12.00  The Tangibility of Intangible Heritage: UNESCO ICH and Material Culture in India

9:00, Tuesday 7 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

In recent years, global heritage policy has reflected an increasing focus upon the intangible. Part of an attempt to de-centre the hegemony of Enlightenment-based, material-centred conceptions of heritage, this shift has resulted in the creation of the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage program, as well as the incorporation of intangible categories into UNESCO’s World Heritage program. While the fundamental interdependence between tangible and intangible heritage is now widely recognized, the heritage policy spotlight remains focused on the intangible and the intangibility of tangible heritage. This paper will make a case for considering the tangibility of intangible heritage through examining the material culture of India’s first UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, Kutiyattam Sanskrit theatre of Kerala.  

The initial questioning of hegemonic structures of heritage in organizations such as ICOMOS and UNESCO has led to a general increased awareness of intangibility, one that stresses that heritage does not lie in material objects themselves, but in the knowledge and intangible processes of meaning making that surround them. It has similarly led to a growing recognition, as Smith (2006) has asserted, that “all heritage is intangible.” However, the categories of tangible and intangible persist even within intangible heritage itself. Deacon (2004) has characterized this split as that between intangible values, or “aesthetic, spiritual, symbolic or other social values people may associate with a site,” and living heritage, or “rituals, music, language, know-how, oral traditions and […] cultural spaces.” This division is evident in policy at both the national and international levels, with policy concerned with intangible heritage associated with sites, objects, and places treated independently from that dealing with the safeguarding of intangible heritage largely independent of sites or objects. It persists in scholarship as well, with the former still generally the purview of those involved in the protection of the physical sites themselves – historic preservationists and archaeologists – and the latter with folklorists and anthropologists.  

Global heritage policy, concentrated primarily at UNESCO, has thus separately recognized the intangible aspects of tangible heritage in the UNESCO World Heritage program, and forms of heritage that are intangible themselves in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage program. Despite acknowledging the fundamental relationship between tangible and intangible heritage, one aspect that seems missing from the equation is the tangible aspects of intangible heritage, more specifically, the material culture of intangible heritage forms. While the UNESCO ICH Convention recognizes knowledge associated with the production of material objects, it largely ignores the tangible aspects of otherwise intangible heritage forms. 

In making this intervention, I am not trying to regress heritage policy or scholarship back to European dominated materialist paradigms, but to simply call for greater attention to what I view as the third leg of a tripartite model: the intangibility of tangible heritage;  intangible heritage; and the tangibility of intangible heritage. My attention in this paper to the material culture of Kutiyattam will therefore form part of a larger argument that the contemporary acknowledgement of the mutual dependence of tangible and intangible heritage in both heritage policy and scholarship should necessarily include the tangibility of intangible heritage. Focusing on only the intangible elements of this intangible heritage form would do the art a disservice, as its material culture is as vital to a complete understanding of the art as any of its intangible elements.

Harvard University
Fellow and Lecturer

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