Knowledge of the past before us – History & Methodology


(For Isha)

This morning, Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University delivered a talk on Knowledge of the past before us, at IISc. Having bought her recently published book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History I was interested in her views on the methodological aspects of knowledge production. Also, that she has faced a good deal of criticism ( Whipping Girl of the Right ) from the ruling governments – present and earlier, both. Her works are elegant in their presentation and highly structured. This has been a part of the attraction to read essays and books by her. Although, her views are not necessarily agreeable. In an earlier post on ancient Indian system of education I suggested that one must look at historical evidence before believing any particular idea about the event in consideration. Though such a rational analysis and logical generalizations can take away the ‘romance of history’ as she has often suggested.

This morning it was about the instrumentality of  “time” in history. And this was a very interesting piece of analysis – that concept of time in history has been varied. There are two ways time was seen – a) cyclical (ex: Incas, Babylonians, Ancient Greeks, Mayans, Hinduism, Buddhism & its idea of wheel of time;  b) linear (ex: Judeo-Christian, Islamic idea of time beginning with the act of creation by God).

Indian idea of time is cyclical, which is cosmological in nature and represents a certain universal orientation. Then there was this shift from lunar calendar to solar calendar in the past (Vedic times) which facilitated the calculation of what is known as the “samvat”. This was a mix of mathematics, religion and history, as a method to construct time. Whereas, linear represented a certain human-centered idea of time. Perhaps, one can see the linear as an arc of the cyclical time as Thapar suggests too.

The larger argument was that “history does not come as a self-contained package”. It is constructed in various forms. It is the forms of usage of “past” which of course has a lot to do with the sense of “time”, which forms the manner in which one develops an understanding of history. She argues that historiographies can use past differently (this is also discussed in her recent book The Past as Present).  This bit of information is particularly interesting because it illuminates another possible reason and meaning for why art forms like poems, dramas and epics exist and get passed on over generations.

All societies over the centuries have constructed their past, often in accordance with contemporary theories about the meaning of past. The past therefore is represented in various ways: in the oral traditions of mythology, folktales, ballads – some of which were incorporated into literary forms as epics, narratives, drama and chronicles. This becomes the data of what we call ‘traditions’.

The three historiographies which use past differently are – a) Brahmanical tradition (Oral); b) Puranical tradition (Textual); c) Shramanic tradition (Buddism & Jainism). As for the reasons for adoption of different medium, Thapar speculates that the Brahmins realized that controlling the past can get them greater authority. And hence, the oral histories were extensively formed by brahmins.

Text as a medium, she argues, gives ‘data’ status and continuity. And therefore the project of puranas in Hinduism. The Shramanic idea on the other hand was that information of the sort that the Brahmanical and Puranic text dealt with, was not given by Gods. Instead, it believes that such information is a result of the contract between people. This idea is reflected in Buddhism and Jainism. Shramanic and Brahmanical traditions are embedded and are intrinsic forms of historical consciousness. For example, Mahabharata is referred to as ‘itihas’ (history) and Ramayana is referred to as ‘kavya’ (prose). These epics, Thapar cautions, may be seen as repositories of historic consciousness and not necessarily records of historic events.

Of what relevance one may ask is this discussion on ‘past’ to contemporary times? This is what I tend to instinctively ask when I hear these seemingly abstract conversations. The answer to this, I find lies in these few lines in The Past as Present:

In contemporary times we not only reconstruct the past but we also use it to give legitimacy to the way in which we order our own society. Given that with the advance of knowledge, we have more ways of discovering new evidence and of asking fresh questions of the evidence, we can therefore construct a past that is more credible and precise.

It is this precision of historical analysis that is required in the contemporary times in India when right wing political parties are hell bent on making history serve their interests than be an honest reconstruction of the past. Politics of the day is unfolding in the history textbooks in schools and universities – ‘saffronization of the textbooks‘  (Read: Mis-oriented Textbooks & Errors in textbooks)- and one of the ways to debunk is to deliberate on the methodology in practice of history and reconstruction of the past.


