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Iconic Sites and Monumental Subjects


Kumkum Roy

MARSHALLING THE PAST: ANCIENT INDIA AND ITS MODERN HISTORIES
By Nayanjot Lahiri
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2012, pp. 452, Rs. 895.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 4 April 2013

The anthology under discussion consists of thirteen essays organized in three parts—the first titled Ancient Heritage and Modern Histories, the second Artefacts and Landscapes, and the third, An Archaeologist (John Marshall) and A Historian (D.D. Kosambi), written over a period of 20 years, between 1990 and 2010.   Lahiri writes with ease, enthusiasm and a passion that is almost contagious. She communicates the excitement of discovering the history of archaeology, her intense engagement with dusty files of official correspondence and her equally intense interest in the material remains of the past very effectively. These are perhaps best exemplified in the last article of the first section, titled ‘Partitioning the Past’, where Lahiri draws out the condition of a beleaguered Archaeological Survey, the pain, trauma, and violence that accompanied the human tragedy and was compounded by acts of omission and commission, vividly and sensitively.   And yet, some of her concerns seem overstated. It is true that partitioning artefacts such as beads and necklaces down the middle may not have been the best way of dividing the archaeological material from Harappan sites. However, there are other ways of resolving this beyond asking for the restoration of their original unity, especially in an age when virtual reconstructions through sophisticated digital photography are possible, and can be used for scholarly work. The focus on the more dramatic moments of destruction and possible restoration also diverts attention from other issues. For instance, the lack of any attempt to explain contexts of discovery in museum displays should surely be a matter of equal concern. As they are presented to the lay spectator, most Harappan artefacts are meant to be seen as exemplifying the glories of ‘civilization’—we learn little about how they were produced and used, and the stratigraphic/ archaeological/ architectural contexts in which they may have been found. Introducing viewers to these complex contexts would probably enable us to move beyond viewing these as possessions and part of the heritage of contemporary nation-states. In a sense, the very first essay, originally written in 2000, sets the tone and lays out the categories with which the author operates. There are the colonial authorities for whom knowledge production and the control over information about the empire was crucial.Classifying, and appropriating the material remains of the past was, Lahiri argues, part of the enterprise. This is juxtaposed against the Indian perspective—where many of these materials were in use and ...


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