New cultures of peace

A culture bereft of peace is no longer democratic. A reinvented UNESCO is part of the Satyagraha of the future.
Image used for representational purposes. (
Image used for representational purposes. (

One of the most interesting and creative men I met in recent decades was UR Ananthamurthy, the Kannada author and intellectual. UR loved the gossip of ideas and dreamt of weaving a philosophy out of literature, language, and ideas. He and his old friend, the critic D R Nagaraj, would spend hours analysing events, unravelling the unconscious of each story.

I remember once they were discussing culture, and the conversation moved to UNESCO. Both of them claimed that UNESCO needed reinventing. They called it a culture cut out of stencil, with little to say about the vernacular. The storyteller, as an oral historian, is forgotten in the maze of texts. U R added that UNESCO must challenge the dominant idea of technology. It is culture that has to be more inventive than technology. UNESCO, they claimed, was high etiquette more fit for drawing rooms. It was etiquette than creativity. Yet they did not stop here but started thought experiments and improvisations for a more supple organisation.

U R loved Nicholas Roerich’s idea of the Green Cross, a group that would save culture and memory from the violence of war. But he wanted a green cross with a sense of everydayness, a green cross that protects livelihood against obsolescence, language and memory from erasure.

D R added that the vernacular must be more inventive. UR maintained that region, the vernacular, and the marginal must become the creative bulwark of a culture, protecting food, dialect and craft. UNESCO should have saved oral cultures instead of putting them in a deep freeze.

They began exploring the political reasons claiming states and corporations understood policy and philanthropy, not culture. Culture needs a sense of alternative diversities. It needs the availability of eccentricity, of vernacular talking to vernacular, as it happens in Carnatic music. Orality and memory must confront the officialdom of text and create a realm of freedom only civil society can grasp. Freedom, U R Ananthamurthy said, is also an act of culture and craftsmanship. It needs a playfulness that modern pedagogy despises. UNESCO is too puritan, too official for India, a festival of cultures. UNESCO embodied benign neglect of everyday culture.

The idea of development with transfer of technology as the new civics consolidated it. UNESCO, said U R Ananthamurthy, lacked a cultural sense of technology. Otherwise UNESCO would have provided alternative forms of UNIDO, WHO and other organisations. The sadness of UNESCO is it had no theory of science, in fact, no critique of it. I thought of the difference

it could have made if Covid was read through different lenses. Nagaraj added that UNESCO has no theory of waste and wasted people. You use the word obsolescence to abandon cultures or orphan them in a museum. Why is it people forget that the great art critic Ananda Coomaraswamy felt that the Indian national movement should have fought a guerrilla war against the museum? The museum, he claimed, was necrophiliac in nature and had no sense of living cultures.

I sense how relevant the two intellectuals were today. U R Ananthamurthy would have created a more playful idea of childhood while our regime was industrialising it. Nagaraj often asked me indirectly whether there could be Dalit imagination of science. Dreaming new ideas of waste, rethinking a sensorium, and redesigning a city were some ideas on his intellectual menu card. UNESCO should become a collection of thought experiments that change the very direction of policy. Ananthamurthy argued that swadeshi and swaraj were two great twin concepts of culture-breaking western binaries, creating diversities. I am hoping that the new idea of the Anthropocene is read along with the indigenista movements to create an alternative world of culture and nature. UNESCO then becomes an exegesis of alternative possibilities, not a procrustean frame, a second-hand version of some western handbook.

Suddenly one realised that the UN, as an imagination, had gone to sleep, too concerned about security and development. UNESCO had ironically become philistine. UNESCO was neither a trustee, custodian, or interpreter of cultures. It embedded them through the idea of heritage. Heritage becomes more a nationalist legacy than a cultural continuity. UNESCO needs to be disembedded from officialdom and re-embedded in culture through open debates.

U R Ananthamurthy made one critical point in this context. The very logic of development erases both story and the storyteller. The tragedy of Narmada expresses this. Orality shrinks as the dam displaces culture.

In sad ways amounting to indifference to violence, whether it is the violence of language or species loss, extinction has become every day, and the autism of UNESCO to this phenomenon is worrying. It is civil society attuned to memory, not memorials, that has to capture this loss of culture and diversity through extinction, genocide, triage, displacement, and obsolescence.

A few years ago, there was a landmark incident at Chirala in Andhra Pradesh. It was at a meeting between local weavers and historians of technology from Europe. For the first two days, nothing happened. The White men sat in their chairs, the weavers on the ground, maintaining their distance. On the third day, the two groups sat on the ground, and the ecology of the discussion changed as artisans and historians met as intellectual equals. One of the craft activists turned to a historian and said, “You not only destroyed my livelihood, but you also destroyed my theory…” It was a poignant moment of truth-telling. One will need more such occasions to create confidence in the diversity of theory. Epistemic diversity will be a critical part of the culture.

Finally, one must rework UNESCO’s original dreams by recreating the knowledge systems for it. In the insurrection of classic knowledges, the dreams of peace must be coded. Knowledge and peace have reciprocity that the original UNESCO manifesto captured. It is time to return to the ideas of culture which create new dreams of peace. UNESCO has to combine swadeshi and swaraj to create new cultures of peace. A culture bereft of peace is no longer democratic. A reinvented UNESCO is part of the Satyagraha of the future.

Shiv Visvanathan

Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations

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