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Open House with Romila Thapar: A Report


A queue outside the Seagull Foundation for the Arts on a Sunday morning is a rare event. The event in question and so worth queuing up for was the Open House with eminent historian Romila Thapar.

Professor Thapar had engaged on the topic of the idea of India in a conversation with Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in the opening session of the third annual History for Peace conference in August. This time, on 24 December, she discussed a variety of issues—education, bias and media—in a conversation with Mrs. Devi Kar, the Director of Modern High School, followed by questions from the audience.

Mrs Kar opened the conversation with a question—from the point of view of a history teacher—about addressing bias and about Professor Thapar’s own bias(es). The history teacher plays a very important role, said Prof. Thapar, going onto discuss the difference between understanding the past and the truth (about the past) and how the historian and the history writer must distinguish between the two, for the role of the historian is to understand the past. Prof. Thapar spoke about her student times, when her teacher encouraged her to go on an archaeological dig in order to understand her subject better. She did indeed go on several expeditions, in one case unearthing a woman clutching a mirror. Holding an object that was last held by a living person over 4,000 years ago gave her a sense of connect with the past, a similar feeling from when she placed her own palm on the imprint of the palm of a brick worker from the past. It is important, as Prof. Thapar said, to experience this—this connect with what one is studying to truly understand the past.

The historian, as a part of historical method, must use every resource possible to understand how societies in the past functioned. Using the example of the Arthshastra, Prof. Thapar spoke about the importance of asking questions about the author of the text: Who is the author? What is the background of the author? What was the purpose of writing the book? She mentioned an instance where one of her professors had asked her is she was being ‘suspicious enough’ and made the comparison between a historian and a mystery novel writer, such as Agatha Christie. Prof. Thapar herself recommends reading books like ‘Death on the Nile’ by Christie.

It is also important to acknowledge that historians pick and choose texts that suit them and fit into their scheme of things, which makes the habit of questioning all important—something that needs to be encouraged at school level. On a lighter note, Prof Thapar spoke about how she herself asked ‘awkward’ questions in school. Moving back to the original question about bias, and her own biases, Prof. Thapar spoke of how she feels that the post-modern theory about every reading having equal value is incorrect.

One of the members of the audience—an educator—asked Prof. Thapar about how students can be taught to sift the real from the ‘fake’ on social media, citing an example of a message on WhatsApp. This brought the discussion back to how students should be told to question—why a particular piece of information, or in this case a forwarded message was written. Who wrote it? Not to dismiss immediately, but question. On the topic of why vilifying people of another religion is common practice in India, but not the British—under whose rule the subcontinent lost a great deal—Prof. Thapar spoke of how it is important for some people to look for an enemy within and that enemy is the people of a religion that is a so-called minority, again a term coined during colonial rule. Differences came up because of periodization‑for example, James Mill’s division of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. Differences also came up because of cartographers, who drew lines where there weren’t any.

It is important to question—be it text, or as a member of the audience asked, a symbol and social media. As one of the teacher trainees who attended the talk mentioned on her way out, listening to the conversation gave her an impetus to start thinking critically about what she reads and learns, and ultimately, teaches.

Paroma Sengupta

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