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The Idea of India (Calcutta), 2017 - A report


Updated: Dec 14, 2020

The opening session of the third annual History for Peace conference—The Idea of India—was a conversation between Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Romila Thapar. As Spivak said, the audience ‘eavesdropped’ on a conversation between ‘two old friends’ as they deconstructed the potential meanings of the idea of India from geographical, historical, cultural, social, linguistic and economic lenses. Peppered with humour and historical references, Thapar and Spivak had the audience hooked on to every word. The evening drew to a close, foreshadowing the spirited discussions that were to follow.

ccccThe first day of the conference began mid-morning in Tollygunge Club. Teachers from various schools across India were in attendance, participating keenly in the various sessions of the day.

ccccNaveen Kishore, the Managing Trustee of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, addressed the gathering with a few opening remarks, discussing the idea of peace and the ‘difficulty of being good’ in troubled times. He ended by speaking about Late Kozo Yamamura, author and supporter of PeaceWorks and Seagull, dedicating the conference in his memory. Shortly after, the first talk of the day began. Romila Thapar entered into a discussion with Alok Mathur, Amita Prasad and Tina Servaia, all of whom are experienced educators. They engaged with various topics, including the complexity of using history as a method to inculcate peace, the importance of developing critical thinking in students, technology and entwining history and the present.

ccccAfter lunch, the second session began, titled ‘History Textbooks and the Idea of India’, in which Krishna Kumar, Hari Vasudevan, Manish Jain and Shireen Maswood spoke about the evolution of history curricula in India, textbooks of Indian history, and the location of pedagogy in transacting with the syllabus and the classroom. The third session was a Q&A between the panelists and the audience. Here, the focus was on what is not included in history textbooks, and what the deliberate silencing of certain issues means. After a short presentation by EUROCLIO on negotiating with conflicted histories, the day drew to a close.

The second day began with an invigorating session titled ‘The Unequivalence of Violence: the Communal Question in Janam’s Plays’. Sudhanva Deshpande, editor, thespian, director and member of Jana Natya Manch (Janam) used various written and visual excerpts from Janam’s productions trace the evolution of communalism. From plays, the question of history teaching moved to art. T. Sanathanan, author of The Incomplete Thombu, spoke on ‘How to Draw Histories? Art as a Method’. The third talk of the day, titled ‘The Camera as Witness’ focused on using photographs for History teaching. Joy Pachuau, a professor of History from JNU and Ryan Lobo, an award-winning filmmaker and photographer, used their own projects and experiences to talk about the subject. The final talk of the day was titled ‘Bringing Marginalized Histories Alive through Literature’, and was given by Jerry Pinto. Pinto used anecdotes, humour, and self-implication to record his experience as a biographer and translator.

ccccThe final day of the conference began with a keynote address from Vijay Prashad, who threw a new light on history and the idea of India. Prashad contextualized history as ‘possibility, not chronology’, and looked at various schema: from Ayn Rand’s influence and reach, to considering dissent as anti-national, to the abstract concept that is India, models of economic progress, reforms for equitability, and the simultaneous coexistence of all of them, which makes the argument for ‘histories’ rather than a singular ‘history’.

ccccThis address led to another interesting session with the NDTV journalist, Radhika Bordia, who discussed the ‘Impact of Social Media’ on understanding and negotiating with history. She spoke about how history textbooks now have become fodder for ideology, where facts are being altered to suit a regime. She then spoke about how social media therefore becomes an agent for dissent, and cited its use by marginalised voices to mobilise. The linking of social media and the idea of India became more resolute, when a discussion about the same ensued among three high school students, from Modern High School, Future Hope and Calcutta International School. Ed Summers took the debate forward in his talk titled, ‘Social Media as a Primary Source for Future Historian’. By deconstructing the library as a concept, Ed Summers looked at social media as an archival resource that records biographies in new methods. Abeer Gupta, Assistant Professor at AUD and a member of the Advisory Board for History for Peace, summed up the conference’s proceedings, and a feedback session for the conference followed, before the final address by Ravish Kumar.

ccccRavish Kumar, the television anchor and senior executive editor at NDTV India, concluded the conference by speaking eloquently on the idea of India and how it is represented by political dispensations, particularly the current one. He wove in morphed images of him (used on social media) in his narrative—images that on the face of it were funny, but also gave the audience food for thought. Towards the end of his talk, he spoke about how it is absolutely essential that history teachers start to take ownership of their subject.

For detailed reports of each of the days, click on the links given below:

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