National

Elite cultures have dominated discourse: Romila Thapar

Professor R. Champakalakshmi, historian Romila Thapar and Chairman of Kalakshetra Foundation N. Gopalaswami at Kalakshetra in Chennai onSaturday. Photo: M. Karunakaran  

“We have to seek out and discuss insights that will give meaning to construction of our heritage. To give priority to certain patterns of culture — elite or religion, or language, or regional cultures — leaves the search incomplete,” renowned historian Romila Thapar said on Saturday.

“We have to accommodate many more aspects of our diverse cultures, if we are to justify the richness of India’s diversity. It requires sensitivity to track the constant adjustments made by the cultural forms and to a changing history,” she said, delivering the Rukmini Devi Memorial Lecture at Kalakshetra on Saturday.

Ms. Thapar urged the gathering to explore what constituted the idea of ‘heritage’, ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’. “It would reveal how the elite cultures have dominated the discourse and how it has had many influences,” she said.

In an hour-long lecture, Dr. Thapar suggested that the past history of India might not be as rosy as it had been made out to be. “Tradition is the result of the interplay between what existed in the past and our present aspirations. Often religious rituals, on investigation, been found to have been invented much later. The past has been invented to legitimise our actions in the present,” she said.

Even as she said that elite cultures had dominated the cultural discourse over generations, she affirmed that elite cultures must still be relevant. “It can provide information as to how it deals with other groups.”

She even suggested that different cultures in India might have had different experiences with respect to the four-fold varna system. “The hierarchy has differed. The dominant caste has not always been the same. In some societies, varna stratification is absent altogether,” she said.

Speaking of India’s experience with colonisers, Dr. Thapar said there were flip sides too. The Turkish, Persian, and Afghan influences in the north-western parts of India had been dismissed as belonging to invaders. But they brought in trade, a new style of sculpture, and also a language tied to their religious beliefs. British rulers wanted to reorganise the economy and drain the wealth but they were curious about the Indian past, constructing our heritage and leaving behind texts that revealed their preferences, she said.

Dr. Thapar pointed out how the definition of national culture was contested. “Many cultures are competing for inclusion. Especially in societies that boast multiple cultures. Sometimes, contestation leads to destruction of heritage, possibly for political reasons like the Babri Masjid.”


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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 3:53:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/elite-cultures-have-dominated-discourse-romila-thapar/article6711358.ece

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