The ongoing Aga Khan Awards ceremony being hosted by Oman brings focus on the need to encourage and dwell on the study of living cultures in an age which is being rapidly being taken over by virtual reality and artificial intelligence. In fact, technology could be harnessed towards documenting and protecting living cultures.
Living cultures refers to the oral traditions of traditional communities which reveal cultural customs and practices. It is often used in the context of Aboriginal knowledge coming from Australia and New Zealand. Of late, there have been projects linking indigenous communities across Peru, Kenya and the Philippines.
By focusing on everyday customs and traditions, it is possible to reflect on the priorities of a community, their knowledge and skills, as well as their core beliefs. This lends a country its particular identity.
Documenting such communities is done through outreach, using local oral stories and songs to understand a social group for posterity. Giving the community members a chance to tell their stories gives them agency and confidence. It also informs them that their stories are worth telling.
In our world which is facing massive environmental challenges, the knowledge of traditional communities is vital. Listening to them, documenting the ways in which they access traditional information and follow time tested preservation techniques will be vital to fighting climate change.
So will documenting their challenges, the difficulties they face and the way in which they have traditionally overcome obstacles.
Living cultures include everything that surrounds us: lullabies sung by grandparents, songs sung by children at playtime, harvest songs, songs orally handed down over generations and even rhymes or songs sung while cooking.
Most community culture is taken for granted, but it is so fragile that it will soon be forgotten if it is not recorded. In their work “Vanishing community, vanishing cultures”, social workers Chaudhry and Mushtaq, for example, have shown how globalisation, migration and urbanisation have effected nomadic tribes in Tibet, Kashmir and Turkey.
This kind of documentation is vital to retain traditional knowledge. Ethnographic studies on language, customs and traditions can now be done by recording, digitising and disseminating.
Earlier fears that knowledge of entire communities would disappear are now much less, considering the many opportunities to document and preserve them for posterity. All that it takes is for interested researchers to highlight disappearing languages and societies, and find ways of documenting them. This will ensure that successive generations will stay aware of their history and culture.
Technology can go a long way in helping preserve cultural histories and artefacts, including traditional music. Media created by the community itself could include audio visual formats. Engaging the community will make the exercise inclusive and accessible.
Intangible history is a large part of living culture as it includes everything that surrounds us – stories, music and much more. Efforts to preserve them will include various stakeholders and is a vast task. But it is essential if we want to leave our cultural footprints for the future.