Lost Heritage: Why Our Knowledge Is Packaged And Sold Back To Us

Lost Heritage: Why Our Knowledge Is Packaged And Sold Back To UsSpecimen of Sanskrit handwritten manuscripts. (Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • India’s heritage is highly relevant and neglecting it has only led to many missed opportunities.

    Turmeric, neem and the novel material, basalt fibre, stand witness to this lackadaisical attitude.

Are you one of those people who believes that preserving our heritage is a colossal waste of time? Are you one those people who feels that history is weighing us down and we should only concentrate on the present? If your answers are yes, then please indulge me for a few moments. Recently I was dining with a friend, a manager at a leading multi-national company, and during our conversation he confided that “all this talk about ‘heritage’ in social media and national narrative” is simply not his cup of tea. “We should focus on aaj (today), not kal (yesterday). We need to focus on economy only and all else is simply noise.” He was quite surprised to learn that I disagreed. In fact, he had assumed that as I was a scientist, I was a ‘rationalist’ (whatever that means) and I would vehemently agree with his views.

I can see why, from an individual’s perspective, heritage can often be a difficult concept to appreciate since the traditional view of “heritage” usually conjures images of decades and centuries long history. People often view their own actions as short-term responses, or reactions to the need of aaj – a very linear style of thinking. For a society however, its heritage (or what it defines as heritage) often has an impact in the short time-scale (about days or months). In fact, from a societal perspective, heritage can often have significant economic impact as well. I will try to elucidate this idea through some examples.

You are probably familiar with the neem and haldi patent battles. Raj Chengappa had then anguished over “how we are losing our traditional knowledge to marauding foreign companies who have started poaching on our ancient healing techniques”. The news is almost 20 years old, yet the root message is still relevant. Our ‘heritage’ includes valuable knowledge, which can be monetised and used for the benefit of society. However, careless neglect of our ‘heritage’ knowledge will enable external entities to monetise this same knowledge and sell it back to us as “new”. The campaign to prevent loss of traditional knowledge, spearheaded by celebrated scientists like Dr Mashelkar, has led to the formation of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, an immense contribution to maintaining India’s traditional knowledge. Initiatives such as this need not always be reactionary.

A pro-actively organised methodology to catalogue, preserve, celebrate and share our ‘heritage’ is the approach needed to foster the conviction that “heritage can be inspiration”. How? Allow me to share a real-life experience with you. Many years ago, as a school kid, I was visiting the National Museum in Kolkata where the exhibits of beautiful stone murtis caught my attention. Just like the exquisite stone Yaksha in the image below, these murtis have survived the test of kaal (time) by standing strong for thousands of years! They are priceless. They are an inspiration.

Yaksha (National Museum, New Delhi)
Yaksha (National Museum, New Delhi)

Many of the murtis were carved on dark basalt stone. What intrigued me most was that these thousands of years old murtis appeared pristine, with their smooth surfaces and clear outlines! I began to wonder if these murtis had lasted so long in their pristine condition, could we not incorporate basalt in new novel materials? Could we combine one or two of these stones to make a new type of stone? As a student, my ideas were still ill-formed, but these murtis roused my intellectual curiosity. Eventually though these questions sank into the depths of my memory.

Recently, a colleague of mine who works on materials and with whom I happened to share this story, sent me some information on how basalt is being used to make novel materials. One example of such a novel material is the basalt fibre, which has several important properties such as “a good range of thermal performance, high tensile strength, good electromagnetic properties, inert nature, and resistance to acids, radiation, UV light, vibration, and impact loading.” Basalt fibres are a present-day innovation and cannot be viewed as simple extrapolations of previous techniques. The question is not whether our ancestors already knew how to make these fibres, but was it our neglect of “heritage” that inhibited our inspiration to innovate for kal (here I imply tomorrow).

Basalt fibre is a low-cost material eminently suited to manufacture in India where the raw material is plentiful (nearly 5, 00,000 sq km of basalt rock). Unfortunately for India, today basalt fibres are mainly manufactured in Eastern Europe, Russia, the USA, Israel and China. A Google Scholar search for ‘basalt fibre’ does not locate a single research manuscript based out of India in its top 20 list. Earlier this year, the US Department of Defense (USDOD) specially solicited research proposals to implement multi-purpose basalt composites. Bharat, your inspiration for innovation lies hidden in plain sight and the world awaits you to realise that.

Basalt fibre is a lost cause, but the world of literature offers us a great example of how heritage can inspire innovation in the form of the newly born genre of ‘dharmic fiction’. Dharmic fiction novels are not dharmic literature; rather they take inspiration from the latter to create new stories and are a testimony to how heritage can translate into economic impact for the society today. Interested readers can refer to my article on the dharmic fiction genre. The promise of dharmic fiction extends far beyond a simple retelling of old tales. I hope to see futuristic plots, where synthesis with science fiction occurs; this would result in stories with a larger appeal and would herald a new era within this genre. Heritage can perhaps also inspire the nascent gaming industry of our country. Dharmic fiction, basalt fibres etc are specific examples that I have used to illustrate the more generic idea that our heritage is not simply a burden, but rather an invaluable material and intellectual treasure that we must protect.

In this respect, endeavours like India Pride Project (Twitter handle - @IndiaPrideProj) championed by people like Anuraag Saxena (Twitter handle - @anuraag_saxena) are crucial. Saxena informs me that murtis fashioned from many different materials have been recovered, but due to research funding and public interest constraints their “heritage” potential to India has not been meaningfully investigated. I believe for such projects to have a deeper impact, a holistic public interest in such conservation efforts is critical. Saxena says, “We must not let the world monetise our heritage. Our heritage is priceless”. I agree and to that thought I would like to add that “Our heritage is our inspiration”.

Dr Aloke Kumar is currently an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.


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