A celebration of Romila Thapar’s work also becomes a passionate discourse on the historian’s ideas and arguments
It is quite apposite that a volume celebrating the scholarship of Romila Thapar, the historian and public intellectual, would have the word ‘question’ in the title as she always insists that, ‘…an enquiry should begin with a question…’. Questioning Paradigms, Constructing Histories is a festschrift with a difference. It is the fruition of a three-day conference organised by the Book Review Literary Trust in March 2018 and the volume is ably edited by Kumkum Roy and Naina Dayal.
Being given a limited space, the attempt here is to introduce readers to the richness of this volume. The contributions are in parity with the complete oeuvre of Prof. Thapar. They relate not only to her long term engagements, her evolving areas of interest are also adequately addressed and interrogated.
Strands of thought
The first section called ‘Political Processes’ opens with Patrick Olivelle’s essay on Ashoka’s Writings. Olivelle draws our attention to the voices of silence in Ashokan inscriptions.
Susmita Basu Majumdar’s minute study of Ashokan inscriptions focuses on the power and ways of communication in the Ashokan realm. Strangely, Thapar’s essay ‘Literacy and Communication: Some Thoughts on the Inscriptions of Ashoka’ is missing from the footnotes.
Sudharshan Seneviratne’s essay looks at Peninsular India and examines the interface between the Mauryan state and its successors. R. Champakalakshmi zeroes in on the political processes under the Pallavas and Cholas.
Nachiket Chanchani takes us to the less traversed area of architecture and state formation of the Chalukyas of Badami. Hermann Kulke focuses on the political functions of the three famous temples, the Lingaraja, the Jagannatha and the Surya in the processes of state formation and kingship ideology in Orissa.
The second section is called the ‘Symbolic and the Social’. Charles Malamoud shows how a tree is transformed into a cultural artefact called ‘yupa’ with its precise status and functions in Vedic ritual. The concerns and arguments expressed in Thapar’s essay ‘Perceiving the Forest’ has been extended by Aloka Parasher-Sen. Thapar’s Shakuntala inspired Uma Chakravarti’s reading of Sita.
The third section deals with ‘Historical Consciousness and Reconstructions’. Robert Goldman demonstrates how the commentators supported the historicity of Valmiki and Vyasa’s narratives. Alf Hiltebeitel proposes a new date of composition of the Mahabharata — between 150 BCE and 1 CE within the context of second urbanisation. That our ancient past was marked by stories of conflict and violence is argued by Naina Dayal drawing upon the narratives of the Mahabharata.
Kunal Chakrabarti narrates how Thapar’s reading of Puranic genealogy informed his own reconstruction of the social history of Bengal on the basis of Puranic texts. Taking cue from Thapar, Sunil Kumar questions the tyranny of meta narratives through a study of the Sultanate capital of Delhi. Gananath Obeyesekere takes up the representation of King Parakramabahu IV of Sri Lanka through a variety of texts. Kesavan Veluthat’s essay evokes the wide reach of Keralolpatti, a Malayalam text used for public performances.
‘India and the World Beyond’ is the title of the fourth section. While T.R. Trautmann discusses the context of the centrality of the Aryan debate in Europe, Michael Witzel demonstrates that archaeology, linguistics, textual and genetics taken together can give us an emerging picture of the Aryan question.
Xinru Liu explores relations between Iranians and Indians in a given period. A comparative study between the Mahabharata and the Iliad is done by Kevin McGrath.
Past and present concerns
The last two essays in this section relate to maritime trade. Rajan Gurukkal’s identification of the ports of Peninsular India as merely seasonal bazaars or settlements of itinerant merchants is problematic. Ranabir Chakravarti highlights the role of both the seaboards in the maritime network with the Mediterranean, privileging the port of Muziris.
The last section ‘The Past and the Present: Dialogues and Debates’ has five essays by Dhruv Raina, Achin Vanaik, Janaki Nair, Kumkum Roy and Michael W. Meister. The first three essays voice contemporary concerns of knowledge production, democracy, Hindutva and rise of public anti-intellectuals.
Kumkum Roy revisits the writing of text books and other books for children with particular attention towards treatment of food.
The volume ends with Michael Meister’s fascinating study on the temple site of Masrur in Himachal Pradesh, an eye opener on redefining heritage.
Beyond the scholarly excellence of the essays, the love and respect towards Professor Thapar is visible throughout the volume. The best part, however, is Professor Thapar’s own perceptive response to the essays presented to her. Indeed this is a book to be possessed.
Questioning Paradigms, Constructing Histories: A Festschrift for Romila Thapar; Edited by Kumkum Roy & Naina Dayal, Aleph, The Book Review Literary Trust, ₹999.
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