Indomitable spirit of intangible culture

A hallmark of current IIC director Air Marshal (Retd) Naresh Verma's focus has been amplifying the international component.

A great deal has been written and discussed about preserving intangible cultural heritage, though not nearly enough.

Unesco defined it in their 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage as follows: Intangible Cultural Heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills — as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith — that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

The recently-concluded annual IIC Experience Festival of the Arts presented by India International Centre, New Delhi, was again a superb contribution to sharing and celebrating aspects of both strong and fragile cultural heritage ranging from film to food, classical and folk visual and performing arts. A hallmark of current IIC director Air Marshal (Retd) Naresh Verma’s focus has been amplifying the international component.

An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life. This Unesco premise was definitely fostered through the Italian embassy’s film festival journeying through its cities, the food festival covering Asia from Israel to Thailand stopping over in Bihar.

Justin McCarthy’s new ensemble works in Bharatanatyam were a highlight that I unfortunately missed because of my own performance commitment in Bengaluru. Pierrot’s Troupe bravely performed Mohan Se Mahatma to mark the Champaran Satyagraha with director M. Syeed Alam stepping in to replace a mahatma of theatre, our dearly beloved and too-soon-departed Tom Alter.

Without doubt, celebrating cultural heritage “is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation”, but what prompted me to reflect on the indomitable spirit of intangible culture was the engaging folk dance and music performance from Cambodia.

It is impossible to think of Cambodian dance without reflecting on the devastation of their population, along with their culture, in the not so distant past. In my early years in India in the 1970’s, I was friends with a fellow foreign dance student from Cambodia. The difference was that, after arriving in India to add classical Indian dance to his Khmer classical court dance foundation, he found himself with no home to return to and no way to know if any of his family were surviving the genocide of the Killing Fields.

We all know that culture thrives in peacetime, but how is the wealth of knowledge and skills transmitted from one generation to the next when to have any knowledge at all, even to wear glasses, prompts a death sentence? When I met Phen Phan (if I remember correctly), my Cambodian dancer friend years later in Washington at his dance performance, I was able to get some understanding of the effort to reconstruct their classical dance heritage.

Ninety per cent of the professionally-trained dancers and teachers died along with almost two million out of a population of seven or eight million. The survivors have worked to rebuild a truly fragile cultural heritage post 1979. Dancers who were experts in particular roles of their highly sophisticated ritual and court dances were now in the position of each being a knowledgeable blind man reconstructing an elephant together.

It is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that they have successfully rebuilt so much. The dancers and musicians who shared a well choreographed folk dance and music presentation most likely lost their grandparents, who would have taught them directly if they had lived.

The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh trains children in dance in a nine-year course starting at the age of seven or eight. Thinking of Cambodian dance, I automatically visualise the 1,000-year-old Angkor classical court tradition, so it is good to know that folk traditions are also encouraged and included in the dance training curriculum. It was clear that the dancers had the solid classical training that values the constant flow of energy to the extremities, seeing the fingers bent back to form a crescent and the toes delicately flexed. The folk dance repertoire is created and choreographed to reflect regional life in the Cambodian countryside.

Dances included a charming group composition with coconut shells used like manjiras, a Komeng Provence choreography performed annually to a cave spirit with the boys dancing while playing mouth organs, an umbrella dance and concluding with an entertaining dance holding Cambodian and Indian flags.

Interspersing the dance items were musical presentations with unique Khmer pedestal-like drums, two and three stringed instruments (tro) a bamboo xylophone (roneat) shaped like a boat and Khloy flute which shares it use of the pentatonic scale with many world folk music traditions.

The appeal of these attractive folk dancers was the reassurance that, whether in a village square or a proscenium stage, the identity of Khmer culture survives in its dance.

The fragility with strength of intangible culture was brought home to me during a university ethnomusicology class when the professor stated that there were only three people in the world who could play the Burmese harp and then, after a dramatic pause, added that there have never been more than three people who could play this court instrument.

Whether thriving or endangered, celebrating, appreciating and supporting traditional performing arts is something that separates us from a loss of identity in the service of corporate globalisation. Kudos to IIC for its core commitment and support.

Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be contacted at

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