The purpose of writing these words on ‘conservation’ is to distinguish between a point of view which sees cultural goods as property and one which sees them as information about life processes.
In recent times conservation practice has been determined by the notion of ‘cultural property’: whether at the scale of objects like painting and sculpture and everyday-use objects; or buildings and groups of buildings; or environments like towns and cities; and natural regions like forests and watershed areas and park lands, etc. Regarding these as ‘property’ leads to determining their physical dimensions so that they can be protected over time, during which period their value will be enhanced, primarily for purposes of transfer and exchange. We assign value in such a scenario to an object, building, or environment according to our view of history as a record of empires. The instruments of such protection become physical enclosures as well as social enclaves which can only be sustained effectively as elites. Thus, the practice of conservation becomes an exercise dependent on boundary determination and exclusivity.
As societies age, their ability to sustain civilizational norms becomes crucial. In India, we take great pride in the fact that our civilization is ancient and that we have sustained for centuries; a cultural matrix which is rich and varied. It may therefore be useful to examine the features of this sustainability.
To my mind, one of the most significant features of the culture of this subcontinent is the ability to include other cultures in its mainstream. I suspect this is made possible by the clarity of the ethical and philosophical systems developed on this subcontinent, as well as by the existence of a variety of natural environments and habitats in close proximity: mountains, river basins, deserts, coastal plains and highlands, rain forests, and islands; all within one or two days travelling distance. This combination of physical features and spiritual understanding is unique, and raises the perspective of cultural inclusion based on an ethos of tolerance and mutual cooperation. Such an ethos assigns value to life sustaining processes and the notion of continuity. The translation of this notion into a set of practices dependent on the generation and maintenance of a system of beliefs and customs, which grounds the original notion of continuity in the rhythm of daily life. Such a system requires the integration of doing and learning. History becomes a chronicle of significant lives, having more than an archival function, reaching out to the largest audience through a variety of media, from the spoken word to dance and drama. Cultural goods acquire significance in terms of the information they carry about the processes of life enhancement.
The need to make a distinction between these two points of view arises not because these are mutually exclusive. In fact, both points of view are necessary in designing the framework for conservation practice. The distinction is, however, crucial since not enough importance is attached normally to the latter point of view, thereby making the design of conservation programs somewhat skewed. This results in such programs becoming elitist in approach, engineering oriented in their operational details, and expensive to undertake and sustain. Given the economic conditions prevailing in our country, it is not surprising that such an approach inhibits the effective spread of conservation practice. It even creates in the minds of the general public a disturbing distance from the traditions they value and which are the foundations of their culture.
It is easy to observe that there is a very large number of people who subscribe to the ideal of conserving our heritage. What does surprise is that the vast creative energy represented by this large number is not able to be harnessed to the practice of conservation. Perhaps the specialists in conservation have to devote more thought to finding a creative balance between the two points of view described here, in order to ensure the continuity of our traditions.