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Approaching the Past from the Present

Monica Juneja

By Tapati Guha-Thakurta
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 404, Rs. 1095.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 9 September 2005

Monuments, Objects, Histories is a collection of essays that traces the disciplinary formation of archaeology and art history in nineteenth and twentieth century India. Its narrative, woven around the lives of monuments, artefacts and art-objects, investigates the authority of texts and institutional practices, all of which were harnessed to the “production of lost pasts” for the embryonic nation. Though seven of these nine articles have already been published singly and at different points of time, together they make up an argument that binds them into a book. There is much continuity between the contents here and the ideas developed by the author in her earlier work on the emergence of an Indian “national aesthetic”. Monuments, Objects, Histories, however, approaches the past from the vantage point of the present. Taking the conflicts that have flared up around sites and works of art in contemporary India, it proceeds to trace their genealogies back to colonial times—to the constitution of canons and institutions of art within the colonial establishment, and to the sliding of colonial knowledge and practices into a form of national authority.   The book is an ambitious one that addresses a number of issues and themes, fleshed out through case studies researched over many years. While acknowledging the weight and rigour of this enterprise, I shall limit myself to summarizing some of the issues discussed and to raising some questions. The book is organized along four thematic sections, each of which tackles the following subjects: the colonial beginnings of the modern disciplines of archaeology and art history, regional articulations of colonial knowledge, nationalist inscriptions of “Indian art”, and finally, conflicts of the present centred on sites, buildings and their histories. Each section is made up of two, in one case three, chapters that focus on persons or events whose individual trajectories are meticulously mapped out. A key theme that runs through the whole is the close association between the “colonial” and the “national” in the formation of an Indian past, articulated through the disciplines of archaeology and art history. The legacy of such an imbrication, the author suggests, accounts for the innate fragility of the national as its claims come to be challenged in the name of yet another, more aggressive form of “nationalism” incorporated in the politics of Hindutva.   The first section focuses on the creation of two distinct areas of scholarship in colonial India—those of architectural history ...

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