Monuments, Objects, Histories surveys the practices of archaeology, art history, and museums in nineteenth-and twentieth-century India. It looks at processes by which ‘lost pasts’ came to be produced in India. Such lost pasts, the author shows, came to be imagined around a corpus of monuments, archaeological relics, and art objects.
This book reveals the scholarly ad institutional authority that emerged around such structures and artifacts, making them not only the chosen objects of art and archaeology but also signifiers of a nation’s civilization and antiquity.
The close relationship between the colonial and the national in the making of India’s pasts, and their legacy for the present, are one of the themes of this book. It looks at the consolidation of Western expertise and custodianship of India’s antiquities; at the projection of varying regional, nativist, and national claims around the country’s architectural and artistic inheritance; and at contemporary political tussles that have placed archaeology and art within struggles over defining the Indian nation.
In brief, this book traces the framing of an official national canon of Indian art through different periods, showing how the workings of disciplines and institutions have been linked with the authority of the nation.
Tapati Guha Thakurta is Professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Science Calcutta. The Author of The Making of a New India Art Artists, Aesthestics, and Nationalism in Bengali, She is a specialist on art and the Cultural history of Modern India.
ALL HISTORY WRITING, we are frequently reminded, is premised on the present. Pasts become meaningful and usable only when they are activated by the contemporary desires of individuals and communities, and, most powerfully, by the will of nations. And disciplinary fields such as history, archaeology, and art history, with their changing conceptual tools and methodologies, stand over time as the chief sites of authorization of ancient pasts that come into being in an avowedly modern era. The essays gathered in this book are centrally about such practices of the production of lost pasts in modern India, pasts that come to be retrieved from and imagined around a growing corpus of monumental structures, archaeological relics, and art objects. They map the scholarly and institutional authority that emerged around such artifacts, making of them not only the chosen objects of art and archaeology but also the prime signifiers of the nation's civilization and antiquity.
The term "institution" is used in the title to suggest two overlapping processes: the ways in which the object field came to be constituted within the scope of the changing disciplines of archaeology and art history; and, equally, the ways in which this came to reside within an official administrative apparatus that worked in close tandem with the world of scholarship. The subject of Indian art, as it appears in different periods and contexts in this book, is a product as much of textual documentation and narratives as of archaeological, museum, and exhibition practices. Covering a time frame that stretches from the first colonial endeavors of the mid-and late nineteenth century to a set of living contemporary issues, the book offers vignettes of colonial, nationalist, and postcolonial histories. It looks back to the inception of the new disciplines in the colonial period, while grounding itself in some of the tensions and controversies that have riddled the spheres of archaeology and art history in India in recent times. It is the life of monuments and art objects in the present, their positioning within both the professional and the popular public domains, particularly their threatened existence in our times in the face of the cultural politics of Hindu nationalism, that forms the core concern of this study.
This book therefore has its own locations in the present. It comes out of a time when the academic professions of history and archaeology in India find themselves in a tight corner, confronted by the political dictates of producing a corrective history of the Hindu nation, struggling to protect the scholarly integrity of its norms against illegitimate intruders in the field. If this has irreparably fractured the world of academia, it has also disturbingly blurred the boundaries between the professional and public spheres of knowledge and exposed to a new vulnerability the claims of scientific/objective scholarship. As both left and Hindu right-wing writers of history textbooks charge each other with selective distortions of national histories, the field itself faces a deep crisis of self-legitimization.? The assault on the discipline reverberates in the endangered state of the country's monumental and artistic inheritance, spinning off frenzies of faith and spurts of destruction and rectitude that fly against the secular logic of art and history.
But this stands as only one side of the picture. The other side presents an equally damning scenario of ennui and indifference. When they are not targets of attack or remake, monuments and museum objects today stand strangely emptied of meaning and value, left to fight a new curse of obsoleteness in the nation's public life. Official discourses on heritage and art treasures have worn thin, finding little resonance in the preoccupations of either India's elite or its mass society. This book then also belongs to a time when India's archaeological sites and museums seem to have exhausted their lives as influential national institutions—when museum spaces have been rendered as fossilized as the relics they house, when the once-grand body of the Archaeological Survey of India (among the oldest such surveys in the world) is ridden with inertia and disfunctionality, when the study of the ancient Indian past has lost its academic standing in the very centers where it was first launched, and object specializations, once the high mark of expertise in the field, have become the bane of Indian art history, both at home and abroad.
