Museum Technology & its Limitations in Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage: Vaishnavite Ritual Theatre “Bhaona”

by Ms. Deeplakshmi B. Saikia

HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Assam, India

Michel Foucault was the first to talk about “the indignity of speaking for others” and it is this very act which is one of the primary functions of museums. In the process, museums today are also finding competitors for people’s attention in the form of various other experiences such as movie theaters, YouTube, Netflix, amusement parks, playgrounds, etc. Most of these rivals are able to pose competition to museums because of the use of technology- the application of which in every field of life has become widespread as well as highly imperative. Thus it has also become essential for museums to utilize technology in order to revolutionize the way they impart their message and consumers experience and consume artworks and artifacts.

But when it is understandable how museums can help people physically experience art or enhance this experience, application of museum technology in the case of intangible cultural heritage is something different. Among other differences, intangible cultural heritage is not something concrete and easily portable. Cultural heritage does not only comprise of monuments and objects which we can see and touch, but also living traditions or expressions which has been inherited and passed down generations in the form of oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, festivals, rites and rituals, knowledge and practices, skills etc., and these are the domains covered by the term intangible cultural heritage.

The process of providing representation of this cultural heritage in museums is called museumisation. It is understood simply as “placing in the museum” because of which an object becomes the tangible or intangible proof of man and his environment, a source of display and study and acquires a specific cultural significance. But the process of museumisation is not a standardized one, and considering the type an object and the sphere to which it belongs, the process of museumisation can bring changes and effects on the object itself. Moreover, museumisation of intangible cultural heritage poses its own set of specific challenges because of its ephemerality.

The process of providing a space for cultural heritage in museums is even more complicated for a country like India which is a melting pot of diversity, and dissension is certain to arise when museumising its heritage. In an attempt to adhere to the Eurocentric ideas of museums, Indian museums are rife with improper and inadequate representations of regional and subaltern cultures and heritage. In defense of these museums, however, it can be argued that it is probably impossible to copiously and properly recognize all of these heritages in one museum. Each constituent of these heritages demand different modes and techniques of representation. Representation for the sake of representation will only result in little more than mock displays, incorrect exchange of values between the visitors and objects, and tasteless memento shops, instead of providing a satisfying heritage experience.

This is the subject matter of this paper, with a case study on the limitations of technology in aiding the representation or recreation of Bhaona, the medieval Vaishnava drama of Assam, which is a living tradition and is a part of the intangible heritage of one of the seven sisters of Northeast India, in museums.

Sankardeva was a Vaishnavite saint-scholar who lived in Assam in the 15th-16th century. A polymath, he is most known for propagating the neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam, at a time when Vaishnavism had swept all over India. Every religious movement also witnesses a simultaneously strong literary movement. This primarily serves the purpose of simplifying the movement and making it more comprehensible and accessible to the masses in a form most convenient to them. One strong component of this kind of literary movements is ritual theatre. As a matter of fact, religion and ritual theatre share such an intimate connection and similarities that some scholars go as far as to say that the two terms can be used synonymously, though this is a debatable statement. However, it cannot be denied that ritual theatre encompasses many aspects of the religion it is associated with. It is also a known fact that religion and thus its associated ritual theatre form an important part of the intangible cultural heritage of any society.

This is evident from the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of India which lists practices such as Vedic chanting, Ramlila or the traditional performance of the Ramayana, Kutiyattam which is a Sanskrit theatre, Ramman or the religious festival and ritual theatre of the Garhwal Himalayas, Mudiyettu which is a ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala, Kalbelia- the folk songs and dances of Rajasthan, Chhau dance, Buddhist chanting of Ladakh, Sankirtana- ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur, Kumbh Mela, Navroz, etc. Most of these intangible cultural practices are associated with religion which probably also ensures their continuity.

Bhaona too is such a ritual theatre which was introduced by Sankardeva in the 15th-16th century as a tool for propagating his religious doctrine, and this form of theatrical performance has continued in Assam since then and is a living tradition in the Assamese society even now. Bhaona is the enactment of plays composed by Sankardeva and his follower apostles. These plays are based mainly on the Bhagavata Purana and the Ramayana, depicting the heroic life episodes of the Hindu god Vishnu and his incarnations.

