Geet Gawai – World Patrimony of Humanity

Today it is one year since the Geet Gawai has been inscribed at UNESCO and it is a matter of great joy, celebration and pride

A remarkable and historical achievement for Mauritius, the Intangible Cultural Heritage – Bhojpuri Folk Songs – Geet Gawai – has found its place as World Patrimony of Humanity of UNESCO since 1st December 2016. Geet Gawai – Bhojpuri musical ensemble sung by women traditionally on wedding occasions, was for generations considered as part of the backwaters of Mauritian cultural life. Today it is one year since the Geet Gawai has been inscribed at UNESCO and it is a matter of great joy, celebration and pride.

Since the setting up of Bhojpuri Speaking Union Geet Gawai School at Petit Raffray in October 2013, the Geet Gawai has gathered much momentum and resurgence. At one time, people even stated that Geet Gawai “pe alle mort ça, inne fini.” Not so now. It has found its lettre de noblesse, its niche in society. In fact nowadays, Geet Gawai is included in an exclusive little card with wedding invitations for a special family gathering. The demand to learn the proper way of performing and singing the songs on the part of women is so great, that so far the Bhojpuri Speaking Union has set up 24 Geet Gawai Schools all over the country with a long waiting list. Which has led the Bhojpuri Speaking Union to target 50 Bhojpuri Geet Gawai Schools for the 50th anniversary of the Independence of Mauritius. Through Geet Gawai, Bhojpuri too has regained its lustre. With each Bhojpuri Geet Gawai School, the Bhojpuri Speaking Union is proposing to operate a Bhojpuri Learning Class for adults, youth and children.

In fact Bhojpuri has always been a vibrant form of communication and patriotism, leading to the Independence of Mauritius. The message of mass mobilization would be done in Bhojpuri from baithka to baithka, following the “mass movement” campaign of Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, freshly returned from his medical studies in UK.

Tribute

Gratitude and tribute is paid to the groups of “geetharines”, tradition bearers who for almost two hundred years since their implantation in Mauritius from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand have from generation to generation learnt the songs orally from their elders as an oral form of art, sang it continually, making it a spontaneous, melodious, rhythmic and above all soulful medium, that is easily communicable, touching audiences instantly. The Geet Gawai is rooted in the lives of the performers and the geetharines.

The recognition at UNESCO has demanded great efforts and collaboration of several partners and stakeholders led by State Party Mauritius. In fact, ever since the Convention of UNESCO for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was set up from 29 September to 17 October 2003 at its 32nd session, it became a milestone in the evolution of international policies for promoting cultural diversity.

“Because it was the first time that the international community had recognized a need to support the kind of cultural manifestations and expressions that until then had not benefited from such a large legal and programmatic framework.”

With this inscription, Government of Mauritius specially as Member of 24 Intergovernmental Committee of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO, is bound to safeguard the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills associated with Bhojpuri and Bhojpuri Folk Songs. There are periodic reportings carried on by States Parties and submitted to UNESCO to evaluate what the Government has done to promote, preserve and transmit the listed elements. With reference to Article 11 of the 2003 Convention, the Government of Mauritius has the obligation to take the necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of Geet Gawai and its vehicle Bhojpuri seriously, as well as other cultural heritage on its territory.

It is worth noting that Mauritius became one of the very first signatories of the Convention 2003 since its ratification coming into force on 20 April 2006. To date 172 countries out of 195 Member States of UNESCO have ratified the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is more than 4/5 of all Nations. This large concern by Member States for Intangible Cultural Heritage on their territories is revealing of their deep interest in the subject.

Following the ratification, UNESCO organised an international workshop in Mauritius in April 2003 on the conduct of inventories and identification of elements worth forming part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was an unbelievable wealth of knowledge that was unearthed. The Geet Gawai element was first included in the inventory in 2011 and updated continuously in the following years. It is remarkable that in tiny Mauritius there are some 120 elements that have been catalogued. Geet Gawai forms part of this inventory since then.

