Monuments and other tangible art objects are easily recognised as heritage assets. For the most part, they receive substantial attention and protection. Intangible oral traditions and performing arts, on the other hand, face special challenges and an uncertain future. Hikaye, a narrative expression from Palestine, and the polyphonic singing of the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa are cases in point. This issue was raised in UNESCO as early as 1973 when the convention for protecting world monuments and natural habitat was adopted. By way of slow follow-up, the first list of outstanding masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity was proclaimed in 2001. The concept of masterpiece drew criticism since it placed diverse but equally significant art forms under a contestable notion of hierarchy. The UNESCO convention on intangible heritage, adopted in 2003 and in force since 2006, gave up the concept of masterpiece and introduced the idea of a representative list. Recently, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage integrated the 90 ‘masterpieces’ so far proclaimed into a comprehensive representative list.
Such listing aims to safeguard this heritage by ensuring better visibility, creating awareness, and showcasing cultural diversity. Comparable attempts to list monuments tend to be less inclusive. More than half the monuments in the list of World Heritage, as a study points out, are from Europe and North America, while Africa with 40 countries has a meagre 7 per cent representation. The intangible heritage list could head in that direction unless corrective mechanisms are put in place. The onus is also on the signatory countries to provide generous financial support to art forms that are vulnerable and, in some cases, on the road to extinction. Koodiyattom, Vedic chanting, and Ramlila are the three Indian practices on the UNESCO list. Special efforts must be made to widen the representation of a many-splendoured cultural heritage. The representative list aside, the convention provides for listing “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.” This roster is yet to be published. The challenge before the safeguarding strategy is to ensure that artists and their community are placed at the centre of the endeavour, which can fare well only when there is public support. This applies to intangible heritage more than to any other area of conservation.