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The Idea of Culture, 2018 - A report


Updated: Dec 14, 2020

The society we wish to live in is quite dependent on the values we impart to the future generation. Values in turn are fairly dependent on the education we provide the future generation with. As parents, as teachers, our current obsession seems to be ‘Destination Success’. And ‘Destination Success’ seems to be defined by the marks we obtain to open doors to ‘that’ higher education we desire—for ‘that’ job we aspire to—for ‘that’ level of economic standing that is approved by the society that we have created!

ccccWithin the gamut of chasing this ‘that’, where are we placing the intellectual pursuit that makes us better people? A people that understand what it means to be good humans. A people that embraces tolerance. A people that respects difference in all its glory. A people that knows the importance of Questioning and raising a voice against all that is not conducive to the society we wish to live in. A people that believe Peace is mandatory and accepting the Other is non negotiable.

ccccAt History for Peace we are preoccupied with how History is being taught to our future generation—because history is a way of understanding the world around us. It is also a way of understanding the world in us. History, unfortunately, is also a way to create tension. Textbooks, Media, Social media, Films, Literature—all of these are vehicles of historical narratives that can be true to transmitting knowledge down generations and at the same time prone to manipulation and misrepresentations.

ccccThis year’s annual History for Peace conference aimed to explore the idea of culture; understand the politics of representation; deconstruct textbooks with textbook writers and participate in hands-on pedagogical workshops based on the concept of archives that open up the idea of material evidence used to imagine history.


Naveen Kishore, Managing Trustee, The Seagull Foundation for the Arts opened the conference, beginning with excerpts from a correspondence between Romila Thapar and himself. Reflecting on mirrors, the nature of shadow and reflection, self and other, of truth and truths, he set the tone for what evolved into a multi-perspective, layered exploration of that queer conception,  'culture'.  A thread Romila Thapar picked up in the first session of the conference—a conversation among Audrey Truschke, Anand Taneja, Kunal Chakrabarti and her, on the shape of culture through history, with specific focus on 2nd millenium A.D. Looking at the politics of culture and the roles history and religion have had in its shaping and vice versa, wide-ranging perspectives flowed in.

ccccPost-lunch, Sudeshna Guha looked at the 'cultures' of curating, engaging with the ethics of representation and value-endowment in the very political processes of museum making and curatorial practices towards the establishment of 'historical truths' about national and regional cultures. The talk also offered a fascinating window into the implications of the 1947 partition on the contents of the Indian Museum, highlighting the role museums play in validating a political territory by 'securing' its history. Sundar Sarukkai brought refreshing insight with his talk on the politics of enquiry involved in representing the past. Looking at science and history as disciplines that both rely on the common domain of the 'invisible world'—a world beyond our perceptions in a specific sense, and a world that is invisible because it is past, respectively—distinguished only by their different conceptions of time, he explored the question of how diverse conceptions of time can be incorporated and then put in conversation with different historical conceptions of the 'past'.

ccccJanaki Nair's invigorating, provocative talk on the future of the school history textbook concluded Day 1 of the conference. Outlining the school textbook with its 'single, teachable,usable past' as an 'embattled' and 'endangered' object, now obsolete, challenged by and inadequate against both political vagaries and on the other hand, exclusive claims by communities to their sense of the past, she spoke of the increasing need to focus on building a 'historical' temper.

ccccDay 2 of The Idea of Culture began with an intensive 3 hour session with historians Naina Dayal, Bharathi Jagannathan and Meenakshi Khanna, who shared their observations from a task they had undertaken in preparation of the conference: the deconstruction of high school history textbooks in state-funded schools in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The focus areas of the talk were—periodization in early histories of India-Pakistan as approached in NCERT and Pakistani state schools; sections on modern world history in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to analyze what aspects are considered 'critical knowledge' and to study differences in perspective and priority towards facets of world history; to determine how historical narratives are bent to suit political rhetoric through representations of Islam and muslim communities in the medieval and modern periods, in history textbooks in India and Pakistan. Prof. Kumkum Roy next conducted an interactive session on narratives of conflict and reconciliation, inviting participants to reflect on and analyze features of the Ramayana and the Rohantamiga Jataka—excerpts of which had been shared with the participants in advance.

ccccThe tone shifted somewhat after lunch, with educationist Krishna Kumar questioning the basic assumption that history or even education can contribute to peace at all. Summarizing conceptual issues raised by philosophers and educators in the context of schooling and peace, Prof. Kumar shared his experiences and learnings from his Indo-Pak study in relation to the challenges that nationalism, religion and culture place before education. Discussing regimentation as an integral aspect of modern schooling and its implications for the role expected from education in promoting peace, Prof. Kumar outlined the demands and contradictions education faces under the increasing dominance of the human capital ideology, emphasizing the importance of humanist goals and processes in education for serving the cause of peace.

ccccLatika Gupta's talk zoomed into the 'profile' of the history teacher—the habits of knowledge construction developed during the formal training to become a teacher, before dwelling on possible avenues of addressing the problem of history teachers having themselves been part of a system where history is poorly taught at the school level. Neha Pradhan( of Rereeti)'s interactive session 'Black Pepper White Pepper' was a wonderful demonstration of where school level teaching and the space of the museum can meet in bringing history to life. Ms Pradhan, who confessed to not having been a history enthusiast when in school herself, shared the experiences of a (so far)6 month project Rereeti was working with school students for, towards recognizing and understanding the erstwhile Mysore state's under-explored connections with the First World War.

ccccTaking off from where Day 2 ended, the final day of the year's conference began with Abeer Gupta sharing his experiences working in Mumbai, Ladakh and Kashmir, from among his immense wealth of engagement with archives across the country, focusing on the barely-probed potential archives hold for the history classroom and learning. This was followed by Avni Sethi sharing the ideas that backed her imagining and designing of Conflictorium, a museum space, the kernel of whose idea she traced to the lasting impressions of having grown up in Gujarat during the riots of 2003. The talk explored the possibilities of the museum as an entity existing outside of state machinery and shed light on Conflictorium's commitment to the notion that museum spaces can be sites for culture-making where the personal—rather than historical narratives of a society, state or culture—inform a visitor’s experience. Looking at the evolution of a syncretic tradition of architecture through seven centuries, Sohail Hashmi took us on a virtual tour of Delhi and beyond, smashing the myth of 'islamic' culture along the way.

ccccAnchal Malhotra and Anam Zakaria (over Skype) participated in a conversation on oral histories as archiving, moderated by Tina Servaia. Sharing their extensive experiences with documenting oral histories of the Partition on both sides of the border, they stressed on the value oral histories and personal memory can imbue larger historical 'events' with, and the time-bound need to engage with oral histories stemming from and around the 1947 Partition. This appropriately led into Nazes Afroz's memory project that photographically traced the evolution the physical and mental landscape of erstwhile refugee colonies in south Kolkata underwent, over the last two decades.

ccccThe ideas shared over the last three days found fit culmination in the form of the two parallel workshops that closed The Idea of Culture. Sumona Chakravarty's 'History Detectives' engaged the largely teacher-participants in designing a process through which students can explore objects, spaces and stories around their school's neighbourhood towards building a community archive of local histories. The Kashmir Photo Collective, represented by Alisha Sett and Nathaniel Brunt conducted a multimedia activity-based workshop that engaged the participants in a process aimed to both challenge dominant representations of marginalized communities in history as well as to orient them to an understanding of the complex entanglements of the representation and politics of Kashmir.

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