Education in pre-colonial India: Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree


Image Courtesy: K.L. Kamat (Illustration by B.K. Mitra for Kalyan Magazine shows students and animals in harmony with nature)

In the school where I teach, the teachers hold a very diverse range of views about the role of a school in a child’s life. What must school stand for and what areas of the child’ s life must the school be concerned with. Those who run the school – the management folks, stand at one end of the spectrum of beliefs about “education” and the manner in which a child’s time in the school must be structured. The rest dot the entire spectrum with some of them occupying the far opposite end of the spectrum which means that they are of the opinion that democratic means of taking decisions in school must be the overriding criteria. Above that, the school should let children be – in a sense that let them decide when they want to take up written exams if exams are a necessity. However, they’d prefer that there are no exams and that children should be assessed in some other non-structural, preset format. Exams, in short, are tyrannical. This has been an ongoing discussion for several weeks now and likely to reach no easy consensus.

Meanwhile, there is another discussion on role of a school in children’s lives. It began with this article on children’s emotional and psychological needs. It gives a roundup of the ways in which schools in Indian metros are catering to such needs:

Children in Indian metros are reaching out to school counsellors to make sense of their increasingly complicated, increasingly lonely lives. A nine-year-old is no longer too young to have a problem — or even know what a problem is.

This led to someone remarking that probably Indian schools will soon be back to the “gurukula” system of ancient India – where schools will “again” begin to cater to all the aspects of a child’s education – academic, social, emotional and spiritual. The remark led me to think of the sources from where one can draw inferences that ancient schools or “gurukulas” were indeed catering to all of those needs of a child.

As it looks, there is no historical evidence to say this conclusively. Even as a possibility, this is hard to imagine because launching off from the point of believing that India’s “ancient” system was the best arrangement which developed well-groomed, well-grounded and learnt individuals one is already given to believe that there was something extraordinary that the “gurukulas” did. They sure were a very different institutions from the modern day schools. But saying anything further – about how they approached education and helped children will require more evidence, in the absence of which, I feel compelled to tell that teacher that her argument is a mere conjecture.

Thinking of existing works on history of pre-colonial education system in India, I can think of only one very well written and comprehensive work – The Beautiful Tree, by Dharampal. The discussion in school reminded me of this book which I had read a few years back. Re-reading it this week, I find it remarkable in scope and review.

Dharampal refers to the lack of historical records in the introduction:

Very little, however has been written on the history, or state of education during this period, starting with the thirteenth century and up until the early nineteenth century.

Further, he reviews the records for nineteenth century and describes the sources:

Most of the discussion on the state of indigenous Indian  education in the early nineteenth century, and the differing viewpoints which give rise to it, use as their source material (a) the much talked about reports by William Adam, a former Christian missionary, on indigenous education in some of the districts of Bengal and Bihar 1835-38 (b) published extracts of a survey made by the British authorities regarding indigenous education
in the Bombay Presidency during the 1820s, and (c) published extracts from another wider survey of indigenous education made in the Madras Presidency (from Ganjam in the north to Tinnevelly in the south, and Malabar in the west) during 1822- 25. A much later work on the subject, but more or less of asimilar nature is that of G.W. Leitner pertaining to indigenous education in the Punjab.

Even these later works, leave alone the earlier ones, do not say anything about what was the approach of a “gurukula” in imparting education nor are any ethnographic works dealing with what went on inside them. It leads to the argument that all the glorious claims about the traditional Indian “gurukula” system lack evidence. However, we do have sufficeint account of the fact that the macro role it played in the society and pre-colonial, “indigenous” system was remarkably effective in addressing needs to the society at that time. It is this “beautiful tree” of indigenous education system that Gandhi said was destroyed by the British in India. Dharampal adds that:

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions – which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants – was called shiksha (and included the ideas of prajna, shil and samadhi). These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore, the term ‘school’ is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

What he highlights in the following lines is the trap that educationists are walking into again:

The idea of a school existing in every village, dramatic and picturesque in itself, attracted great notice and eclipsed the equally important details. The more detailed and hard facts have received hardly any notice or analysis. This is both natural and unfortunate. For these latter facts provide an insight into the nature of Indian society at that time.

