What exactly is “cultural heritage”?

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Rajput Paintings of Rajput Princesses

What do we mean by the term ‘cultural heritage’?

For my British-Pahari readers, I have compiled a series of short posts to educate them about their cultural heritage, as a means of showing them that modern identities have never been around since time immemorial. Identities are the product of complex processes and can become contested; they may work for some people, but they may not work for others – thus the contestation. I begin this series by explaining ‘ideas’ behind the term ‘cultural heritage’

The dictionary definitions for the terms culture and heritage are varied. Fundamentally, both terms are positive in that they capture something of the human spirit to develop, excel and be at home in its environment with a deep desire for continuity and order. It is with this in mind that we should approach the topic of cultural heritage, for cultures wherever they are, are generally cherished and celebrated. For this reason, many speak of the need to preserve them, and in some countries, funds are deployed to make this expectation a reality.

So what do these terms mean ‘exactly’?

The term culture refers to ‘the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society‘.

Heritage, as the word explicitly implies, refers to the ‘inheritance of something’, which in the case of culture would imply the collective inheritance of ideas, customs and social behaviour by a particular group.

But, what does cultural heritage look like in the flesh and in material terms? We are speaking of man-made things, (‘artefacts’) produced by those embodying the cultural heritage. These artefacts can be dubbed cultural property and include buildings, monuments, paintings and art. In terms of the individuals that produced these wonderful things they embody collective norms that include folklore, traditions, language, dress, music and ‘knowledge’. These norms can be dubbed cultural norms. And so both cultural property and cultural norms are passed down from one generation to the next becoming the bedrock of the associated cultural heritage within the context of a shared environment, natural, spoilt or otherwise.

To summarise this in one simple sentence, cultural heritage is the legacy of any number of people defined as a ‘cultural people’ that is passed down throughout the ages.

It isn’t that simple or straightforward to define ‘people’ as ‘cultural peoples’. Different avenues are open to us which would muddy the description already given, and this is not to even mention the heated debates, mutually-felt animosities and controversies that surround such attempts.

There are a number of analytical frameworks we can use to determine cultural people, and these would include, for our purposes, nationalistic or ethnic frameworks. Both these terms refer to two very different realities although they can and sometimes do overlap especially where a ‘state’ broadly corresponds with a ‘nation’ giving form to the related phenomenon of ‘nation-states’.

But what do we exactly mean when we speak of nationalism and ethnicity? Both these concepts are recent in origin and we should be mindful our forbears, whether they thought of themselves in a particular way, or claimed their physical space, did not view their habitat through our modern concepts.

Let’s begin with nationalism.

It is an idea based on ‘sentiments’ that bind certain people or population(s) together usually as a policy of separatism. This aspiration is usually linked with movements for independence.

‘Ethnicity’ is based on the idea that human beings can be classified into distinguishable groups. Such characteristics, real, perceived or imagined are usually linked with racial traits, religious beliefs and practises and languages spoken, mutually or non-mutually intelligible. By racial traits, what is not implied is the idea that people have physical traits in accordance with their ‘race’ – this concept has been shown to be biologically flawed. There is no such thing as a ‘race’, although we do think of people on the basis of stereotypes about their ‘appearance’.

So to put this in the context of our discussion, nationalistic and ethnic representations of cultural heritage can only make sense by way of an ascribed ‘identity’. That identity, in terms of the two analytical frameworks  we’re using here, is usually presented through ‘nation states’ or ‘ethnic groups’, the one can be subsumed in the other and vice versa.

In the case of nation states, literally sovereign geo-political territories with clearly defined borders (how these territories came into existence is a separate discussion altogether), we are basically saying that peoples ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ that live in the ‘nation state’s’ territory are all one people by virtue of living together and thus having a shared sense of their present and future. They thus self-ascribe (‘freely identify themselves’) on the basis of their nation state’s ‘nationalistic’ labels and often times can be very patriotic about their identity. Unlike the positive values associated with culture and its celebration, nationalism can sometimes assume a dark underbelly where the patriotism in question morphs into fanaticism and exaggerated praise of one’s ‘nation’.

In the case of ethnicity or ethnic groups, we are saying that people ‘x’ as opposed to peoples ‘y’ and ‘z’ has its own shared heritage by virtue of a culture that distinguishes it from peoples ‘y’ and ‘z’. This is usually epitomised by obvious differences in language but there are of course other factors. Ethnic people may live together with other ethnic people within a geo-political ‘polity’ (an organised society) but it doesn’t follow that they see themselves as belonging to their ‘country’ (nation-state) by virtue of its territorial composition.

