ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Embedded Traditions and History

(Hearing) Voices of the Past

The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India by Romila Thapar (Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2013; pp xv+758, Rs 1,395.

For a good part of the 20th century and more, Romila Thapar’s writings on ancient India stand out for their innovative ideas, deep research and clarity of expression. For generations of students, the study of ancient India is indeed personified by her. Through her incisive reading and analysis of contemporary texts and inscriptions, her most recent book, monumental, both in size and content, The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, provides us with a breathtaking view of how different ancient Indians viewed their past. Intermittently reading Thapar’s 758-page book, I was also perusing articles in a journal called ­Rethinking History. One of them began with a quote: “….I could only hear the whispering voices of men and women who, after the silence of centuries, had found a listener and were trying to speak. And gradually I learnt to attune my ­unaccustomed ears” (emphasis added) (Bryant 1969: 36).1 Indeed, Thapar heard and listened and then succinctly brought out these voices that make us think ­beyond the mere empirical reality of “facts” that we earlier used to seek out through these very ancient texts and ­inscriptions. Making us think after reading Thapar is not new, but making us also question is what this book of hers asks us to do.

Unconsciously, scholars get attached to ideas and themes of interest which emerge and re-emerge in their writings. And for this reason, at first impression, I found much that is familiar in the book. Her seminal ideas on defining the ­ancient Indian historical tradition in terms of a historical consciousness pregnant in the different genre of texts have been ­arti­culated in her previous writings as well. There has been much that has been carefully elaborated too, in terms of ­adding significantly to the texts used as in the case of Chapter 8 – “History as Literature: The Plays of Vishakadatta” or, in discussing at length the importance of inscriptions in reflecting on the past. However, the familiarity of part of the content of the book brought home the point that Thapar’s handling of these issues had in fact been very central to her critical analysis of ancient Indian history in all its facets. In a major way I would see this book of hers as something that she has closely guarded for a long time. And for this simple reason it defines her as well as her nuanced reading of ­ancient Indian society and traditions. It would, of course, define the study of ancient ­Indian history for a long time to come.

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