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Of Epic and Sub-Epic

A demolition of stereotypes, and other closures of the mind

Of Epic and Sub-Epic
Of Epic and Sub-Epic
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Cultural Pasts:Essays in Early Indian History
By Romila Thapar
Oxford University Press Pages:1156; Price:Rs 1550
IN the post-Independence historiography of early India, Professor Romila Thapar has carved out a special niche for herself. This collection of her 51 essays spanning over four decades (1955-1997) represents an enormously vast and rich canvas. Invariably, these tend to question stereotypes that have persisted since at least the beginning of the 19th century.

Divided into nine thematic, not chronological, sections (though there could be a case for the chronological within the theme), the essays chart out such areas as historical consciousness, social disjunctures, integration of archaeological and literary evidences, concepts of exchange, perceptions of the 'Other', patterns in Puranic genealogies, and communalisation of the past.

Barring two essays (21 and 40) for which no dates are available, all were written in the last three decades—the '80s and the '90s accounting for 18 and 17 essays respectively. Understandably, the last section focussing on The Present in the Past challenging communal perspective has as many as seven (out of a total of nine) pieces that were written in the '90s.

In the wake of various "social groups drawing on regional identities", Thapar's plea for looking at "regional history from a comparative perspective as well as its integration into the history of larger areas" becomes very relevant. Similarly, some young Indian archaeologists, who in their zeal for pretentious iconoclasm have been debunking India's rich literary heritage, would do well to take some lessons from substantive methodological insights available in papers under the theme of Archaeology and History.

Thapar's first monograph (Ashok and the Decline of the Mauryas) was published in 1961. Her understanding of the nature of the Mauryan state (400-200 BC) has undergone some change in the last four decades. No wonder, we are treated with a delightful piece, Mauryas Revisited. Incidentally, the section on the Mauryas also has the earliest contribution of the present anthology: State Weaving-Shops of the Mauryan Period. Written in 1955, it throws fascinating light on women workers, including widows, in the textile industry.

Essays on the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the ones based on the Puranas (Sections VI and VII) are known for their radical departures. Thapar is less concerned about the dry and humdrum chronological dynastic framework. Instead, combining tools of anthropological and sociological analysis with archaeological artefacts, data from this rich literary tradition has been used to postulate: "There is in these texts little which can be construed as...a racial difference between Aryan and non-Aryan. The perception is that of many societies with strong social, linguistic and ritual differentiation, with a variety of mores which seems to have had particular and multiple segmented identities..." Further, contributions dealing with these literary texts also reflect upon ancient Indian notions of time: specially the overlap between cyclical and linear time.

Six essays included in the penultimate section demystify the 'Renouncer', who emerges as a person of considerable political power rather than as one on society's margins. The paper on 'Millenarianism' suggests it wasn't confined to Christianity and Islam but also manifest in Buddhism.

The last section includes essays explaining communal interpretation for a wider audience. Thus, the portrayal of the Ramayana in electronic media has been analysed to underline that it sought to obliterate the potentials of folk presentations just as the "literary version in Sanskrit attempted to freeze the rendering of earlier centuries".

The violent reaction of the Hindutva brigade against the inclusion of Dasharatha Jataka (depicting Rama and Sita as siblings) in Sahmat's exhibition on Ayodhya's cultural pluralism occasioned In Defence of the Variant. Thapar asserts: "It is curious that for centuries the alternate versions of the Ramakatha have been known and accepted without objections from Hindus and others. The notion of blasphemy was alien. Suddenly one morning in 1993 it is stated that this one version is hurtful to Hindu sentiment. The objection to the Dasharatha Jataka is not just a matter of objecting to a particular version of the Ramakatha which some people regarded as offensive. It does raise the wider question of the closing of the mind."

D.D. Kosambi had, through his writings in the '50s and the '60s, laid the foundations of what he called 'Combined Methods in Indology', espousing the use of varieties of source material keeping in mind their contextual particulars. Thapar's anthology demonstrates its application and consequent richness of the yield. These essays have created new conceptual vocabulary for the writing and study of early Indian history.

The consolidated index for the volume is extremely valuable. But one misses a consolidated bibliography. Also, why is the number of essays pegged at 51—neither one less nor one more? Hopefully, it's not being superstitious!

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