Updated: October 27, 2009 13:17 IST

Understanding India’s past

T. Satyamurthy
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The history of modern scholarship in understanding India’s past is more than two centuries old. There have been many publications by pioneers and doyens in the field. What distinguishes this book is that those who have contributed to it are young, standing on the first step of their research career. All the articles show good academic maturity and meticulousness in gathering data, correlating them into a theoretical framework and, above all, presenting them in a language that is devoid of jargon. That there is an odd man out among the contributors should warm the hearts of gender activists. If the contributors deserve all encouragement in their endeavour, the editors need to be commended for guiding these young scholars in the right direction.

Valuable data

Through field studies, researchers have amassed a huge volume of valuable data over the past two centuries. Time has come for these data to be sifted, collated, and placed in a theoretical framework. This is exactly what the writers in this volume have done. Scholars of the earlier era, whose efforts may appear ‘antiquarian’ in nature, had the remarkable habit of publishing their findings immediately. The scholars of Bengal were of this genre.

Sanjunkta Dutta gives an excellent account of these scholars who were the products of the colonial system as well as the ‘indigenous’ institutions like Bangiya Shahiya Parishad. Such of the contributions of these early scholars that were in English got noticed by the academic fraternity, but the ones in the local language remained largely untapped. The author may work on an annotated bibliography.


The explorations around the Delhi ridge by Mudit Trivedi, the odd man out, brought to light yet another Palaeolithic landscape. Since these assemblages have been found in a small area, the author could have worked on a more intensive geo-archaeological study.

Shibani Bose’s collection of published data regarding human-plant interaction in the ‘middle Gangetic’ valley is excellent, and it puts the cultivation of rice in proper temporal context. She correctly argues the non-relevance of metals in the process of introduction of the plant economy. The use of metals vis-À-vis scaling the magnitude of plant food production in the Indian sub-continent may be further probed.

Landscapes played an important role in shaping the archaeological, historical, and cultural records. As the landscapes varied from the micro to the macro level so did the nature of these records.

Uthara Suvrathan’s discussion on Vidarbha’s role in shaping its archaeological record during the Megalithic period and later is interesting. She has taken for granted that the megalithic funerary practices were ended, once the early historical traditions were introduced. There was not much change in the landscape between these two cultures. Obviously, there were migrations of people from the north and the south into this region, leading to different readings of Vidarbha. This has influenced the archaeological record, which she should have taken into consideration in her analysis.

Interaction of Tamils

The interaction of ancient Tamils with their landscape was much debated among the scholars. Unlike other micro landscapes, like Vidarbha, the ancient ‘Tamilakam’ was endowed with different micro landscapes and equally different cultural adaptations and traditions over a long time-frame. Supporting this archaeological record is the works of the Sangam age. The Sangam poets already conceptualised the landscapes in the thinais, which intruded into every aspect of Tamil culture. Interpreting this complex database is an onerous task, which Meera Visvanathan has accomplished with ease.

Shivani Agarwal is right in pointing out the lacunae in the methodology adopted by earlier scholars in examining the terracotta art. Many factors conditioned the modelling of these objects. The mindscape of the artist needs to be considered in addition to the spatial, chronological, and regional parameters.

While playing mentors to the young scholars, the editors of this volume have largely confined themselves to giving a proper orientation to their endeavour, something that is rarely witnessed in academic circles. It is also to their credit that the publication has a few, hardly noticeable, mistakes. Referencing and data tables deserve special mention.

ANCIENT INDIA — New Research: Edited by Upinder Singh and Nayanjot Lahiri; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 695.

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