It is this present context that urges one to look back to an era when the aura of these ruins and relics, in their newly inscribed status as historical monuments and works of art, gripped India's colonial and nationalist imagination. The exercise, though, is not one of mere nostalgia, a predictable contrasting of past achievements with present decline. Rather, it is an attempt at a critical stocktaking of the way the twin spheres of archaeology and art history evolved in colonial India, wove their compelling narratives, and took on their nationalized persona over the early and mid-twentieth century. In a period that saw dramatic alterations in the "institutional landscape" of antiquarian and archaeological research in Europe, what, we could ask, were the specific contours of this landscape in India in the early formative years? How did these institutional sites define a national administrative and scholarly establishment? What were the structures of authority they engendered? And what are the kinds of modern destinies we can track for particular monuments and objects in their varying configurations within this establishment? In addressing these questions, what emerges, on the one hand, is the centrality of the country's archaeological and art historical resources in the shaping of imperial command and custodianship. On the other hand, what also becomes apparent is the power of the "nation-form" as it enfolds these structures and objects and the histories and traditions they yield. One of mymain interest lies in marking the early inscriptions of the national within the colonial art establishment and the processes of the subtle transmutation of the colonial into a national authority. At the same time, I also interrogate the hegemonic claims of nationalism and the nation-state as I look at how these have had to contend with the parallel demands of the local, regional, and international and how the secure national identity of objects and canons has periodically been thrown into question.
What our colonial and nationalist histories offer then is not just an impressive lesson in knowledge production and institution building. They also provide clues to a host of ambivalences and dissensions that resided at the heart of these practices, anticipating in different ways the dilemmas and dangers of the present. We could take the case, for example, of the kinds of uses to which archaeological knowledges were deployed by professionals and intellectuals in both pre- and post—Independence India. A recent study has shown the way the momentous archaeological event of the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization in 1924 would translate into assertions of Dravidian antiquity and Tamil nationality and enter the narrative contract of Tamil nationalism.
The increasing sophistication of archaeological interpretations of the Indus Valley remains—the counterpositions of scholars on the limits of the histories that can be deduced from this material record—did not detract from the continuing appropriation of the phenomenon in the construction of nationalist lineages and ancestries. This cannot be explained away in terms of a simple binary of scholarly versus popular or academic versus political knowledges, for, as in the present, the earlier years of the twentieth century saw the deep imbrication of experts and professionals in the web of demands and desires that came to be woven around the hard proof of the material remains of the past.
Another telling instance shows itself in the particular life and trajectory that "scientific archaeology" assumed in the heyday of Nehruvian secular India, for example, in the figure of H. D. Sankalia and in the new center of academic archaeology that he founded at the Deccan College in Pune. The important point to note here is not just that scholars like Sankalia used the resources and methods of "scientific archaeology" at sites such as Dwaraka and Tripuri in Western India to testify historically the legends of the Mahabharata and the Puranas, but the ease and ardor with which such projects of historicizing the nation's epic past could rest within the sanctified domain of academic and scientific research without robbing the latter of any of its force. That Sankalia, like many fellow scholars before and after him, saw nothing contradictory in the worlds of myth, history, and academic archaeology—that he could ardently pursue what has been termed "a scientific archaeology of tradition and belief"—points to the extent to which the articulation of national schelarly authorities was embroiled in these cultural claims and affective bonds. One can see here the stark antecedents to subsequent official projects such as the "Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites" that would be undertaken by Sankalia's kith and kin in the profession, B. B. Lai, laying a clear road to the catastrophic events that would unfold at Ayodhya. It is tempting to see these nationalist beliefs and stances of an earlier period as automatically begetting the fundamentalist politics of today—to argue that the refusal to adhere strictly to the norms of scientific academic tenets in the past was bound to end up in the kinds of violation of "truths" that now surround us. But how far one can be read as any obvious prehistory of the other needs careful reconsideration. "Getting one's history wrong," we have been told, is an essential fallout of the mechanisms of nation building." But we also know that there are always many fine lines of distinction to be drawn among fabrication, invention, and imagination. And the more crucial issue to be underlined is the manner in which scholarship in twentieth-century India frequently empowered and authenticated itself on the strength of such imaginings to build and rebuild the edifices of the nation's archaeological and art historical pasts.
It is this inseparability of the spheres of professional and public knowledge, of academic and nationalist motivations that form an underlying theme of this book— even as the essays chart in detail the carving out of different areas of disciplinary and institutional expertise. The power of this institutional apparatus, its abilities to expand, proliferate, and ride above inner tensions, is writ large across the chapters. Thus, even as colonial officials lamented the failure of museums in India to function as bodies of popular education, we see over the early twentieth century the steady expansion of the museums establishment throughout the empire and the princely states. Alongside the Archaeological Survey, the museum stood forth as the surest symbol of official custody over the country's art and archaeological treasures, a main marker of new regional political identities, and a chief locus of Indian art historical scholarship. Institutional soul-searching about the absence of a "proper" public did not in any way diminish the need for a new National Museum in the capital of New Delhi to mark the birth of the independent democratic Republic of India. Nor did the projection of various ethnic sub national identities onto monuments and artworks stand in the way of the constitution of a composite Indian art history and the packaging of this history as the embodiment of the nation.
