In contemporary India, as foundational myths are foisted as the basis of national identity, what happens to archaeological evidences that actually bedrock and allow for a closer and deeper look at the distant past? Monuments Matter, India’s Archaeological Heritage since Independence by Nayanjot Lahiri is a prescient reminder of the role archaeology and monuments play in the history of a civilisation. While the glories of an ancient Indian past have been dredged enough, this work is singularly noteworthy as it focuses on what India as an independent democratic nation did with its material culture from 1947 onwards.
A fascinating area is the disembowelling of museum collections in 1947. A focus on equity meant jewels from Taxila or Mohenjodaro were broken into equal halves, fracturing their integrity.
As stories from various archives emerge amidst the beginnings of an archival frenzy, the role of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), mandated to lead efforts for the preservation of India’s monuments, provides for much fascinating detail in the initial chapters of the book. The role played by pioneering archaeologists, historians, antiquarians, public intellectuals and political leaders in shaping a policy towards institution-building and research in the first few decades after independence bring to the fore the minutiae of Lahiri’s work. The story of the use of monuments across north India as the first sanctuaries for refugees from Pakistan to their subsequent present-day avatar as tourist sites has not been, to my mind, documented outside of academic circles. The use of ASI’s images, particularly of refugees inhabiting the grounds of the Humayun’s tomb, are startling reminders of the contemporary histories of these monuments, which today find no place amidst a rush for ornamental topiary or outreach activities by well-meaning conservation and restoration efforts.
A fascinating passage from the book that bears recounting is the 1947 disembowelling of museum collections in the subcontinent, to be split between India and Pakistan. The overzealous focus on equity meant that singular objects of great importance, like jewels from Taxila and Mohenjodaro, were fragmented into equal halves, severely compromising the original integrity of the object. The loss of primary data and knowledge from these episodes need to be brought to the fore, since this is a practice that continues in India. This loss of historic memory and provenance of material culture greatly affects our understanding and study of the past. A significant section of the book outlines the paths of research that were embarked on post the 1960s in India. A compelling section on How ‘Ancient’ is Ancient India attempts to locate the earliest trace of humans in India away from the usual tropes of chronology amongst stone tools or the problem posed by the lack of hominid fossil finds.
A topical area of great concern in the management of cultural sites is in dealing with unplanned urbanisation, encroachments, theft of antiquities and politically motivated litigation, leading in one prominent instance to an unprecedented court-ordered excavation at the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi site. Lahiri also highlights in great detail the formidable findings of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG) reports, made public in 2011, that were subsequently tabled in Parliament in 2013. These damning reports on the status of work at several leading government institutions, like the National Museum, National Library, Asiatic Society etc list in copious detail the magnitude of the problem on several fronts, ranging from the lack of even basic documentation of collections, to their status in terms of preservation and even enumerating listed monuments that have gone missing!
Illustrated books greatly benefit in conveying a point to readers when images match up to the unfolding textual narrative. Here, the superb black-and-white images from the ASI, along with later coloured photographs, would have been enormously aided with a better graphic layout and print rendition. This, however, seems to be a problem endemic to Marg’s staid ‘house style’ of graphic design. The choice of archival images is a testament to the author’s diligence and primary research in unearthing superb photographs, as much as it is to the skills of unknown ASI photographers who captured archaeological digs and sites with tenacity, under extremely difficult circumstances. The absence of their names is a story worthy of research and is currently a lacuna in the history of photography in India.
The safeguarding of cultural patrimony, however, has not solely remained a government enterprise. A small but crucial section at the end of the book highlights the work of individuals, communities and institutions all over India who have taken up the task of preserving objects in their regions. Monuments Matter is perhaps currently the only major ready reckoner that narrates the journey behind the managing of monuments and material culture in India after Independence.