Imagining Histories, Writing Pasts: International Workshop at Nalanda University

March 29, 2016

The first international workshop of Nalanda University ‘s School of Historical Studies was held on March 11 and 12 at Rajgir International Convention Centre, Rajgir. The workshop brought together scholars from art history, anthropology, archaeology, history, visual studies, political theory, and sociology from across the globe. For the two-day workshop, NU received speakers from El Collegio de Mexico, Max-Weber-Kolleg for Advanced Social Research Germany, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. Students and faculty from NU also presented papers at the event.

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The aim of the workshop was to seek a critical re-examination of the idea(s) of history from an Asian perspective: What does ‘history’ mean in Asian contexts? Do local and/or regional histories situate themselves in larger pan-Asian contexts? Is the idea of Asia itself created through writing such local and/or regional histories? What practices of writing history have existed and continue to exist in Asian cultural, historical, and philosophical contexts? What are the different genres – written, visual, and oral – in which histories have been composed? In what ways can the composition and transmission of histories be said to embody different kinds of skills and practices? Who indeed are the ‘practitioners,’ ‘writers,’ ‘artists,’ and ‘performers’ of different histories?

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The workshop approached these questions by focusing on different genres of historical writing in Asian contexts and its various forms viz. literature, folklore, and visual representations are i.e. different exercises in imagination. It highlighted the matter of nomenclature decided by people who engage in such narratives through writing and reading, showing and seeing, listening and telling. In doing so, the workshop paid particular attention to the scholarship of the narratives told by written histories, oral narratives, visual representations, and literary forms and the meaning that they convey to their readers, viewers, and listeners.

The workshop was successfully organized through the efforts of faculty members at the School of Historical Studies, Nalanda University, who also acted as conveners for the workshop: Prof. Aditya Malik, Dr. Samuel Wright, and Dr. Ranu Roychoudhuri. The workshop began on March 11 with a welcome address by Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, Vice-Chancellor, Nalanda University.

Each paper in the workshop was followed by a discussion in which questions were raised by the audience attendees and other speakers. At the end of each day, a roundtable discussion was also organized. On both days, the latter discussion was initiated by a select group of students who highlighted important themes which emerged from the presentations of that day and posed broader questions. There was also a film screening on the second day of a short-film directed by Anirban Mahapatra: Following the Box (2015, India/USA, 26 minutes). On the following day, a few invited participants went to Nalanda ruins for a site-visit along with a student guide from the University.

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After the great success of its first international workshop, Nalanda University plans to organize a sequel to this workshop next year, and other conferences in future. The School is also planning to publish the papers presented at the workshop in a single volume.Below are the brief notes on the all the paper-presentations from the two-day workshop at Nalanda:

Day One:

Prof. Ishita Banerjee from El Collegio de México talked about the historical imagination within a community in Odisha. The title of her topic was: Itihasas, Malikas, