Indian Kluge prize winner discusses growing gap between historians and the public

Historians in the News

Eminent historian Romila Thapar, professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and winner of the prestigious Kluge Prize in 2008, spoke to Kalpana Sharma of The Hindu about the importance of history teaching, the need for autonomous institutes to govern textbooks and historical research and the media's interpretation of contemporary developments.

Though she spoke about India her comments are relevant to Sri Lanka too. Hence we produce below a few excerpts of the interview.


As a historian I am and have been deeply disturbed - and I'm not alone in this - by the reaction to such incidents. Indian identity at the popular level is increasingly being narrowed to the perceptions of what is called the majority community.

This is ironic because among historians the perspective has widened out. This is in part due to the expansion of sources for constructing history. In archeology for instance, various sciences are giving us dimensions of knowledge that are new, such as data on environmental factors affecting history.

Professor Romila Thapar
Our attitudes to texts have changed. We now ask incisive questions about the author, and why the text is written the way it is and what is the intention of the patron? One looks beyond the statements for deeper historical understanding. This has led to new perspectives on the past in terms of both evidence and the manner in which it is analyzed.

So while the historian is opening up the past, its popular representation is narrowing it down.

The kinds of linkages that are made with the past in popular outlets tend to marginalize many communities and cultures that make up Indian society. These linkages frequently draw from political agendas.

Inevitably one begins to ask whether or to what degree that which we've been writing, and speaking about in the past 30 to 40 years, have at all affected people's perceptions - perceptions of our past, our identities, and the values that we hold as important in our lives?

Possibly we have been too passive in our response to aggressive political actions. And we have failed to be sufficiently critical of the way the media plays with political agendas in representing what it calls 'culture and history'. These are themes that need much more open discussion.

We have not internalized our history in the sense that for most people seeing the historical aspect of the world around us is still an experience of the extraneous. Historical analysis is really about an entire society with an accounting of different levels and the way in which they are inter-related, the way in which they disintegrate or integrate and how these relationships have changed over time. We assume a kind of static past, which is of course the behest of colonial scholarship....
Read entire article at http://www.dailynews.lk (Sri Lanka)

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