Comment

For a newly imagined ‘historical temper’

REMEMBRANCE: “‘Negative commemoration’ of the past recognises the dangers of forgetting, rationalising, or explaining away historical wounds.” Picture shows a Holocaust survivor with a photo taken at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

REMEMBRANCE: “‘Negative commemoration’ of the past recognises the dangers of forgetting, rationalising, or explaining away historical wounds.” Picture shows a Holocaust survivor with a photo taken at the Auschwitz concentration camp.   | Photo Credit: AMIR COHEN

Now, the need is for respecting alternative versions of the past, rooted in evidence and material life, rather than a singular historical truth that ‘disciplines’ unruly and difficult memories

Walking past the twinkling Christmas shop windows of downtown Würzburg, Germany, a very old and respected University town, I stumbled on some pavement stones. Pavements in advanced capitalist countries such as Germany are not the treacherous spaces they are in India where time wounds all heels. Instead, ease of passage through the city is a goal to which such municipalities are strongly committed. My stumbling was clearly meant to disrupt the pleasures of window shopping, and make the faces that were lifted up to the warm, inviting glow of the shop window to look down at the minor irritation that impedes movement.

I found a few unevenly set brass tiles, each inscribed with the name of a Jew who had been deported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1938. It was the municipality’s way of not only honouring the memory of these Würzburg residents but of commemorating the trauma of the holocaust. Never again will there be such a tragedy, but only if we never forget.

Such “negative commemoration” of the past recognises the dangers of forgetting, rationalising, or explaining away historical wounds. In a city like Würzburg, the “negative commemoration” goes alongside the great pride in the palaces, churches and chapels that dominate the cityscape. The achievements of the Catholic Church, of which the Marienberg Fortress, the University and the religious monuments are testimony, proclaim the power and glory of the medieval Prince Bishops — though no equivalent commemorations exist of the 8,000 peasants who were killed in the Peasant War of 1525. Or of 6-800 women in the 17th century witch trials. Both kinds of commemoration, negative and positive, require the work of professional historians, and more important, an openness to the sense of the past. To one history, you lift your head up, to the other kind of commemoration you bow your head in shame.

Historical memory

In a vast and heterogeneous subcontinent like India, history has a public life which is large and far more vivid than the practice of academic historians. Historical memory is continuously made and remade in the public life of India, often with no reference to what is taught, learned, researched and communicated in scholarly writing, classes, textbooks and so on.

Yet, like all complex and aging societies, there may be much in our past that makes our hearts swell with pride, as much as there are aspects that would make us squirm in discomfort. In order that historians are not turned into court poets, one must be open to both possibilities in the past.



The demand for a glorious past is deeply unsettling because it comes from those who have nothing to learn from history or its method, since the answers are already known, sturdily built around the question of Hindu pride



Of late, we have had a loud and resonating demand for a “glorious past” which will brook no interference from mere academics, naysayers, critics and practicing historians. A surfeit of certainties based on assertions, facts, rumours, authentic and spurious Sanskrit texts, dubious and actual archaeological knowledge, etc. have flooded our public life and baffled our historical sensibilities.

Why is this latest demand for a glorious past deeply unsettling? Because it comes from those who have nothing to learn from history or its method, since the answers are already known, sturdily built around the question of Hindu pride. All they require is the endorsement of the professional historian, who must provide “evidence” to fit pre-given conclusions.

Let us not repeat the comical suggestions about ancient Indians’ knowledge of plastic surgery, aerodynamics, and gene theory. They are already passing into the Indian commonsense, if the new brochure of Bajaj Capital, which even presents an ornamented toy aircraft as illustration, is anything to go by.

The history of science is a serious specialisation to which I can lay no claim. But I would like to illustrate the way in which Indian historians now practice their craft by using one example. History writing in India, over the last three decades at least, is less and less about countering fiction with fact, and instead emphasises process and context. My example is from the very well-known achievements of the Madhava school of mathematics, founded in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, whose brilliant discoveries of trigonometry were transmitted to his students and followers orally. As David Pingree, the well-known historian of science, has painstakingly showed, this discovery of the sine and cosine (power) series preceded Newtons’ — compiled in 1669 — by at least two centuries. Now, we could bask in that glory, or we could, as historians interested in socio-economic processes, embed this intellectual history by asking questions. Why were the discoveries of the Madhava school confined to a small quadrilateral area between Calicut and Cochin: the Vatasseri illam, Allattur, (to which Paramesvara and Damodara belonged) Kelallur illam in Trkkantiyur (to which Nilakantha belonged) Parannottu illam of Allattur (to which Jyesthadeva belonged) and Irinjalakkuda (from where Madhava hailed)? Why was their work not known to a larger world until it was described in 1823 by Sankara Varman and by C.M. Whish in 1830? How come the school included Sankara, an Ambalavasi (generic name for a collection of castes among Hindus in Kerala), who was the most important textualiser of the oral transmissions of this parampara of Madhava — a peculiar feature only of the Kerala social structure, when science was dominated by Brahmanas elsewhere in the pre-modern subcontinent? Why, despite their brilliance, did this knowledge not trigger the kind of revolution set off by Newtonian calculus?

Pingree’s paper thus paves the way for an enriched history of science, though he enigmatically concludes “Madhava’s achievements loom even larger when one considers that he was operating with a tradition that neither encouraged not valued his work.” Our search for answers will take us to the histories of caste, family forms, agrarian structures, and the purpose of cryptic knowledge in medieval India. These are not the questions that our warriors who want a control of the past would like to take.

Ambiguous glories

The call for a glorious past also comes at a time when “the peoples without history” — notably Dalits, women, autochthonous groups — make a robust political claim to practices which may tell us about the past and all its ambiguous glories. Mahadeva Shankanapura calls for the building of ‘imaginative truths’ out of the Manteswamy and Malemadeshwara performance traditions which are practices in contemporary Karnataka, as a way of dealing with the paucity of sources for a Dalit past. Only from making sense of such sources might we address some of the historical wounds which have been inflicted by those very elites who produced the texts and inscriptions of which we may be arguably proud, and not brush aside the conditions under which such achievements were made possible.

At such a time, it is necessary to call, not for a reassertion of a “scientific temper” among historians, but a newly imagined Indian “historical temper” with its own rules and procedures of knowledge production. Such a history would acknowledge the necessity of respecting alternative versions of the past, rooted in evidence and material life, rather than a singular historical truth that “disciplines” unruly and difficult memories. The process may be risky, but the time is ripe for propagating such a historical temper.

(Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.)

Correction:

The article has been edited to accomodate the following correction:

In the Comment page article, For a newly imagined ‘historical temper’ (Feb.7), a sentence got jumbled. What read as “Mahadeva Shankanapura calls for the building of “imaginative truths” out of the Manteswamy and Malemadeshwara performance traditions which are practices in contemporary Karnataka, as a way of dealing with the paucity of sources and early 15th centuries whose brilliant discoveries of trignometry were for a Dalit past” should have been: “Mahadeva Shankanapura calls for the building of ‘imaginative truths’ out of the Manteswamy and Malemadeshwara performance traditions which are practices in contemporary Karnataka, as a way of dealing with the paucity of sources for a Dalit past.”

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 7:59:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-for-a-newly-imagined-historical-temper/article6866021.ece

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