[Reader-list] An authentic history

Prem Chandavarkar prem.cnt at gmail.com
Fri Sep 18 12:46:06 IST 2009

Dear Kshmendra,
As your response raises issues that cover ground other than that focused on
in the earlier thread on "world class city", I am creating a new thread.  I
quote from your response below:

*"I am intrigued though by your sentence "Given over two centuries of
history that one could not consider authentically one's own, the connection
between past present and future suffered a disruption.".............Could
you please elaborate what these "over two centuries" are that we (in India)
"could not consider authentically one's own"...........Who are you referring
to? Just the British and Christian influence?.........If that is so, why
would the (prior to British), Mughal and Islamic influence be any worthier
of considering it as "authentically one's own"?"*

If the idea is to revert back to an authentic history that was prior to any
contamination, then I suspect one will be searching forever.  Human history
is filled with invasions and the intermingling of cultures.  The
contemporary notion of the sovereignty of the nation state as a concept on
which to base political and cultural identity is also quite recent and has
its origins only in the mid-17th century.   I remember in one of my early
classes on art history in college, the teacher said that in the history of
conquest, one side conquers politically, but in turn gets conquered
culturally.  One does find that in earlier invasions there was an
intermingling of cultures in the realms of language, music, dance, art, and
many other realms - with the culture of the "conquerer" often going through
a more drastic reformation than the culture of the "conquered".  What we
might call "Indian culture" today is a result of these interminglings.
 However, such intermingling was not really found to the same extent during
the British colonial period.  There was an incursion into some realms such
as architecture, fine art and theatre; but many other realms such as
literature, music and dance remained quite separate.

But the above point is secondary.  The main point is to be clear on is what
do we mean by "history".  There is one view which says history is an
authentic record of our past.  But which is the authentic past?  A past of
kings and generals?  A subaltern past?  A caste based past?  A religion
based past?  A community based past?  An art and culture based past?  A
political past? An economic past?  As soon as we start getting into such
distinctions we find there are different viewpoints, and such complex levels
of diversity that reconciliation into a single narrative becomes an
impossible task.  Which makes us face a possible redefinition of "history"
as a view of the past as seen from a vantage point in the present (which
could also serve as a reference point for imagining the future).   Which
means that the vantage point chosen in the present becomes a necessary
subject of critical scrutiny.  How do we reconcile the clash between
conflicting vantage points?  In an earlier era of feudal political
structures, the resolution of this conflict was simple: the person in power
decided on what the proper vantage point was, and any other vantage points
were suppressed (often brutally).  But the point of Indian independence is
different, because in the context of the 20th century we sought to reinvent
ourselves as a *democratic* nation, and were not seeking to revive our
precolonial feudal past.   We could not resort to feudal resolutions of the
authentic vantage point to view history.  In a democratic society, the
thrust ought to be on creating the institutional structures of governance
and conceptual inquiry by which a widespread debate could over time
inculcate a more deep-rooted and inclusive perception of our history.  When
one looks at it in terms of such institutional structures, the moment of
independence from British colonialism in 1947 represented a greater
disruption between past and present than that seen in earlier feudal eras.


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