It wasn’t a surprise to see history lovers in Calcutta queue up on a Sunday morning to engage in a closed door rendezvous with Professor Romila Thapar. Professor Thapar, after years of inimitable research and fearless writing, needs no introduction. She certainly is a festering (and pestering!) eyesore of the Hindu Right, the fascist dispensation in control of the state apparatus in the democratic republic of India. Interestingly, Professor Thapar was the first historian to argue that Early India had a historical tradition of its own, and that a “consciousness of the historical moment” and the “perception of historical change” existed prior to the advent of colonial historiography. This open-house was organised by “History for Peace”, an intra-subcontinental network of history educators, academics and members of civil society that serves as a platform for the exchange of ideas pertaining to teaching and learning of history. “History for Peace”, through a series of conferences and workshops, facilitated a discourse on divided histories, narratives of violence, art as a pedagogical tool, nationalism, and other currents relevant to the dissemination of the historian’s craft.
Professor Thapar was in conversation with educationist Devi Kar. Responding to Kar’s question on subjectivity and history, Thapar elucidated the oft-quoted and apparently simple phrase “understanding the past”. She explained how a historian’s comprehension of the past, which is ideographic in approach, is different from the search for truth. Professor Thapar emphasised on the logic and rationality of historical reconstruction. The fundamental question that historians ask is “how societies functioned in the past?” The 70s marked the shift from a Rankean, extractive history writing to a more contextual, historicist academic practice, and Marxism was used as a method of enquiry. Professor Thapar belongs to that generation of historians. Her work on state formation in the Ganga Valley titled “From Lineage to State”, wherein she writes about the changing political formations and the emergence of kingship societies from clan-based social systems, makes evident her engagement with social anthropology indicating a new wave of inter-disciplinarity in the social sciences. The historian’s forage for social theories in order to better understand the events of the past added a force to the questioning voice. Professor Thapar took the Arthashastra as an illustrative text to explain how questions are asked and answers sought by the historian to “understand a text in its wider context.” “Who is the author of the text?”, “Which social group did s/he belong to?”, “What was the intellectual background of the author?” “What is the text about?”, “Is it descriptive or normative?”, “What was the purpose of the text?” These are all very important questions, but all single text-centric histories would end at this point. She counted comparison with other contemporaneous texts, and corroboration with other sources — archaeological, epigraphic, numismatic, architectural, archival, etcetera, as integral to the historical method.
Perhaps the best take away from this conversation was her personal recollection of anecdotes. Her early attempt at reading excavation reports was challenged by the archaeologist’s terminology — a new set of technical terms and concepts like stratigraphy, ceramic typologies, etcetera, that she was not familiar with. This encouraged her to venture into the field and work as a member of the excavating team during the Kalibangan excavations. The first skeleton that Professor Thapar unearthed was that of a woman, clutching a bronze mirror. The thrill of touching a bronze mirror that was last held by a human being about 4500 years ago shone on her face. The sense of connect that one experiences when superimposing one’s palm on an impression of the anonymous brickmaker’s palm, pressed on the brick and baked in the kiln of time, helps the individual get a “feeling of the past.” The academic historian in her says that it’s not possible to go back in the past. The lover of history in her agrees, but at the same time makes little advances that take her closer to the remote past. Both the academic and the lover exist in harmony. They acknowledge and appreciate the aesthetic and literary brilliance of texts, and yet, question and critique them incisively, instead of taking them at face value. She recalled how a professor in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) had remarked in her undergraduate days that she was “not suspicious enough.” As students of history, Thapar believes that one should be suspicious of everything that has been said, and question. Investigating the ancient past, or the early period, is like donning the detective’s hat. As a professor (and a founder-member) of the famed Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, she would encourage her postgraduate students to take up Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. That Poirot and Miss Marple could share space with Charlemagnes and Chandraguptas, was hitherto unknown to the practice of history teaching in India.
When asked about her biases, she spoke about the post-modernist wave in the academia, and how she was sceptical of the idea that all readings are of equal value. As a “positivist-empiricist” historian, she believes that it is of utmost importance to cite sources and qualify each statement with the help of supporting evidence. Professor Thapar argued that it’s unnecessary to assign ideological labels to social scientists, because their work can draw from various, and often disparate, traditions of thought, depending on the needs of the theme. For instance, the classical mode of production paradigm would be more relevant to a research on economic history than environmental history. It was acknowledged that labels are not only hurled at social scientists, but at societies, communities and cultures, reducing diverse, heterogeneous social formations to polarised blocks and binaries. When asked about her phenomenal work on Somnath, based on a study of texts from three literary traditions — Sanskrit, Jaina and Persian, and colonial archives, Professor Thapar stressed on the fact that the multicultural society in the pre-modern era was based on perpetual negotiations between different ethnic and geographical communities, guided by a variety of motives, ranging from trade to territorial expansion.
The prevalent understanding of religion in India could be traced back to colonial historiography, evident in the deliberate polarised periodisation (James Mill), characterisation of the period of “Muslim rule” as dark and degenerate (Elliot and Dowson), the myth of Hindu trauma (Lord Ellenborough and the British parliamentary debates on the gates of Somnath), and the increasing use of the term “Hinduism” to connote an uncontaminated religion. Thapar opines that early India provides ample evidence of decentralisation of religion and the absence of monolithic categories. The term “musalmana” was known in the early medieval, but inscriptional records refer to ethnic labels like Turuska, Tajika, Parasika, and Yavana. Responding to an attendee who had come all the way from Dhaka to hear Professor Thapar, she traced the changing terminology used to refer to the subcontinent, in a processual temporal-spatial context. From the Persian Hindush, to the Greek Indos, Aryavarta, Bharata-varsha, Jambudwipa (from Ashoka’s inscriptions), and the Turkish Al-Hind in the medieval, this land has been repeatedly named, unnamed and renamed, as its contours shifted and new inhabitants settled. Speaking of the state sponsored communal divide, she argued that an “undemocratic nationalism has to find an enemy within”. For proponents of the Hindu rashtr, the “muslim” is the enemy within. Speaking on the modern nation state, she concluded by saying that “borders only become borders when cartographies come into existence”. But Professor Thapar is hopeful, and so are we, that the multicultural ideals of our society, which doesn’t boast of a glorious golden age of peace and harmony but of a historical consciousness, and the ability to learn from the past, will prevail even in difficult times.