Archaeology Reviews

‘Archaeology and the Public Purpose: Writings on and by M.N. Deshpande’ review: A tryst with ‘trowel and spade’

India is a country with a vast and ancient cultural heritage. Its preservation and conservation is a responsibility on all of us. A systematic and organised excavation, conservation and restoration policy for this legacy started with the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1861, with Sir Alexander Cunningham as its first Archaeological Surveyor and later director general resulting in excavation of famous Buddhist sites such as Nalanda in the second half of the 19th century and of course the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 1921.

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In her new book, Archaeology and the Public Purpose: Writings on and by M.N. Deshpande, Nayanjot Lahiri interweaves the history of post-Independence archaeology in India with the life of Madhusudan Narhar Deshpande (1920-2008) to come up with a fascinating book in two parts, with the first giving us a glimpse into his life and work and the second containing his writings. The book not only brings out Deshpande’s contribution but the author’s own commitment to Indian archaeology and heritage studies.

The story begins earlier. By the 1930s due to the ‘Great Depression... the ASI had reached an unusually low ebb’, to quote Lahiri. In 1944, following recommendations of a 1938 report by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley, Mortimer Wheeler was appointed as director general of the ASI.

Charming anecdotes

To deal with the concerns of a lack of sustained policy in archaeological work and understaffing of junior officers and technical training of its cadres, Wheeler proposed to set up a field training school in Taxila so that he could identify suitable scholars there and eventually employ them.

He appealed to 19 vice-chancellors to recruit young university graduates for organised research and training in Indian archaeology and ‘to interpret, in humanistic and scientific terms, this unsurpassed inheritance’.

Some years before Independence, a bunch of newly minted archaeologists made a ‘tryst with the trowel and spade’, as Lahiri terms it.

Deshpande was one of them, and he went on to become the director general of ASI; he did his research under another great archaeologist, H.D. Sankalia, at Deccan College. The young archaeologists imbibed the basics of the discipline in the field, “digging trenches and documenting discoveries in places alive with history,” some in Taxila near Rawalpindi (like Deshpande) or at Arikamedu in Puducherry and others in the shadows of Karnataka’s megaliths.

The author’s easy narrative flow describing the experiences of Deshpande during his archaeological work, along with contextual political background make it a riveting read. A photograph dated December 14, 1961, shows Jawaharlal Nehru looking tense, while Deshpande is his usual relaxed self.

Lahiri provides the context: only a few days later the Indian army would move in to Goa to liberate it from Portuguese rule. Was that weighing on his mind? Charming anecdotes pepper the first part, where Nehru’s visit to the Ajanta caves with Lady Edwina Mountbatten is a personal favourite and their chemistry is well captured.

Saving Badrinath

The chapter on how Deshpande helped environmentalist Chandi Prasad Bhatt in saving the traditional fabric of Badrinath Temple in the 1970s is fascinating and can serve as a template for those trying to ensure that the integrity of our monumental legacy is not compromised.

Deshpande’s writings on conservation and the methods he used for iconic monuments such as Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, Qutub Minar in Delhi, the Tabo monastery at Lahaul and Spiti and the conservation of rock cut caves are fascinating. He linked a major group of rock cut caves to ancient trade routes, helping us understand the choice of location and its decline as new routes developed.

I found myself walking with him in the Ellora caves and looking at it with new eyes. His thought processes, his advice and comments are important, for history and archaeology are inter-dependent. He writes, “It may also be remembered that history is not considered in modern times a mere chronological record of political events, but deals in a philosophical manner with the cause and effect of such events and in doing so interprets the significance of the cultural equipment and attainment of the people in their entirety both on the material plane and on the plane of ideas.”

Gandhian ideals

Deshpande grew up in a family of freedom fighters inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and his dedication to the preservation of the material remains of past societies of India is a lifelong mission, reflects his abiding contribution to India. His simple life on Gandhian ideals is an inspiration for generations to come. As he accompanied Mahatma Gandhi on his walks in 1942, when he was doing his graduation at Ferguson College, Pune, he is quoted in the book as saying, “So, there was no scope left for me to lose my way in life.”

For him truth was to be worshipped and it is that truth which is beautifully brought out in this book. It is a must read for anyone interested in monuments, heritage and conservation.

Archaeology and the Public Purpose: Writings on and by M.N. Deshpande; Nayanjot Lahiri, Oxford University Press, ₹1,595.

The reviewer is a historian.


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