Dire need to conserve intangible cultural heritage

ICH: At the rate Bhutan is developing and modernising, there’s little time to preserve and promote its rich intangible cultural heritage (ICH), researchers say.

A researcher with the National Library and Archives of Bhutan (NLAB), Sonam Yudon said, “The rapid socio-economic development, and change in lifestyles with communities being exposed to the modern ways and amenities, are increasingly threatening the rich culture that the country takes pride in today.”

This coupled with the youth getting oriented towards western education and rural-urban migration has made documenting and preserving, in particular, the intangible cultural heritage, urgent.

The safeguarding, according to Bhutanese researchers, is becoming progressively challenging given numerous shortcomings such as lack of co-ordination among the responsible agencies, lack of awareness of ICH, funds, and skilled manpower.

Intangible culture heritage refers to aspects of culture that are non-physical such as languages, folksongs, drama, indigenous games, folk healing, beliefs and practices, folktales, legends, rituals and customs, festivals, and material culture reflecting craftsmanship and creativity.

Bhutan is not alone facing such problems. Participants at an international symposium yesterday from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also shared similar issues and challenges in safeguarding ICH.

A representative from the culture ministry of India, Usha RK said that a serious challenge is youth changing their occupation from that their parents practiced.

“This leads to discontinuity in the knowledge of the intangible tradition, leading to its disappearance in the near future,” she said.

In Bangladesh for instance, the popular art of cinema painting has died out in the face of competition with digital printed banners only in the past few years.

“This brings up the issue of inventorying and documenting what we actually have,” a representative of Bangladesh culture affairs ministry, SM Shamim Akter said.

However, the countries are implementing various measures through cultural exchanges, training, promoting ICH products and marketing, and documenting, among others to safeguard the ICH.

In Bhutan, numerous laws were enacted and some are in the process aimed at preserving and promoting culture, one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness.

Besides the Legal Deposit Act, Moveable Cultural Property Act 2005, few more are drafted such the National Archives Bill, Bhutan’s Cultural Policy, and the Cultural Heritage Sites Bill.

The culture department has been drafting the Intangible Cultural Heritage Bill since 2013. The bill would propose for two types of inventories – a general inventory that would include ICH element, and the other for those elements in need of urgent safeguarding.

Although Bhutan ratified the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH on June 20, 2005 in the 83rd session of the Parliament, it has yet to establish a national inventory on ICH, which is one of the requisites of the convention. NLAB only has a district-wise ICH database.

In an attempt to safeguard the Bhutanese intangible cultural heritage, the NLAB released a book, a culmination of its four-year research on various intangible cultural aspects yesterday. The book was a joint project between NLAB and the Republic of Korea. The Korean government granted Korean Won 166 million through the International Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Culture Heritage in Asia-Pacific region under the UNESCO fro the project.

Launching the book, home minister Damcho Dorji said that the Bhutanese ICH is in many ways unique in its richness and vibrancy mainly from influence of physical landscape, way of life and spiritual traditions rooted in Buddhism.

The book has five chapters on oral traditions, performing arts, traditional customs, rituals, ceremonies, and festivals, folk knowledge, and traditional craftsmanship.

The NLAB also has plans to document regional songs and dances, local culture or folklores, bring out a complete song book, hold competitions on Tsangmo and Lozey (ballads), document folktales and stories, research on mask dances, and music and musical instruments.

Tshering Palden

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