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Reconstructing the Past

Susmita Basu Majumdar

By Romila Thapar
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 560, Rs. 650.00


Romila Thapar’s book is a compilation of sixteen essays most carefully chosen, almost like selecting the best of pearls to be strung. A collection of essays on history would definitely open up with issues in historiography and so does the first section incorporating three essays. The first one, ‘Decolonizing the Past’, is an attempt to portray the changing perspective of historians and trends in historiography. Reconstruction of our past which began with two opposed perspectives—the colonial and the nationalist—obviously become the starting point of discussion. Impetus for writing a different history came from writings outside the discipline; while searching the reasons for impoverishment of the country, Dadabhai Naoroji’s work ignited a debate centering the colonial economy and impoverishment issue. Highlighting the other major genres that contributed to the shaping of historiography, the author highlights the contributions made by eminent personalities and themes like caste and caste structure and raises issues like periodization in History and its interface and dialogues with other disciplines. The reorientation brought about in the interpretation of history through its interaction with the various disciplines and schools of thoughts influenced by the ideas of historical materialism, the Marxist approach, anthropological and sociological studies influencing the discipline, stretching up to the more recent ones like gender studies are addressed. The major shifts in the understanding of history have been aptly highlighted right from the middle of the twentieth century with the first two decades in the second half as a watershed in writing of history. A clear picture of the shift emerges in this attempt with major markers like the interdisciplinary approach entwining geographical regions, environment and historical perspectives, the growing importance of regional histories, inquiries into texts to understand their context. The understanding of this shift becomes more prominent with the most relevant concluding phase explaining where we stand today including the recent controversy over historical writing on the ‘Hindutva view of history’.   The next essay ‘The Contribution of D.D. Kosambi to Indology’ is an attempt to bring in the issue of paradigm shift brought about by the scientific approaches of D.D. Kosambi shifting the focus from chronological descriptive political history to social and economic history. How a mathematician with deep-rooted knowledge of Sanskrit came to be recognized as an Indologist is clearly revealed in the in-depth analysis of Kosambi’s writings. The impact made by Kosambi’s writings in the ...

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