Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mauritius gains international recognition

By Sarita Boodhoo

A one-day consultative workshop was organised by the National Heritage Fund last Tuesday under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture. Formally opened by Arts and Culture Minister, Mr Mookeshwar Choonee who highlighted the richness of our multi-cultural heritage, which we have taken more often for granted, he set the tone of the workshop. He stated that it is amazing that in this small country, no less than 180 heritage sites have so far been inventoried. Many more have to be looked into and documented.

But coming to the intangible aspects of the cultural heritage, said Mookeshwar Choonee, we stand the danger of diluting some of these cultural traits in a fast-track route of globalisation. Uniformisation campaign of some to sap the diversity of the cultural legacy of the island is another threat.

As Mr Yash Nowbuth, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Arts and Culture and Chairperson of the National Heritage Fund put it so emphatically, we should be careful not to lose the essence and richness of our cultural legacy, so that the day may not come when the next generation will put us the question with an accusative finger: What have you left for us as heritage? That is, insisted Mookeshwar Choonee, why it is imperative that we take stock of the many elements of the multi-cultural traits of the Mauritian intangible heritage, which is an important segment of world heritage.

It is pertinent to place on record that the Government of Mauritius is one of the signatories of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the “Safeguarding of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage”. As the National Repository of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Mauritius, the National Heritage Fund has prepared a first inventory of the collective facets of our intangible cultural heritage. Therefore what was considered as “tradition” with a pejorative slant, or taken as mere passeist practices and caused to be relegated or dumped have, thanks to the UNESCO 2003 Convention, been restored to esteem and placed on the same pedestal of the multifarious cultural dimensions of humanity. And this includes Languages. No culture or linguistic heritage is inferior or superior. And none should be imposed on all.

One remembers how the world’s anthropologists were appalled and chagrined to learn of the disappearance of the BO Language with the death of the only person (woman of over 80) speaking it on the Andaman Islands. Well, then why should some people persistently wish the death of languages such as Bhojpuri? To harp day and night that it has no grammar and that it is insignificant as a language because the number speaking it has fallen? As if they are jubilating and celebrating to see its disappearance like that of the Bo Language. Fortunately, this is not the case. Considerable damage has already been done with these ugly and nasty negative comments becoming primetime media event à la une! Fortunately, UNESCO is spending huge funds for the restoration of not only endangered flora and fauna but also endangered linguistic heritage! This workshop which was happily an interactive event, has come at an opportune time.

What does the UNESCO 2003 Convention say? Amongst its many articles one may also peruse: “Community-based: Intangible Cultural Heritage can only be heritage when it is recognized as such by the communities, groups, individuals that create, maintain and transmit it.”

The UNESCO Convention proposes five broad domains of Intangible Cultural Heritage:

(1) Oral traditions and expressions, including Language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
(2) Performing Arts;
(3) Social Practices, rituals and festive events;
(4) Knowledge and Practices concerning nature and the Universe; and,
(5) Traditional Craftsmanship

It is along these lines that four elements have been prepared as a First List to be sent for inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity which includes (a) Traditional Mauritian Sega (b) Bhojpuri Folk Music/Song/Dance (c) Sega Chagossien and (d) Sega Tambour of Rodrigues.

These must fit the criteria formulated by UNESCO to merit acceptance in the same way that intense negotiations had to be undertaken by previous governments and bodies for Aapravasi Ghat and Le Morne to be accepted on the World Heritage List.

These are part of a First List. There are others that equally demand attention. For Mauritius is indeed a complex country with a vast multitude of intangible cultural elements that ask for consideration for example among others: the Jakri of the Marathi people which we just witnessed being performed in all its splendour for the Ganesh Chaturthi and still fresh in our memory; the Kolattum dance; the Chinese Dragon Dance, the Kawali of the Muslim community.

* Published in print edition on 16 September 2011

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