The case for a national inventory of intangible cultural heritage
When Shadhona was granted accreditation by the UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in December 2019, it was definitely a special moment for Bangladesh. Shadhona, which had started out mainly as a dance institute, was also looking forward to taking up the herculean tasks that lay ahead of them in the coming months. Today, the organisation is mainly known for being a Centre for Advancement of South Asian Culture.
The ICH committee was created with the idea that intangible heritage is an area that requires a high level of expertise due to its complexity. "This level of expertise could only be reached by a committee inspired by similar experiences in the area of international environmental law," says Lubna Marium, noted dancer and artistic director of Shadhona. "Shadhona is the only non-governmental organisation from Bangladesh that has been accredited by the above ICH committee."
Much more than just a dance institute, Shadhona is committed to safeguarding ICH practices in Bangladesh. It is because of their work in preserving local art forms—such as Lathi Khela, Manipuri dance and performative practices of Manasamangal—that they were accredited at the 14th session of the ICH committee at Bogotá, Colombia. However, one of their flagship projects for which Shadhona has been truly praised is designing an online, community-based ICH National Inventory.
In the last two years, Shadhona had taken upon itself the ambitious task of creating a community-led inventory of intangible cultural heritage elements of Bangladesh via an ICH-pedia (much like the Wikipedia) by forming a multi-organisation forum called the Consortium for ICH-pedia, Bangladesh (CIB). CIB includes organisations such as Brotee, Bistaar, Bhabanagara, Manipuri Cultural Complex, Gidree Bawlee, etc. The ICH-pedia empowers people and communities to upload information about their own cultural practices, which is published after verification by an expert committee. "We have trained over a thousand students, community members, academics, and officers of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to upload information in the ICH-pedia," says Lubna Marium. "We have worked with ethnic communities like the Santhal, Mro, Hajong, Garo, Tripura, Chakma, Mahali, Patra, Barman, Karmakar, Khasia, Bishnupriya, Meitei, Orao and many others. It is important that the ICH-pedia is made entirely by the various communities, and with their written consent."
The inventory section on their website (shadhona.org) has a plethora of information on specific divisions, cities and cultural practices in Bangladesh. For instance, a click on "Chittagong" will let the visitor explore the oral and traditional expressions of the city through a popular book called Chattogramer Probad Probachan; learn about dudhak, a musical instrument played in the Hill Tracts; sampan boat building under traditional craftsmanship; Shefali Ghosh, the famous Chittagonian singer, and much more. Information and features on all the cities of Bangladesh are still being uploaded by the communities, which are of course being verified for accuracy.
This inventory has come too late, according to Lubna Marium. Bangladesh should have created this inventory more than a decade ago. "Bangladesh had actually signed the ICH Convention in 2009. The first stipulation of signing the ICH Convention is that the state must prepare an inventory of all ICH practices within its territory within two years of signing the convention. It is now 12 years and Bangladesh has not still prepared an inventory. This, in spite of a USD 200,000 fund for this purpose by the Azerbaijan government!"
According to Marium, in December 2017, Shadhona was commissioned by the UNESCO to prepare an assessment report about the status of the government's efforts to prepare a national inventory of ICH practices. "We did not just undertake an intensive pilot inventorying study of ICH in Bangladesh, in the selected area of Sylhet, of the Bangladeshi Manipuri community, we also prepared the initial framework for an ICH-pedia," she adds.
The second obligation of the state party to the 2003 Convention is submission of periodic reports on the legislative, regulatory and other measures taken for the implementation of this convention, especially the integration of ICH practices with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Marium adds: "We are ready to do this pro bono only if we can get proper recognition from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which is turning out to be a long-drawn-out process."
Despite several talks with the ministry, the ICH-pedia has still not been recognised. "Shadhona has been in correspondence with the ministry since mid-2018," says Marium. "Innumerable emails have been exchanged, and frequent meetings with the minister and various officials were held. Since September 2020, the CIB led by Shadhona has been in discussion with the ministry about the signing of an MOU, which till date has not come about. We have not received any valid reason for the delay. Every week, we receive notifications that the MOU will be signed in a couple of days." Shadhona has also been trying to convince the ministry to not just recognise CIB's ICH-pedia but also allow them to help the ministry to revise the National Cultural Policy of Bangladesh. "Various agencies of the ministry are supposed to move forward with the talks and finalise everything. I am not sure why this is taking so long."
Clearly, the authorities have failed in preparing an inventory and overhauling Bangladesh's National Cultural Policy to incorporate the requirements of the ICH Convention, adds Marium. "In fact, our Cultural Policy was last updated in 2006 and it's not consonant with the contemporary concepts of cultural management," she says. "For years, UNESCO has been requesting Bangladesh to fulfil its obligations. This year, 16 countries had applied for inscription of their ICH practices within UNESCO's global listing. Only Bangladesh's application was rejected, on the grounds that it had failed to fulfil the obligations of the ICH Convention. This was extremely embarrassing for all of us."
However, according to Jesmin Nahar, Senior Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the ministry has taken an initiative to continue work while maintaining procedures. "The ministry has undertaken a number of tasks as a signatory to the 2003 Convention. Creating an inventory is one of the major tasks in this regard," she says. "A memorandum of understanding is in the process of being signed with the Shadhona Consortium for inventory, which is currently at the Ministry of Law for vetting."
Nahar also adds that an inventory is also being made from Bangladesh National Museum, Bangla Academy, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, and Sonargaon Arts and Crafts Foundation. "We are almost done with the inventory on topics such as Rasa Purnima, Jatra Pala, Shakrain, Baul Sangeet, Shokher Haari, Patachitra, Shital Pati, Rickshaw Painting, Nakshi Kantha, and Patali Molasses. It will soon be available on our website with the approval of the National Committee. In the meantime, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy intends to preserve many lost intangible cultural customs of our region, and has already initiated a policy on the art form of Jatra Pala."
Regarding the delay in signing an MoU with Shadhona, Jesmin Nahar says that certain courses of action need to be considered before moving towards making an MoU with any organisation: "Maintaining the procedure and bringing in the opinions of departments, among other activities, are currently underway, but these have been delayed due to procedural reasons and the coronavirus pandemic," she adds. "It will be unwise to delay the matter any further. However, discussions and statements are not admissible when trying to formalise an initiative, especially if it is a government-based one, as it requires us to maintain strict official procedures."
"Now that the process has already reached the Ministry of Law for vetting, we have to wait until the formalities are completed. Meanwhile, steps are being taken to update the National Culture Policy 2006, and a separate provision for ICH has also been promised."
The inventory created by CIB under Shadhona's leadership is indeed a one-of-a-kind platform where culture enthusiasts, academics, historians and students alike would be able to learn about Bangladesh, no matter where they are in the world. A step towards going global, the ICH-pedia has definitely put Bangladesh on the world map, for all the good reasons.
Elita Karim is Editor, Arts & Entertainment and Star Youth, The Daily Star. Twitter: @elitakarim