The proverbial ancient “gurukula” system needs to be looked into with a more critical lens and the first step would be to find records from the history of what went on within these ancient schools. Without this we will continue to have these vacuous conversations about the ancient glories and continue to push the current school system towards a vision which no one knows what it looks like.

Awadh Punch: India’s Charlie Hebdo of Past

This was brewing for sometime now, with last evening’s conversation with an art historian bringing it all to a churn. Turns out that her father wrote for the legendary Awadh Punch, a satirical Urdu weekly published from Lucknow, which began in 1877. It was edited by Munshi Sajjad Hussain. Recollecting stories of the post-independence days in India, she recollected how charged and energetic were the times in which she grew up. There was, in her opinion, greater room for sharp, incisive and on-the-face criticism by the way of humour and satire, unlike the current years, especially with a BJP led government ruling India. Awadh Punch ( referred as AP hereon) was an Indian version after the tremendously successful Punch which began in 1841 in England was the heydays of the British Rule in India. This Urdu weekly contributed in another big way – the development of Urdu short story. Here is a chapter from Huseyn Suhravardy‘s work on AP and its contribution to Urdu short story and journalism. The satire and cartoons of Awadh Punch repeatedly poked a finger in the British government’s eyes with every opportunity and at every occasion. Another newspaper in the Deccan started around the same time was Kesari by B.G. Tilak which was a prominent voice for self-rule or swaraj.

In the similar league was another interesting newspaper – The Comrade. It ran  from 1911-1914 and an essay on the British mistreatment of the Turks but still encouraged them to join the Allies during WW1 did it in. The paper was shut down under the Press Act of 1910. What is remarkable about the journalism of this era in India is that the times (colonial administration) and the odds (state of technology and high costs) were several times greater than the present and yet there were these bold and fierce initiatives. This is quite a contrast to the current range of newspapers in India which seems to be ever so flexible in their willingness to pull down articles, not touch controversial issues and play safe.

The larger point is that political satire in India has had a rather long history which needs to be known. It might help recast the current intolerance of political opinion and the ways of presenting them in a comparative light. The current direction of thought is that political commentators in India are doing a fair job of criticizing the government and shaping public opinion. But a quick look at the late 19th and early 20th century newspapers and periodicals in India would tell you that this is a far cry from the early action in political commentary.

Mushirul Hasan, a noted Indian Historian writes,

The political uncertainties and the proliferation of newspapers in early 20th Century offered a variety of themes for political satirists to explore.

In another place he refers to cartoons as a medium and refers to AP’s work, which should be interesting to know for those thinking about the state of freedom of expression and intolerance of opinion post Charlie Hebdo attack:

Cartoons ridiculing the colonial government appeared with impunity in this Lucknow publication. The volume of humour produced by this weekly had both variety and range. One of its offshoots was that political/social satire became an accepted and legitimate medium of experience. Indeed, the first two decades of the 20th century offered multiple themes for political satirists to explore.


We need to be aware of and express, in an inventively humorous manner, the relationship between seemingly incongruous and disparate things. For this to happen, we must draw some wisdom from wit and humour in public life, past and present. Cartoons offer such rare insights into our political and cultural histories that they can be read as a document without undermining their artistic achievements.

His book Wit and Humour in Colonial North India: Awadh Punch, and Wit andWisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch, 2012 offers a glimpse into the Indian versions of the Punch which came up in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A selection of plates from AP are archived in the Digital South Asia Library of U. Chicago.

And here is a cartoon from AP on Afghanistan published in 1879, for a flavour (courtesy: The Public Archive) :

A cartoon from Awadh Punch on Afghanistan, 1879. Courtesy: The Public Archive

A scene from the second phase of the late war, the ex-Amir sitting on the ground with one end of a rope around his waist, the other in the hands of a British officer who is preparing to lead him away to exile; to the left, Sir FrederickRoberts standing by the side of a female figure, representing the Afghan nation, with an arm placed on the General’s shoulder.

