Cultural and natural heritageCultural heritage speaks through the performance of nature, which has multifarious forms.
I was struck by a few questions when I received an invitation to deliver a keynote speech on the theme "Cultural and natural heritage" at an international conference in Pokhara jointly organised by the Department of English at Prithvi Narayan Campus of Tribhuvan University and Pokhara University Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences on June 16.
The questions are: Can there be a heritage of nature, and does it connect with the cultural heritage? These two questions have been addressed in South Asia for millennia, the evidence of which exists in the art forms, literature and music in this part of the world. But the relationship is evoked strongly by academics, ecologists and humanists today more than ever. The subject of this relationship has very subtle aspects that are addressed carefully by scholars and performance artists more than any other agency. But the other remarkable part of the story is that the politicians, governments and economic organisations have started harping on this relationship between the heritage part of nature and the nature-savvy part of cultural traditions. A short paper cannot do justice to this theme. That is why I am presenting the gist of my longer keynote text in the following paragraphs.
Some of my perceptions are visceral, and I see this phenomenon as the standard feature of natural and cultural heritage. The heritage forms are architected both by humans and nature, sometimes marked by rage, tumults and at other times by its benign avatars. The commonality of nature and cultural heritage may bring to mind the picture of the ancient places of this region and outside, like the Angkor Wat of Cambodia, for example. I was awed to see the temples that are entwined by the roots of the ancient tropical trees. This intertwining of trees and cultural sites is a very eloquent metaphor. But the semantics of my title evokes the consonance of South Asian nature and human-created heritage.
My theory is that the only way of understanding the heritage of nature should be seen in the human performance of nature. By performing nature, we can appreciate nature's cultural heritage and spirit. As a theatre person and writer of plays, I want to present my arguments in the light of discussions about the dynamics of performance culture.
My belief is that cultural heritage speaks through the performance of nature, which has multifarious forms. All forms of cultural heritage become articulate using physical movements in their kinaesthetic and aesthetic forms. The dynamics of motion and performativity latent in these forms show their character and roles in our lives. This is also the character of nature that is mobile, active, quiet and subtle, as described in Peter Wohlleben's books The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) and The Heartbeat of Trees (2021). The theme of grand quietude is revealed through the scientific study of trees in these well-known books.
South Asia's story of communion with trees with quiet nature spans millennia. For example, scholars have discussed the iconography of the Banyan Tree and its relationship with the cultural heritage, which, in other words, is a history of the consonance of the heritage of nature and culture in this region.
But the tumultuous avatar of nature has begun to occupy our imaginations and minds in recent years. I want to repeat here the context of the World Leaders Summit during the 26th Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow, United Kingdom on November 1, 2021. This conference was organised to address that tumult and establish the relationship between threats and reality, promises and fulfilments. David Attenborough, 95, accentuated that contrapuntal variation in humanity's global music during that conference. Nepal has also promised to "reach a net-zero emission by 2045" and ensure "that 15 percent of our total energy demand is supplied from clean energy sources and maintain 45 percent of our country under forest cover by 2030. It was announced there by the Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.
Ecological awareness in South Asia is closely related to the emotional perception of nature, wildlife and human beings by the artists and literary writers and scientists. South Asia's relationship between cultural heritage and nature is a challenging but creative topic. I want to cite some examples from Nepal. Here I want to allude to the Hanuman Dhoka cultural locus in Kathmandu, which is well known for its centrality to cultural activity. The architectonic constellations of temples, palaces, open spaces, pagoda roofs, wooden carvings and various art forms create a unique structure in the heart of the city. This space brings nature and culture together that becomes physically manifest through a cycle of theatrical performances. The strength of the space is that it brings nature in solid terms by evoking the rituals that have seasonal cyclic origins.
The cyclic rituals are performed at a certain period of the year. Regular rhythmic activity is connected to the weather cycles. This is the essence of the nature-oriented architectural heritage. Every form, every space here is meticulously structured to address the natural cycle. This artistically structured space has an important story to tell. The buildings made by nature-savvy farmer artists bring architectonic forms and nature together. The most remarkable feature of such architecture is the accommodation of the ritual practices observed according to the seasonal cycle with the architectural forms that constitute the core of the heritage sites.
Spaces for the seasonal celebrations are thus the significant loci created to mark the covenant between nature and heritage. Such commonality of the natural and the architectonic forms is possible only through a performative process. The farmers, who were also skilled artists and builders, architected the shapes of the frontal spaces for their performative practices. Such performatives were part of the rituals, as well as of the cyclic, seasonal and geographic patterns.
Nature and architecture
I have said earlier in my book Nepali Theatre As I See It (2006), "One interesting way how the peasants in Bhaktapur made inroads not only into the space of Bhaktapur urban centre with the feudal kings as the patrons but also into the domains of performance arts without reading the classical scales and notations in music and the choreographic structure about other classical performances which they have been doing for millennia." This is a very important subject.
This topic demands discussions about the nature and architecture in South Asia and how commonalities between the two have become the most essential features in our monuments, texts, arts, architectonic forms and literature. In short, how the combination of nature and structure constitutes the core of the South Asian cultural heritage becomes manifest in such examples.