Yet besides being a religious instrument, this form of drama simultaneously furthers several other causes. It acts as a source of entertainment for people. It also acts as an offering to the supreme Godhead by imitating his activities and exaltation of his greatness again and again by the sutradhara or the stage manager. Because the drama was an offering to the Godhead, it involved certain standard rules, especially regarding the character and qualifications of the people involved directly in the enactment of the drama. So, the Sutradhara or the stage manager was not just any layman of the village but often an elder of the monastic institution, trained in Sankardeva’s religion and religious views, devotional songs and dances, Vaishnava literature etc. The actors too were trained in the religious scriptures, Vaishnavite literature, songs and dances. They had to undergo various rites and rituals in order to perform in the plays. Moreover, women were totally barred from playing any role in the drama, with men playing the female characters. The enactment of these plays can also be considered as a form of worship of the Bhagavata as it is its contents which are portrayed. Moreover, these dramas are performed in the stage which is in the prayer hall of the Vaishnavite institution. It is not any secular or makeshift stage which is employed for the purpose of the theatrical performance. Therefore it can be said that these dramas are to be witnessed not only by the common folk and people associated with the Vaishnavite institution but also the deity, in the form of a book. It is because of these associated intangible aspects that museum technology can fail in representing wholly any such intangible cultural practices and presenting them to visitors far removed from its original site of performance.

What museum technology can do, however, is offer knowledge about intangible cultural heritage in bits and pieces. For instance, in the case Bhaona or any such ritual theatre, museum technology can present to people a performance in the form of recorded audio-visual clips. This will provide a glimpse of Bhaona to people who otherwise might never have the chance to witness such a performance, although how effective this kind of partial experience is, is an issue that is beyond the scope of this paper. However, with the aid of virtual reality technology, even the environment established during the performance of Bhaona can be simulated to a certain extent. This kind of technology is yet to reach the nooks and corners of countries like India especially in the museum space, but its potential is beyond comprehension.

Technology can perhaps also aid in creating dioramas and interactive dummies, and thus depict the performance of a theatrical performance. How far an computer-generated object can imitate human beings in questionable, especially performances such as Bhaona do not only involve mechanical movement and delivery of dialogue but a communication process between the actors and the audience which results in an emotional impact upon both of them. This evocation of sentiments may be missing in the representation of such a drama by means of technology.

Technology also brings with it a process of secularization but ritual theatre such as Bhaona and religion are strictly intertwined with each other. There are several written and unwritten rules with ritual theatre, the following of which is absolutely compulsory. People who are adherents to such religious tenets will risk the discontinuity and disappearance of these practices rather than indulge in the breaking of these rules which according to them will amount to irreverence. And in fact, it is considered natural for certain practices to die out by its practitioners as a natural course of its life. Be that as it may, it is not possible to adhere to all such rules in a majorly secular space such as a museum. For instance, Bhaona needs to be performed during certain days and at a certain time of the day only. This may not be possible for technology to adhere to which will follow strict time-bound rules and how it has been set up by the people operating that technology. Technology may have no reverence for rules which are considered obligatory according to a religious doctrine.

Despite having its limitations, that museum technology has the ability to traverse time and space more than humans and their manual practices, is a fact that cannot be ignored. All over the world, practices- whether religious or not do have the tendency to die out for various reasons. It is unfortunate that phenomenon such as globalization has also resulted in the death of several indigenous traditions, customs and practices just because they are not convenient enough with today’s times. Or maybe they undergo such changes with changing times that they end up attaining a totally unrecognizable form. In such a situation, museum technology can help in preserving and keeping such traditions intact so that people in the future can have something to hark back to the past. Yet this brings into question the dilemma that whether traditions should be allowed to evolve over time or they should remain stagnant. Also, in post-modern times when identities and boundaries are shifting and malleable, how far and for how long is it possible to stagnate cultural practices?

The conservation of cultural property was deemed right by the conviction that “primitive” societies were incapable of preserving their society’s material heritage. But the primary focus of museums is permanent displays and tangible culture, which often costs other historical resources such as oral histories, and intangible heritage. This Eurocentric idea of museums as mainly a display of objects does not fit with most cultures.

