Under my byline

High culture, democratic spirit

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 7 December 2008

Romila ThaparRomila Thapar gets the Library of Congress’ Kluge Prize for 2008

Perhaps it is fortunate that a first-year course in history at Indian colleges includes a paper on ancient India — because virtually the foundational reading for a newcomer to that field is Romila Thapar’s A History of India (1966). Battered, scored and dog-eared copies of that book are to be found in every college library, and old editions circulate and re-circulate via second-hand booksellers. The college fresher has one advantage that he may not recognise, because he comes to this fine work afresh. He may not realise quite what a radical shift it was to have a book like this written by an Indian historian about that period of the country’s history at so early a date. He simply considers himself — if he is a reader at all — fortunate to have such an accessible and frankly entertaining history textbook.

What was new then is taken for granted now, because the weight of first colonialist and then nationalist historiography has somewhat abated — as has that of Marxist historiography, of which Thapar was an early Indian exponent. Thapar tossed out the certainties and affirmations of past historians and re-investigated ancient India with the benefit of a first-hand acquaintance with the full range of primary sources, and an eye to life as it was actually lived. No more talk of an ancient Golden Age, an idea which served both colonialists and nationalists in some way. By applying critical and social-scientific methods as well as a breadth of perspective, in this book and many other works, Thapar helped stimulate a Marxist-led revitalisation of the study of India’s ancient past. For a hint of the iconoclastic quality of her scholarship, look at the title of her first book, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (1962). Both these major works have been revised by Thapar in the last few years.

Inevitably, her work and wide readership have brought her up against right-wing interpreters of Indian history. In 2005, a controversy over information on Hinduism in school textbooks in California led to rival signature campaigns — one to condemn Thapar and others who said the textbooks were not misleading, and the other in support of them. Protests against Thapar had already started over the fact that in 2004 she was chosen by the US Library of Congress as the first holder of the Kluge Distinguished Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South. A number of academics in India and abroad spoke out in support of Thapar at the time.

Now she has been honoured with the Library of Congress’ $1 million Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, along with Peter Brown, a towering figure among historians of Mediterranean late antiquity — that is, the post-Roman world. Like Thapar, Brown is also an accomplished writer. The Kluge committee said of both the recipients that “They addressed their scholarship not only to specialists, but also intentionally shared their insights with broader lay audiences. In re-imagining familiar worlds with eyes unprejudiced by existing paradigms, they each opened large areas of human experience to new historical inquiry.”

The Kluge is a young but exceptionally enlightened prize. Instituted by philanthropist John W Kluge in 2003 and administered by the Library of Congress, it can be awarded to any person writing in any language, the chief criterion being the magnificently inclusive “deep intellectual accomplishment in the study of humanity”. It is also specified, however, that “the recipient’s writings should be, in large part, understandable and important for those involved in public affairs”. In this way the Prize identifies with both high culture and the democratic spirit, and enriches the intellectual as well as the human republic. It is a prize that Professor Thapar has earned.

(This was published as an editorial.)


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