Coordinating Issues Of Culture & Heritage In A Time Of Opportunity And Threat

Chatterjee, Ashoke former Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad from 1975-85 retired as a Distinguished Fellow in 2001. Ashoke Chatterjee is on the board of directors of Aid to Artisans, USA among several other organizations. His vast interests include water management and environmental issues. He has spearheaded the movement to find a solution to the crisis faced by the weavers of Varanasi.

1)      What is at stake? The issues require definition. As a civilization, and as an emerging global power, India’s future may depend on its ability to conserve, strengthen and build Indian resources of identity and creativity in a world in which progress is often mistaken as mimicry of the most powerful. This is reinforced by current debates within the country and worldwide on the need for a holistic approach to what constitutes human development (away from mere statistics), to the growing irrelevance of consumerism to the future of the planet, and to resolving the ‘million mutinies’ of those afraid of their identity being crushed and of being further dispossessed of their culture and resources. The stakes are huge, involving millions of lives and the very identity of ourselves as Indians.


2)      To address this issue demands a joint response of sensitivity and action across many stakeholders. The cultural and creative resources that can address this challenge do not fit neatly into sectors of development planning. The issues represent a ‘sector of sectors’. They call for shared understanding, sensitivity and action across a range of current roles, responsibilities and programmes. It is for this reason that a Coordination Committee is being suggested so as to bring together experience, knowledge and wisdom that can influence the future of planned growth.


3)      The issues are cultural (a strong Indian identity that brings traditional wisdom and contemporary knowledge to bear on the movement toward modernity), social (empowering citizens with a sense of self-confident identity that is humanist, embraces diversity and that is open to the world), economic (assuring sustainable livelihoods for millions as well as the creativity and innovation provides a cutting edge for success in national and international trade), political (returning to millions of citizens their sense of self-worth and participation within a vibrant democracy), and environmental (ensuring far better harmony between human society and nature so as to protect this and future generations). It is for this reason that the proposed Coordination Committee reflects such a wide range of backgrounds and activities. To ensure cohesion in what this Committee can contribute, there is therefore the need articulate the cross-cutting issues before attempting to work on particular elements.


4)      None of this should be new to Indians. These attitudes and perceptions were forces within the movement for Freedom, and the foundations of thought articulated by the Mahatma, Gurudev and other founding fathers. They attracted world attention then, and again now as great changes have encouraged the world to seek alternatives. It looks once again to Indian wisdom for creative solutions to development paradigms now challenged as unsustainable.


5)      The challenge to India is therefore to demonstrate alternatives, and to do so on a scale commensurate with both national and global need. Alternatives need to demonstrate that human and natural wellbeing can progress together, on the same trajectory, rather than at the cost of one another --- and that progress on these terms  reinforces  democracy, diversity and sustainability.


6)      This is clearly a task of influencing attitudes and generating an ability to strengthen and coordinate the fragile resources for our cultural, social and political integrity. The intangible heritage is one part of this. Yet the term needs understanding in a local context of strengthening an Indian ability to resolve today’s problems in a manner that is harmonious with tomorrow’s needs. This task demands creative and innovative thinking and action. While it certainly has a global dimension, the task at home needs to be given first priority before we can place before the world ‘the strength and excellence of India’s Intangible Cultural Heritage’. There has never been any dearth of global respect for India’s heritage. The problem is that at home there are those who doubt the relevance of this heritage to current aspirations of growth and power. Indeed, aspects of our heritage such as craft are dismissed as ‘sunset activity’ while others (such as Japan, Korea, Italy and Scandinavia) protect and encourage artisans as their most important resource for creativity and innovation in fiercely competitive markets, while agencies in the European Common Market declare that “The future is handmade” (Prince Claus Fund, The Netherlands).


7)      A major reason for this dichotomy is that the contribution to growth by so-called creative and cultural industries can be difficult to measure with conventional instruments. Perceptions of the ‘unorganized sector’ fail to comprehend traditional patterns of organization. Thus for example, the contribution of crafts industries (acknowledged as the largest source of Indian employment after agriculture) to the national economy remains relatively unknown. Cultural industries extend well beyond crafts. Recent efforts have helped highlight the large variety of living, skilled-based traditions as well as the expanding design and media industries, suggesting a huge work force and an incredibly diverse demographic. Some 800 million Indians still remain poor and vulnerable. The organized sector can absorb only a fraction of them. Unless a more reliable data-base can be generated to reflect the contribution of  ‘cultural and creative industries’ to the economy, it is likely that their contribution to India’s social, political and environmental integrity will continue to go by default. The risk of this to India’s future stability is therefore enormous.


8)      The growing field of cultural economics is testimony to the fact that the limitations of policy-making based purely on economic theory are being acknowledged. International agencies (including the World Bank, UNDP, UNCTAD, WTO and UNESCO) are encouraging greater understanding and research in this area through parameters including those set out by UNESCO.  Important and useful as these are, the need for India is to establish its own integrated view and to demonstrate this in national planning. In doing so, India can enhance relevant international Conventions to which it is a signatory, while enriching these with fresh understanding and evidence of culture and heritage as forces for development that is human and genuinely sustainable.




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