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An Institutional History

Utsa Ray

By Madhuparna Roychowdhury
Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2015, pp. xiii 386, Rs. 875.00


Madhuparna Roychowdhury’s work is a significant addition to the historiography on museums and art history in India. In recent years, one of the major as well as the deeply thought-provoking interventions in this field has been Tapati GuhaThakurta’s Monuments, Objects, Histories. Guha-Thakurta has convincingly argued how the history of museums, monuments and art objects need to be situated in the realm of the history of Indian nationalism. Madhuparna Roychowdhury’s Displaying India’s Heritage takes this history further. Her intention is to treat museummaking in India as an aspect of a wider culture of history. This practice of history was torn between colonial institutional backing for a so-called rational and scientific history and a historical consciousness that drew upon memories as well as imaginative ideas. Puranic history was labelled an outcaste by the colonial forms of rational-positivist history writing since it could not be empirically proved. However, indigenous elites, often trained in the new mode of education, often combined these two types of history-writing. Roychowdhury offers us a vivid description of the usage of history in different genres of literature. There developed a literary genre on historical sites specifically addressed to the tourists. Roychowdhury draws a connection between the tourism dimension of the culture of history and nationalistic history writing. While the archaeologists created sites through excavations, these sites also became emblems of cultural heritage and began to draw attention from the nationalist historians. Local histories, often the handiwork of scholars not trained in professional history, also began to thrive. School teachers, small town lawyers and local journalists often wrote from a zeal for serious research. These local scholars acted as local informants of eminent scholars like Jadunath Sarkar. These connections often made a significant impact on local history writing. It is in fact in her account of local history writing that Roychowdhury does a commendable job. Local history writing combined elements of the mythical with scientific history writing. The authors chose to write about their birthplace, villages or districts and embellished carefully collected facts with myths and legends. But this history was given a façade of scientific history. Many of these historians were responsible for the development of local museums as well as local ramifications of the museum movement in Bengal in the early part of the twentieth century. Roychowdhury deals with local museum movements in detail in her fifth chapter where she also writes how ...

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