In our contemporary context, the notion of heritage is largely misinterpreted. This essay tries to understand and correlate the notions of heritage with the practice of its conservation. It aims to further find the possibilities of redefinition of both, in a constantly evolving scenario.

Runner-Up | RTF Essay Writing Competition April 2020

Category: Do We Need To Redefine Our Heritage?
Participant: Bhavya Jain & Ujjvala Krishna
Profession: Student
University: CEPT University

In Greek mythology, the hero Theseus returns home after killing the Minotaur, set sail on his wooden ship and triumphant in his glory. On his return, the ship is preserved and kept in the harbour; though over the years the wooden parts rot and are replaced with newer pieces. Over time, every part is replaced, and thus the question arises whether the ‘restored’ ship is the same as the original. The ship of Theseus is a thought experiment that delves into some deeper questions. The ship, considered heritage by the people of Athens, is completely stripped of its authentic value, yet continues to be thought of as the original. This paradox further extends into the current notions of heritage.

What is considered heritage? Is it all that is of historical value? If so, then who decides what is of value, and gives it a tag of being of shared importance? When talking about heritage, it directly leads us to question the protection of it. But does the word automatically connotate preservation? Do only restoration, upkeep and maintenance count as heritage conservation, or does it extend to more? Before we go on and discuss these paradoxes, let’s take a moment to understand the existing definitions. Where did it all begin? At which point in history did humanity start finding value in the past, over creating value for the future? The tradition roots to the Renaissance period in Imperial Rome when the ‘preservation’ of artefacts, medieval ruins, and standing buildings became a popular concern.

Today, the UN’s World Heritage Centre (WHC) defines any structures, paintings, sculptures, inscriptions, or combination of these with Outstanding Universal Value, to be deemed as Cultural Heritage. In our country, the Archaeological Survey of India, formed by the British, was the first formal pursuit towards ‘protection’ of sites of historical importance. It is the prime governing body whose function is to “explore, excavate, conserve, preserve and protect the monuments and sites of National & International Importance.” The organisation carries the responsibility for preservation, conservation, and environmental development of centrally protected monuments and sites, including World Heritage Monuments and antiquities, however still lingering to its 160 year old manifesto to protect and preserve, making the mass interpretation of heritage very uni-directional.

The Oxford dictionary of architecture warns us not to get confused between preservation and conservation. While the former is considered to be limited to retention and maintenance, the latter can be comprehended to involve considerable intervention, while respecting the existing character, or even enhancing it.

Since the character of a building is defined by spatial and temporal contexts, it’s conservation becomes contextual too. A century ago, the practice of conservation of heritage in our country started by dealing with buildings which were meant to be monumental, emblems of prosperous kingdoms, symbols filled with bravado and overflowing with boastfulness, memorials for individuals, too prominent to be forgotten. The then conservation methodology, limited itself to the act of protection and hence, provided justice to the cause of the building’s existence. Abundant efforts were put into preserving the grandeur of the buildings in their original form, such that it almost sounds unnatural when you refer to them as buildings and not as monuments.

Heritage is often looked at through a peephole, and hence its scope becomes insufficient. With heritage having complex meanings, the scope of its interpretation also needs to be multifaceted. Today, heritage does include a variety of objectives, including the tangible and the intangible, however, its extent still remains woefully unaltered. If also accepted as intangible, then how does one start to only preserve?

Regrettably, the current notion of heritage has become the result of past conservation practices. This limited approach and its incessant, uncritical pursuit has plagued both, the concept of heritage and the subsequent practice of conservation. This limited view, raises barriers and inhibits us from understanding all the possibilities of redefining heritage, and in turn conservation. Only the buildings which deserve preservation and protection in their very original form, ever make it to the charts of heritage, limiting its purview to objects which can be frozen in space and time, and hence, adversely appropriating this interpretation of heritage to masses and authorities alike.

Of late, the understanding of architecture has evolved. It focuses on becoming more than just a beautiful object waiting for appreciation. Instead, architecture tries to influence its users, enhance their culture, and affect their lifestyle. It aims to bring people together, provide for their needs, and build a society, not just a structure. Architecture is ever changing to accommodate for the future, and so should the comprehension of architectural heritage. That brings us to the unequivocal need to redefine what heritage is, what makes a building deserving of conservation, and how should we conserve, so that the original intent is not lost.

The hurdle while defining heritage is that it is often looked at only in relation to the past. Value is associated only to those structures, artifacts, or environments that have played a significant role in examined history. Modern heritage is often overlooked, since attributing value to these is much more complex than the usual examples.

Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural heritage (INTACH) is an organisation which aims at communicating the aspects of conservation with masses and institutions. In their laid down guidelines, the criteria which help define heritage are historic significance, integrity, and context. However, it is necessary not to limit the understanding of these ideas to important events in the past. We must talk in detail about potentials in yielding information on economics, politics, culture, and various other aspects of society, and how the retention or modification of certain buildings will affect the socio-economic situation and the culture. Who are the people who truly relate to the buildings of interest and what impact would conserving or not conserving a building have on their sentiments and their culture.

To give an example, Ahmedabad is a city of many pasts. The city is peppered with evidence and symbols of the socio-economic, political, spiritual, cultural, and traditional histories. Be it grand mosques, gates and minarets, or an art installation in the middle of a crossing; be it streets of the Pols in the old city, or the comparatively newer bungalows designed by modern day masters; be it the temple courtyards or dynamic university campuses. It would be foolish to say that only a few of the many entities that dot the city, have shaped and will continue to build its character. It’s an agglomeration of all.

But, can all of these be considered as heritage for all? Many entities often remain vestiges of personal heritage, while a few hold value at a larger scale. The need of the hour is to be able to identify heritage at different levels, which in turn will sensitise individuals and communities towards it. This holds true for all levels, from a mohalla to a city, a group of professionals to institutions, and individual families to communities. Thus, depending on its attributes, informed decisions can be made on how to treat heritage. The act of conservation should have meaning for many at the present, and ideally continue to also have meaning over generations.

The lack of this relevance of the present impressions in the guidelines which govern the conservation practices in our country, and the popular schools of thought about heritage, have led to a general negligence towards the newer built heritage and the subsequent loss of recent histories, socio-economic engagements, and contemporary traditions. Further prolongation of this outlook might result in an erasure of associations for entire communities.

Redefining only the definition does not alleviate the problems, instead, by also accepting that heritage is a fluid notion, one that is constantly evolving, we can accept the constant fluidity of its definitions too. It is important to emphasize, at all levels in a society, and to responsible authorities, the importance of critically viewing the newer and ever evolving built heritage, which has shaped the bits and parts of our nation, and only then decide its fate. The reasoning needs to evolve. More relevance has to be given to all stakeholders in the identification and the intervention towards a shared heritage. Moreover, the practice of intervention of any kind, cannot be isolated from its context, nor the people it is valuable to.

Extending the myth of the Great Roe, a creature with the head of a lion and the body of another lion, let us say that each individual part also came from a different lion. The overall creature is a lion, though a sum of all differently important parts. Similarly, this idea may be extended to the general value of heritage, which is made up of multiple entities of various values. The diversity amongst these entities calls for different approaches of intervention, which may be preservation, protection, maintenance, retention, or adaptation; or a combination of these; and if befitting, even demolition.


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