When the Government of Mauritius decided to send the Nomination Dossier of Geet Gawai to UNESCO for inscription it did so along with the Sega Tipik. But since UNESCO considers one element per country, at a time, the Government in its wisdom submitted the Nomination Dossier of Sega Tipik first. It is thus that Sega Tipik was inscribed on 27 November 2014 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The Ministry of Arts and Culture had entrusted the preparation of the two dossiers to the University of Mauritius under the able guidance of Dr Vijaya Teelock who assembled a whole team of collaborators comprising of anthropologists, historians, artists, musicologists, academia, socio-cultural organisations and other individual contributors. It worked in close collaboration with the National Heritage Fund which was the main body to pilot and evaluate the project for the Government. In 2015 the Ministry of Arts and Culture submitted the Geet Gawai Dossier to UNESCO and had the expert guidance of UNESCO Consultant Professor George Okello Abungu who steered and marshalled the work at NHF.

Professor George Abungu visited the Geet Gawai School of Petit Raffray and interacted with the tradition bearers. He was mesmerized by their performance, warmth and contagious transmission of knowledge, skills and oral art forms. Moreover, the visibility given to Geet Gawai by the MBC through the 24- hour Bhojpuri Channel was a strong convincing element in the Dossier. The Mahatma Gandhi Institute with a Department of Bhojpuri, Oral Traditions & Folklore; the teaching of Bhojpuri at the Prof Basdeo Bissondoyal Secondary School in Flacq; the contribution at grassroots level of Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute, the AGTF’s dedication to research of Indentured Labour history and the associated Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Girmitias, all proved to provide a well chiseled, thoroughly documented and well-structured dossier satisfying all the five criteria required by UNESCO. It is worth-while noting that at the 11th Convention of UNESCO at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 29th to 3rd December 2016, India too submitted its Dossier on Yoga. Mauritius and India supported each other.

The 12th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage will take place from 4 December to 8 December 2017 at Seoul, Republic of Korea. The Mauritian delegation led by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Prithvirajsing Roopun will present this time the Dossier of Sega Tambour of Rodrigues. India this year will submit the mythical Kumbh Mela for consideration.

Another dossier which Mauritius is keen to present at UNESCO is that of the Sega of Chagos which is considered as an endangered element which merits urgent Safeguarding because of the displacement of the practitioners due to geopolitical moves.

There are many other elements that merit attention such as the Jhakri dance of the Marathi Community, the Rambhajanam of Telugu Community, the Kollatum and Kummi Dance of Tamil Community, the Mahashivratri and Cavadee Festivals.

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 What one should know about the Tangible World Heritage Sites of Le Morne and Aapravasi Ghat

Mauritius has also the pride of having two of its jewels inscribed as World Heritage Sites of UNESCO.

  • Aapravasi Ghat

The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site was inscribed on 16 July 2006 under criteria VI as: 

“The first site chosen by the British Government in 1834 for the great experiment in the use of indentured rather than slave Labour, is strongly associated with memories of almost half a million indentured labourers moving from India to Mauritius to work on sugarcane plantations or to be transshipped to other parts of the World.” (World Heritage Committee Decision 30COM 8B.33).

  • The Le Morne

It was listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List on 10th July 2008 and is known as Le Morne Cultural Landscape. For conservation purpose the landscape possesses a Core and a Buffer Zone.           

There have been many speculations, undertones and connotations regarding the different dates of Inscription of these two Patrimonies. Some foreign Anthropologist recently stated that Le Morne Cultural Landscape should have been given precedence over Aapravasi Ghat.

Records reveal that Sir Anerood Jugnauth the then Prime Minister submitted for consideration both Le Morne Cultural Landscape and Aapravasi Ghat for listing by UNSECO following a Cabinet Decision in 2004. However, whereas the Committee working on the Aapravasi Ghat Dossier had very precise historical information, the Le Morne Committee on the other hand could not gather all the requirements of the UNESCO Examiners of the Dossier at the material time. Archeological surveys were not completed.

Moreover, the press of the time reveals shady deals that were taking place to make of the Le Morne, not the Cathedral of all the persecutions of slaves and a Cultural Landscape of Memoire, but an Economic Site comprising a Golf Estate and a Country Club Destination. These interminable conflicts, prolonged disputes and wrangling tore defenders of the Dossier asunder with the result that they jeopardized the inscription of Le Morne as a World Heritage Site in that same year. Exact, precise and clear information regarding the site could not be provided to UNESCO on time.

 

* Published in print edition on 1 December 2017

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