The legend at the top is taken from a poem by “Ghalib” in which a Lover is supposed to say to his Mistress, when parting from her, “I have heard of the ignominious way in which Adam was forced to leave Paradise, but I am certain that he never felt half the remorse I now experience, when leaving your pleasant paths and sweet companionship.”

Roundup 2014


Writing suffered in the second half of 2014. This has been an overriding concern. But at its cost I could give a start to my teaching career. It gives me a mild kick every time I think of myself as a high school teacher. Teaching sociology and economics to high school kids for the past six months has been a very satisfying experience. I now teach three days a week in an alternative school. The students I teach will appear for their senior secondary exam – NIOS board of India and the British IGCSE A Levels.

As a rookie teacher I have had a good deal of adventure trying to introduce specialized subjects (sociology & economics) to learners who have chosen to study these right in the high school. While it presents a big canvas to experiment and design interesting lesson plans with the students, it is also a fair deal of responsibility to do it well, so that the learning experience doesn’t leave them bored, disinterested or harassed and which might have a bearing on their choice of subjects when they reach university. We have been on metro rides in the city doing unstructured observations, gone around modern art gallery exhibitions, conducted small consumption surveys and similar such exercises which helps in connecting with daily life unfolding of the social and the economic realms. With them, I am watching the world in a slightly different way than I am used to as an adult.

I started the sociology introductory class by a reading of two unusual thinkers – M N Srinivas (Introduction chapter from his book The Remembered Village) and Margaret Mead’s fieldnotes from the Samoan Islands. In retrospect, they appear a decent choice because launching off from written works in sociology, the students could associate keen (and structured) observation of things and people around them a key aspect of sociology. I could see them applying this in their written assignments. The other thing which is remarkable about teaching sociology and economics at high school level is that at this level the students are not prisoners of theories. Neither are they writing to please the reader. They write what occurs to them. This I strongly feel is the first step towards original thinking. During my grad program, I could see many students slapping theories left and right into their essays and thesis. Often, it felt as though they have nothing to say, report or talk about from their field research if one restricts them to say it without aligning or locating themselves within an existing theory. What I see in written works of the high school kids is pure observation and their own subjective response, which is a good start in social sciences. Theories and awareness about various thinkers and their ideas can now follow.

Besides teaching, work in our company has been growing at a tremendous pace. In consulting, as I write this, we are finishing two project assessments and another small research in behaviour change in hygiene practices. These assignments are driving the realization further – of the necessity of high quality and relevant research in development sector. A handful of companies do this as outsourced contract research. Much of it is still done by academics who are a fair distance away from realizing that their research work lacks touch with ground situation – where information/insights that can be applied  to improve development projects/programs (how they are conceptualized, implemented and monitored) is of critical importance. The ivory towers exist. And so does irrelevant research which guzzle in research grants which are already so limited in this country.

My partners and I hope to do more assignments where we can help improve the outcome of projects that our clients are doing. In the instruments and lab infrastructure business we continue to push our efforts to build a strong homegrown company which is committed to relevant and applied research in lifescience and healthcare industry. With the new government at the center, the government funded labs in the country are likely to enter a spate of new projects fueled by increased funding. This might make them receptive to small companies like ours, which often get crowded out by the big dealers and MNCs with Indian operations.

And finally, last year was good for running too. The first marathon of 2015 happens next month and I hope to keep the pace.

Meanwhile, for my comrades I share this Why I Yate New Year’s Day opinion of Antonio Gramsci which packs in a good punch and undeniably worthy of thought –

Every morn­ing, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day. (…)

That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morn­ing to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the inten­sity of life and I want to plunge into ani­mal­ity to draw from it new vigour.

No spir­i­tual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though con­nected to the ones that have passed. No day of cel­e­bra­tion with its manda­tory col­lec­tive rhythms, to share with all the strangers I don’t care about. Because our grand­fa­thers’ grand­fa­thers, and so on, cel­e­brated, we too should feel the urge to cel­e­brate. That is nauseating

The long breaks from blogging, I realize, can leave so much unsaid and un-reflected. I hope to keep pace here too. The number of stories have only increased after joining a school.