Review of Sudeshna Guha’s A History of India Through 75 Objects: Everlasting things inside a book

Sudeshna Guha traces India’s past through various artefacts, with a word of caution

Updated - April 14, 2023 06:02 pm IST

Published - April 14, 2023 09:01 am IST

Geographical map of India as seen on a globe. Image for representational purposes.

Geographical map of India as seen on a globe. Image for representational purposes. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“This dining table is made from a plank of wood from the swing in my grandmother’s house,” said my husband, running his hand lovingly over the wood. Almost every item in the house had a story behind it: the vessels, the cupboards, even some of the décor hanging on the walls.

Reading Sudeshna Guha’s A History of India Through 75 Objects reminded me of these stories. When everyday objects in homes are filled with history, why can we not trace the country’s past through various artefacts? But Guha also begins with a note of caution. Her selection, she writes, though placed in chronological order, “move in time and space and, therefore, many histories. They implore us to see the bigger world they inhabit and caution us against conceptualising the past in a linear form and seeking only the aspects of their uniqueness. They create a regard of the infinite ways in which we are able to historicise.”

A view of book of ‘A history of India through 75 objects’ by author Sudeshna Guha.

A view of book of ‘A history of India through 75 objects’ by author Sudeshna Guha. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Solar pump to EVM

The 75 objects chosen range from archaeological finds to artworks and literary works and even what we would consider modern items such as the Electronic Voting Machine and a solar pump. The variety makes it possible for the reader to dip into essays at random.

Guha opens with Robert Bruce Foote’s find of the Pallavaram Spear Head, in which she offers a quick overview of Indian prehistory and the Englishman’s “herculean accomplishments” in documenting and mapping the sites and collecting artefacts.

The chapter on the famous “Dancing Girl” from Mohenjodaro looks at how the label of dancing girl came from “the British obsession with the Indian nautch (dance)” and how art historians today are coming up with different perspectives of what the figurine could represent. The other aspect this essay touches upon is the question of belonging: does the figurine belong to India or Pakistan? In 2016, even as there were claims that the statue represented the Hindu goddess Parvati; in Pakistan, a barrister petitioned the country’s High Court that the figurine was “part of Pakistan’s cultural heritage”, almost akin to the Mona Lisa in Europe. Finally, Guha touches upon the replicas being sold as souvenirs, and what this means in a time of increasingly strident nationalism.

The politics of belonging also shows up in the story of the Didarganj Yakshi and how a modern state uses an ancient artefact to connect a supposedly “Golden Age” from the past to the present. Another yakshi that showed up in the excavation at Pompeii in Italy stands testimony to ancient India’s seafaring past and connections with the world around it. 

‘A palimpsest in stone’ 

The essay on the Allahabad Pillar, which the author describes as “a palimpsest, albeit of stone...”, is another riveting one. The pillar bears Ashokan edicts in prakrit, a eulogy to the Gupta king Samudragupta in Sanskrit, an inscription from the time of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, a record of Raja Birbal’s visit to Allahabad and the genealogical history of Emperor Jahangir. Interestingly, Lieutenant T.S. Burt of the English East India Company who sketched the pillar in 1834 notes that the locals referred to it as the gada (mace) of the Pandava Bhima. This is an example of “how objects often acquire historical values with little reference to their contents.”

Another chapter that drew my eye was “The Godrej Lock”. It was, as I remember from my childhood, the ultimate in securing the home, the suitcase and what have you. It’s a relatively short essay but offers a quick overview of the history of lock-making and how Ardeshir Godrej was enthused by the success of the lock to develop the safe. All of which later led to the various products that ranged from steel cupboards, typewriters to refrigerators.

‘Refugee Map’ is a reminder that some stories have been forgotten or conveniently brushed under the carpet. A drawing of the shortest route from then-Burma to India, this map was most certainly used by the British and Europeans during the Fall of Rangoon. Guha traces the impact of the fall of Rangoon on the Indians in Burma and how it linked to the Bengal Famine of 1943. 

As I leaf through essays on a chintz handkerchief, books like the Razmnama, a map of India and Arabia and the logo of the Life Insurance Corporation of India, I wonder why music and sound is represented just by a painting of Rag Megh and a Chenchu flute.

A History of India Through 75 Objects; Sudeshna Guha, Hachette, ₹1,299.

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