To elaborate, you can have different ethnic groups living together in the same nation state harmoniously, indifferently or in conflict. Alternatively you can have the same ethnic group living in two seperate nation states (usually neighbouring ones) peacefully, indifferently or in conflict either with their own nation state or the nation state of their neighbour. Obviously, why a nation would be in conflict with another nation (note, an ethnic group is a nation in its own right) internally, and externally (through the apparatus of the state) is the story of our modern world. Conflicts and disputes in nation states, some more violent than others, are usually about the inequitable distribution of resources and political and social alienation, and in most cases are the result of a lingering colonial legacy.

Whenever we speak of nation states and their emergence as a form of social organisation we are in fact speaking about the history of European colonialism post-1800 CE. This history influenced how we understand ‘countries’ and ‘peoples’ today, as if thinking of such phenomena has always existing in time and space, which they didn’t.

And so were we define a people either on nationalistic or ethnic terms, and howsoever we try to represent them as ‘oppressed‘, ‘oppressive‘ or ‘indifferent‘, we must understand our impulses have been affected by the ‘age’ and ‘societies’ we live in, vogues of understandings, attitudes and even prejudices. Furthermore, these realities are influenced by all sorts of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, some more complex to understand than others, but in a nutshell we mustn’t ignore the political landscape that a cultural people are forced to traverse often beyond their control.

As an area of study, these impulses are usually conceptualised through discourses on identity-politics.

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Associate Editor and researcher at the Portmir Foundation. Born and raised in England. Parents from Pakistan-administered-Jammu, from Mirpur which is not part of Kashmir Province or the Valley – these are themselves separate places; Mirpur is part of the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir “STATE”.

Love literature, poetry, film, art, music, sufism, Islam, travel, free thought, liberalism, and lots of other things. Have a particularly strong desire to learn about Indian history, the place my forbears are from, and I have no qualms identifying with India – partition made us ‘Pakistanis’ – not necessarily those of ‘us’ from ‘Azad’ Kashmir. I think partition was a bad idea, but I’m not averse to Pakistan either. I’m happy to have multiple identities and love the Pakistan of the ordinary person – the real Pakistan of the ordinary man, woman and children.

Okay, the official bit…

My opinions are not necessarily those of the Portmir Foundation; the Foundation does not do censorship and neither does it endorse my opinions; if you disagree with any us, and you’re from our background, write your own opinion piece and we’ll publish it.

2 COMMENTS

  1. What cultural heritage to speak of? There’s cultural excess baggage weighing the diaspora community down. If this continues we will soon be asking for special status as OBC”s *other backward castes* status.

    • That my friend is a very interesting proposition not least because our communities in the UK do exhibit “cultural behaviours” that are at odds with ‘modern living’ if I’m permitted to use that term; I have in mind individualism, personal autonomy and gender equality. The excess cultural baggage is perhaps a bigger hindrance for the free expression of these values, if left unaddressed, than the perceived danger of not preserving the culture for fear of it going extinct.

      How are you going to find the right balance Adnan?

      Plus, I thought you said cultures are fluid and ever-changing, so why can’t we just accept the inevitable wherever the inevitable takes us? What exactly are we trying to ‘save’?

      “Khari na Jat” lol:) thinks this is some existential crisis on the part of some impetuous AJK expatriates lol – a tad unfair I think, but an observation all the while?

      “Khari na Jat” (I don’t know why I just want to laugh when I read your handle :)), all you need now is a green chadar wrapped around you reminiscent of the good old ‘Sufi’ days! I will get back to you on your other, insightful and heartfelt comments, and drop an email about Gedmatch.

      Indeed temperance is needed; thank you for pointing that out. This whole “us” against “them” is stupid and childish, without minimising our own investiture in this polity called ‘A’JK, even if some of our number feel Pakistani like you do. I think personally if you are living in ‘A’JK, and are aware of what is happening in ‘A’JK, feeling Pakistani would be a little difficult to reconcile with other impulses. And this is particularly true for those of you now living in Pakistan. I doubt the ‘Islamabad Mirpuris’ would give a rat’s behind about Mirpur now, many of them don’t even self-affirm as Mirpuris. But why should they? For them Mirpur is a District in AJK, part of Pakistan, not an identity that they are permanently wedded to. Ultimately this is politics and we shouldn’t confuse ethnicity with politics, but that’s just the nature of identity politics, so how on earth are we going to separate the two? If you happen to be on the winning side of this conundrum, I don’t think you could just ‘hope away’ these problems by entreating your fellow countrymen to behave themselves and just get along with one another. Isn’t that a luxury?

      Personally I think it’s a pretty hopeless situation.

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