The time of Independence and the years that followed offer some celebrated instances of the staging of nationhood through art. From the end of the nineteenth century into the present, we confront the unfailing ability of objects to negotiate the multiple pulls and demands of communities while also carrying that larger imprint of the nation. In the decades after Independence, while archaeology served increasingly as the index of the prehistoric antiquity of the land, art history continued to be the bearer of the nation's unique artistic self. The working of disciplines and institutions, I argue, is inextricably tied to this pervasive authority of the nation. And over the past decades, it is the radical reconfiguration of the meaning and scope of the national—a new orchestration of exclusions and chauvinisms—that lies at the root of the current crisis of identity and purpose within these bodies. If the earlier chapters in the book testify to the evolving strength and certitude of the scholarly fields, the last two essays point to the fragility of these very structures of authority in the face of the new intrusions of Hindu nationalism. Current trends of the aggressive renationalization of history and heritage have posed a severe challenge to the entrenched autonomies of the worlds of art and scholarship in India, forcing their attention onto a mass public domain and questioning the secular tenor of their existence. This, I feel, calls all the more urgently for a dissection of the constructions of nationhood in the fields of Indian art and archaeology, as much in the past as in the present. It asks that we throw open the whole category of the nation, track its different lives and lies, mark its anxieties and instabilities, and look back on the way the contrary compulsions of science and belief, history and myth have always cohered within its frame. It is in this direction that I wish to push the flow of these essays.
At this point, I should also make clear what the book does not set out to do. It does not offer a continuous, comprehensive history of the Archaeological Survey of India or of the vast network of metropolitan, provincial, and site museums of colonial India. Nor does it attempt to provide a detailed picture of the rise of Indian archaeology and art history over the twentieth century, initially as overlapping fields, later as distinctly separate, often antagonistic disciplines. The forming of university departments and of regional enclaves of scholarship outside the official apparatus, as in Bengal during the early twentieth century, are developments that are only contingently touched upon here. There would be several shifts and mutations within these fields that also have not been explored here: for example, the progressive recasting of archaeology over the midcentury into a hard science and the growth of new units of academic archaeology in colleges and universities, leaving the Survey primarily in the administrative charge of monuments and sites. The contrasting fate of art history is also a theme waiting to be addressed: its failure to evolve as an autonomous discipline, its long-time location in museum departments rather than in the academy, its continuing status mostly as a subsection within ancient Indian history departments or within faculties of fine arts. In a work of a different nature, it would have been pertinent to ask what makes for particular disciplinary trends and tags in these areas of knowledge in India or whether the changing faces of these subjects in the Western academia are at all reflected in the making or unmaking of fields here. While "Indian art" remains a massively self-evident valorized entity, what is it that makes Indian art history so difficult and elusive to track as a discipline? Why is it that it could not assume an individualized academic standing in India on par with archaeology?
This book, however, is not about these complex internal life stories of archaeology and art history in modern India. Conceived of as a set of interrelated essays, it seeks only to provide a selective overview of some of their claims and projections. As an outsider to both these professions, I bring to bear on them a perspective that is consciously that of a nonspecialist, distilled from my own training in modern Indian history—and born out of my specific preoccupation with the modernity of our pasts and the modern lives of the monuments and objects in which the past inheres. My project is therefore markedly different from the kinds of insider histories of changing methods and approaches that the disciplines have tended to generate. The aim is to open out a critical position that lies both within and outside the disciplinary bounds; a position from where we can grasp the broad discursive contours of the field, even as we mark its inner debates, dissensions, and transformations. In Indian art history, in particular, there is an urgent need for such an intermediary space that can span the outsider/ insider divided, for the subject has remained largely unconcerned about the ways in which it has cast and created its objects of knowledge. Over the years the intricacies o its claims and conclusions have kept invisible the invisible the sites and modes of its productions. What we encounter over the years is a complex framework of historical productions. What we encounter over the years is a complex framework of historical periods, stylistic sequences, schools, iconographies, and denominations that are continuously elaborated and refined from within. Here, the orthodoxies of the discipline have stemmed not only from the structures of methods and canons but also from the demands of a national history. Perhaps no other subject has borne as forcefully the imaginings of the nation as the history of Indian art. As mentioned earlier, it is this primacy of the national (the different forms of its insertion and invocation in Indian set out to uncover some of the modes of enquiry ad engagement that went into the forming of an official national canon of Indian art. The canon that went into the forming of an official national canon of Indian art. The canon that was constructed over these years continues in many ways to dominate the field, both nationally and internationally. And it is the urgency of decoding this canon and its constructions that frames the main thrust of this book.
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