Reflecting the interrelated ideas of cultures, civilizations and heritage: “Indian Cultures As Heritage — Contemporary Pasts”

In her new collection of essays, historian Romila Thapar casts a clear eye on India’s contentious past and political present Indian Cultures As Heritage— Contemporary Pasts: By Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company, 224 pages, Rs599. | Read the full review by Arshia Sattar, Livemint, 7 April 2018 >>

For more than half a century, Romila Thapar has been an inspirational scholar and a genuine public intellectual, someone who knows what she’s talking about and who has evidence to support her solid and persuasive arguments for how we might read the past. In a voice that is clear and steady and devoid of rhetorical flourishes, Thapar continues to engage with the world as it changes, even as she broadens and deepens the study of her own field of expertise. Her work has been recognized and lauded by reputed historians here and abroad, and, over the last few years, more and more of her collected essays and lectures are being published, usually under a unifying rubric or theme. In this volume, Indian Cultures As Heritage, we have the opportunity to consider some of her essays on the interrelated ideas of cultures, civilizations and heritage.

To begin with, we are called upon to acknowledge that we must speak of “cultures” and “civilizations” in the plural even when we are talking about a single nation or a single language group (which are the usual parameters for designating a shared culture or a civilization). Most certainly, we need to pluralize these terms when we speak of them in relation to “heritage“—what we get from the past and what we claim as our own in the present and for the future. Obviously, Thapar is concerned with these definitions and understandings at this very particular moment in the history of India as a nation state, a moment in which the state itself is busy constructing a single national culture and religious heritage for the “Indian” citizen. […]

Thapar has always been interested in, and has drawn our attention to, how our idea(s) of the past inflect the present. By bringing these essays together under the umbrella of “Contemporary Pasts”, her central concern is foregrounded in a number of ways—for example, through a discussion of science, or discrimination, or women reading and constructing culture. In each case, we are reminded that the ownership and definition of “culture” has always been the prerogative of elites, be they colonial elites or indigenous ruling classes. In the case of India, we must add upper castes to the list of those that control and disseminate ideas of “legitimate” culture.

Thapar’s voice, along with those of scholars from other fields of study, such as A.K. Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger and G.N. Devy, leads a chorus that directs our attention away from the classical and the unitary and towards the so-called folk and plural. Older distinctions like the “great” and the “little” traditions, marga and desha, the oral and the written, the Sanskrit and the vernacular, are examined by these scholars and found less than useful. Such binaries, almost oppositional in nature and content, formed the bulwark of Orientalism and Indology (as opposed to the current episteme of Indian studies). […]

Thapar sees hope in the fact that “cultures can be changed and if there is enough determination to make a positive change, that change is not out of reach”. Sadly, though, at this critical juncture of rethinking India itself, it is not clear whose definition of “positive change” will prevail.

Source: “Who owns the nation state?”: book review by Arshia Sattar, (7 April 2018): Indian Cultures As Heritage— Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company
Date visited: 20 March 2020

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“The hermitage [asrama] is set so deep in the forest that it is almost another world, enveloped in a translucent green of sun and trees. […] The asrama is at one level an intrusion into the forest by the people of the grama [village], an intrusion sought to be stemmed by those living in the forest. […] Was the threat to forest dwellers a way of preventing the illegal clearing of forests and of curbing shifting cultivation?” – Romila Thapar (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) in “Perceiving the Forest: Early India Studies” >>

“Every society had narratives about its past and some regarded them as history as time went on […] So your fantasy runs wild, you can concoct a utopia exactly as you want.” – Romila Thapar, during an interactive workshop on 22 August 2013 responding to a participant’s question: “Is there also the risk of creating fake history through the invention of tradition?” >>

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