!

All I can say at the moment is we need to celebrate the unsung genius of this ecumenical master. For it heroically strives to bind India into one nation and its citizens of diverse faiths into one people (just as this magazine does), regardless of whether they follow Allah or Ishwar!

Now let us return to the digital avatar of Paluskar’s Raghupati Raghav Rajaram. He too departs from the “Ishwar/Allah” text only to take it back 700 years. He does so by beginning his one-line chant (which is taken up by a chorus to a crescendo) with a Sanskrit verse. Now this by itself is a tour de force of cultural revival: for the verses, which are set to the Hindustani raga Jaijaivanti, were composed by Sri Sharangadeva, a Kashmiri prodigy from the Devagiri Yadava royal court of early 13th century. In his chant, Sharangdeva celebrates pure sound or Nada, which he says, is nothing but the universal life force (Chaitanyamsarvabhutanam), which produces bliss or Ananda to first capture and then liberate the listener! Alas, Paluskar’s three-minute song preserves just the first four lines from Sharangadeva’s encyclopaedic ‘Ocean of Music’ (Sangita Ratnakara).

To get to the full lyrics of the prose-poem you still have to go to the hard copy in the brick-and-mortar world; to the two-volume edition of Sharangadeva’s magnum opus, which is available as a Maharashtra government publication. Incidentally, Sharangadeva occupies such a stellar place in India’s music heritage that a living maestro of the calibre of Pandit Jasraj thought it fit to name his son after the Kashmiri master.

The moral of the story here is when it comes to heritage preservation, we don’t have the luxury of a single one-shot, one-size-fits-all ‘solution’. You need the Internet and its prodigeous archival power. You also need brick-and-mortar libraries and their serried racks upon racks of mouldering books. But most vital of all, you need embodied human consciousness and its curiosity, its thirst for knowledge and nostalgia. You need faith in the power of the mind over matter, which essentially defeats the inertia of oblivion to preserve culture and heritage as humanity’s collective birth-right.


Vithal C. Nadkarni

Vithal C. Nadkarni is a senior consulting editor and columnist with the Times of India Group of Publications. He is also a fellow of the London-based 21st Century Trust and a recipient of the US-based Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.