The indigenous people who are interested in having their culture transmitted to people who are not aware of it, are also simultaneously wary of object display, and rightly so. This is because most intangible heritage are an amalgamation of various physical objects as well as spiritual and cultural processes, such as rites and rituals. Bhaona is only appropriately understood through connection with its environment, language, dance, song, music and storytelling. When these aspects are displayed separately, they lose their meaning and significance. Loss of context will result in the communication to visitors of a heritage which is thoroughly different from what it actually is. The various musical instruments, costumes, make up, decorative motifs, songs, dances and written plays which come together to result in the final dramatic product of the Bhaona, displayed singly have no value because most of these objects are available and used in lots of arenas by people for ordinary purposes.

Another concern is the language in which the plays of Bhaona are written and performed. Brajawali is a language that came into being, with influences from other languages, in the medieval age. It is a language that is no longer used for everyday conversation among people, though it is understood by most people who are fluent in Assamese. However, the viewing of the recreated Bhaona in a museum cannot be restricted to only people who understand Assamese and Brajawali. On the other hand, people who do not know these languages will find it difficult to understand the performances, unless they are well-versed in the Bhagavata Purana and Ramayana, or in the plays themselves. This will certainly result in disinterestedness in many visitors. When visitors are not able to decipher the meaning of a play, its significance will also be definitely undermined. This is because of the faulty communication system between the museum object and the visitor.

Moreover, indigenous curation may also deteriorate with the attempt of museumisation of intangible heritage in a different setting such as a museum. People clearly are skeptical about placing antique and sacred objects in an alien environment where museum personnel will handle them, when they are considered holy. Even if Bhaona is recreated regularly and as precisely as it is in its local areas, the religious rites and rituals associated with it such as the fasting and proper ablution by the chief artistes will certainly not be followed. Neither will the replica of Bhaona result in awe and a sense of spirituality among the audience, as it does when performed in towns and villages in Assam. On the contrary, the colourful costumes, the garish make-up, the loud clang of cymbals, the exaggerated delivery of dialogues, the unrefined dance moves etc., may put off the audience who will hail from various strata of society. The historical importance of Bhaona will take a beating, as even will its aesthetic appeal, if presented in this way in a museum. This cultural heritage which actually is an informant of the Assamese people’s identity may lose its functionality in an alien irrelevant environment.

Having regarded all the shortcomings of museum technology, the role of museums should not be completely dismissed in this respect. What Eileen Hooper-Greenhill calls the ‘post-museum’ is increasingly trying to place equal importance on the use of the objects and collections in a museum, rather than their mere preservation and static display. In the post-museum, the functions of curation are also shared among the members of the museum, community members and other stakeholders who may contribute to the knowledge and culture of the community, because the right to determine the nature of intangible cultural heritage also defines one’s cultural identity and place in the world today. Thus it is evident that museums are trying to extend their role to safeguarding intangible heritage too. Moreover, a modern Western institution such a museum may be equipped with facilities, such as financial capacity, which indigenous curation and community members may lack. Therefore it would be wrong to completely reject the role of museums in helping safeguard intangible heritage. And museum technology is the most fundamental component of museums which can help in bridging any gap between people and the representation of their culture.

To conclude, contrary to the Eurocentric conception, meaning is not only derived from objects, images, historical resources or sites, but is yielded from the blend of the object/image/style of presentation/site, knowledge about its history and production, as well as visitor interface, and preservation with the aid of technology is no substitute for its providing conditions for its continuity. However, this does not mean that a cultural practice can be allowed to discontinue if it cannot be adequately imitated or copied with the help of technology. Instead, a middle ground has to be reached.

Bibliography

  • Corsane, G. (ed.). (2005). Heritage, museums and galleries: An introductory reader. Psychology Press.
  • Smith, L. & Akagawa, N. (2009), Intangible Heritage, New York: Routledge.
  • Dudley, S., Barnes, A. J., Binnie, J., Petrov, J., & Walklate, J. (Eds.). (2011). The Thing about Museums: Objects and Experience, Representation and Contestation. Routledge.
  • Alivizatou, M. (2008). Contextualising intangible cultural heritage in heritage studies and museology. International Journal of Intangible Heritage3, 44-54.
  • Neog, M. (1980). Early History of the Vaiṣṇava Faith and Movement in Assam: Śaṅkaradeva and his times. Motilal Banarsidass Publishe.

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