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'Rewriting' History

A.G. Krishna Menon

By V.S. Parmar
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 256, Rs. 995.00


The central thesis of V.S. Parmar’s book is an important one. In the footsteps of subaltern historians he attempts to shift the focus of architectural history of India away from monumental architecture—palaces, temples, mosques tombs, to ‘lesser buildings’—domestic architecture, market places, inns and community halls. He claims that the ‘meaning of Indian architecture’ had been distorted by earlier historians and ‘one of the purposes of this work is to overcome that inadequacy’.   There are several other shibboleths he sets out to tackle. For example, historical structures are usually studied in isolation and not as part of a pattern of settlement in a village, town or city. Therefore, ‘it is commonly assumed that all medieval palaces were located in the centre of towns, but this is not true for Muslim settlements such as Delhi, Agra or Ahmedabad. To describe a Mughal palace without emphasizing and explaining its eccentric location on the periphery is to misrepresent its wider architectural implications’.   Parmar also attacks the ‘one-sided specialist approach’ of art historians who have dominated architectural historiography. Their engagement with architectural matters have only provided limited insights into the creation of architecture. He cites the example of the curvature of the temple shikhara which art historians ascribe to aesthetic or theological concerns of ancient builders, but their views do not contend with the fact that building in stone and corbelling inwards inevitably produces the curvature: ‘This curvature was a matter of engineering and not of aesthetics’.   Parmar therefore suggests that the process of construction of ancient buildings must be studied in the field and not by analysing how they conformed to the prescriptions contained in the Shilpa Shastras. He asserts that these texts are not important to understand architecture because it did not mediate architectural form. Quoting several well regarded scholars he points out that the descriptions in these texts are generally ‘so vague that it is difficult to reconcile them with the examples which have came down to us’. This lack of co-relation between the text and the actual configuration of the building leads him to characterize the Shilpa Shastras as merely theoretical writings of theologians and learned brahmans and distinguishes their texts from the manuals of architectural and artistic practice compiled by builders and craftsmen. ‘In the real world of architectural construction temples were built by imitation: one generation copying the predecessor or one architect his rival, but ...

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