When a young Romila Thapar met Mahatma Gandhi, he charged her five rupees for an autograph (a donation to the cause) and admonished her for wearing silk instead of khadi. His advice made an impression. By the time I meet her, several decades have passed and one is still likely to find this famous historian wearing a comfortable cotton sari. In these intervening years, Prof. Thapar has become one of India’s most celebrated academics. In 2008 she was awarded the Kluge Prize (popularly dubbed the American Nobel) and her win spurred her critics to write furious letters of protest to the committee. This might surprise those who assumed her deep interest in ancient Indian civilisations would have led her to a quiet life devoted to academic investigation and research.
For a sizable part of her career this historian has been a figure of controversy in India. At stake are deeply held notions of race and identity and Prof. Thapar’s has braved both government censorship and opposed “communal interpretations” of history in order to argue for a new, more secular view. It’s a debate she frequently opens with a discussion on Aryans. Over the course of delivering the 11th Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial lecture (held annually to commemorate the death anniversary of the respected politician and academic), Prof. Thapar stated her opinion that the Aryans were not a single race – rather they were a multiracial group of people who spoke the same language. Some have been more invested in the idea than others – Hitler would have been appalled to find his master race designated a myth, as would have the founders of the Arya Samaj. However, in previous years, the notion of a superior Aryan race had been further weakened when Prof. Thapar shared data gleaned from research and archaeological digs that pointed towards some Aryans including beef in their diets. Had this information been confined to a few academic papers, it might have passed us all by but its inclusion in middle school text books raised the ire of proponents of hindutva. They hold the cow sacred; never eating its meat, they malign those who do and claim the same preference for their ancestors.
The Hindu right wing had long extolled the Aryans as a model society, and were now not kindly disposed toward the woman who threatened their rhetoric. When Prof. Thapar joined several other historians in opposing the communal interpretation of Indian history as a “monolithic” conflict between Hindus and Muslims, more criticism began to come her way.
“These ideas die down very hard,” says Prof. Thapar philosophically. “The problem arises with the difference between the writing of history by professional historians and the kind of history that is brought up in popular proclamations – which is often more mythology than history. This is true not just of India and Sri Lanka but of many places, where this distinction has to be constantly made and it’s very difficult to explain how popular history is not the same as professional history.” Often this means examining sacred texts and literature with the detached eye of a historian: “Whatever goes into the making of our present is open to analysis and should be open to analysis.” Having sought always to demarcate the lines between fact and fiction, Prof. Thapar traces her interest in ancient India to “the feeling that one had to understand the roots of one’s civilisation if one wanted to understand its modern manifestations.”
However, she declares her interest in history itself was kindled simply by having been a young Indian in the 1940s. The daughter of an army doctor, Prof. Thapar attended a convent school in Pune – an Indian city also famous as the site of Gandhi’s imprisonment. He and the other freedom fighters were frequently confined in the likes of the Ahmednagar fort prison and the Yerwada Jail, and would often make it a point to address supporters in the city. Gandhi was a favourite, but the young girl also got to bask in the company of others like Nehru and Sardar Patel.
She remembers: “If you happened to be living in a place that was important to the national movement, they [the freedom fighters] were all coming through and they all had public meetings for which we religiously turned up. Now that I think about it was really something quite fantastic to be so close to all these people, it was almost like talking directly to them.” Independence seemed inevitable, and when it was finally won Prof. Thapar, then a prefect, raised the tricolour for the first time in her school and addressing the gathering quoted Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!”
These glorious visions of utopia would tarnish over the years, but Nehru kept the dream alive longer than most. “The Nehru period was a time of great confidence and optimism because we all thought he was doing things that were different and were fundamentally important…and as it turns out now, we weren’t so wrong in believing that,” says Prof. Thapar attributing some of the country’s hardiness in the face of the recession to those policies. Four Prime Ministers later though, Indira Gandhi and her Emergency proved a disappointment.
“However, it was in the late 60s and 70s (when Indira Gandhi was in office) that many of us who had looked at colonial and national interpretations of Indian history began to say no, there are other ways of looking at these problems… nationalist history was so largely dependent on colonial history that we had to question both,” she says explaining that many nationalists equated this with being unpatriotic. But then, as now, Prof. Thapar had little patience (“patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” she declares, quoting Samuel Johnson), instead her mind was occupied by an ancient grave in the desert of Rajasthan.
Having discovered that archaeological papers were often too technical for her to understand, she followed a friend’s advice and committed herself to a three year dig under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of India. Kali Bandan was an old Harappan site out in the desert. “They were rather puzzled because they were used to young men in the department turning up to do the digging and they didn’t know quite what this middle-aged woman was doing there,” she says laughing. Assigned to a grave site, Prof. Thapar, then 35 years old, got down to work – “I thought to myself, what an introduction to the subject!”
As she got deeper pickaxes and knives gave way to surgical instruments for more delicate work. “Those were winters in Rajasthan when the sand blizzards used to blow,” she says recalling the blinding storms. “People on the site would be right in the middle of this, but I was in my grave, happily going on digging.” After two weeks she had uncovered a skeleton surrounded by shards of pottery. Picking up the pieces, she marvelled at the idea that hers was the first hand to touch these ornaments in over 4,000 years. “It’s quite different when they’re in a museum,” she says wistfully, “they have been cleared of their chronology.” The experience would leave her with a lifelong love of archaeology and of pottery.
Having long since retired, Prof. Thapar has proved herself quite prolific – publishing six of her 17 books in retirement. An emeritus professor of ancient Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, she has also been awarded several honorary degrees – in fact, her first was from the University of Peradeniya, where she was previously a visiting lecturer. She continues to travel and visit excavations (“they tell me I’m too old to live in a tent”) and has developed an interest in central Asia and how the area served as an “interstices” between very diverse cultures.
Though her research continues to take her back to ancient India, these are still interesting times. If it were a matter of choice, this would be the century in which she would choose to be born into -“it’s certainly been an incredibly exciting period to live in,” she says, with a historian’s appreciation of tumultuous times.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on August 15, 2008. Words by Smriti Daniel.