Tuesday, 23 July, 2024

Call Out The Past

Aashish Mishra

It is beyond encouraging seeing the space issues of culture get in the media these days. Newspapers routinely publish news of festivals on their front pages, televisions produce hour-long programmes about traditions and rituals and online portals put out informative series and multimedia packages about history and archaeology. “Culture and Arts” is no longer considered a “soft beat” to report on when nothing else is happening.

And this media coverage has, in turn, helped to spur demand. People are now seeing and more importantly, understanding the richness and diversity of our society and are interested in learning more about it. This interest has further motivated media houses to allocate greater resources and manpower to produce detailed news reports looking at multiple dimensions of seemingly mundane aspects of our civilisation.
Yes, it is indeed an exciting time to be a culture enthusiast. However, one can’t help but feel that news organisations have not been able to grasp the interconnectedness of our cultural activities and have so far, failed to explore the underlying causes while reporting on the degradation we see today.

Culture, as something shaped by the evolution of society and the interaction of different groups with one another, does not fit into neat little compartments that the news often portrays it as. A festival is seldom just a festival, a custom rarely only has religious aspects and a town’s celebration is hardly ever only related to the town it is celebrated in. The Rato Machhindranath Jatra of Lalitpur is celebrated by the people of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Kirtipur as well. Indra Jatra is neither just a Jatra nor only about Indra (in fact, it may not be about Indra at all). Phagu in Bhaktapur is a time for sex education and the stone spouts of the Kathmandu Valley are more than just water conduits and are actually carved forms of Vedic verses.

With all due respect, Nepali media have not been able to do justice to this complicated intricacy and have, thus far, been unable to comprehend and relay the scale and scope of the destruction of our cultural properties. Our reporters deserve much credit for bringing to light and helping to stop the demolition of historic buildings, important temples and different under-ground and above-ground monuments. However, they have, thus far, failed to see the common thread linking all these destructions together.

Kathmandu’s millennia-old hitis and ponds are being covered and built over because the governments of the past disassociated the people from their water. Temple lands are being encroached upon because the authorities decimated the traditional organisations looking after them and forcefully placed them under the control of an ignorant and uncaring bureaucracy. The state our tangible and intangible heritages are in today is the result of decades of bad policies, government mismanagement and malicious targeted efforts of eradication. But the media have not been able to identify or call these out.

And that is, in part, because of the sources they depend on. Many of the scholars and experts disseminating information about the cultural practices of particular communities are themselves outsiders looking in. So, they can only give surficial details. Also, they were the ones in power in the past who drafted or supported the destruction-causing policies in the first place. So, it is in their interest to not link the devastation of the present with the decisions of the past. There is also an uncomfortable ethno-racist undertone in the history research community of Nepal where works in English and Nepali are considered superior to those in indigenous languages and oral history is disregarded altogether if it is not in a language the researchers prefer.

If the media wish to report on culture and help preserve it then they must diversify their sources and realise the links that exist between occurrences.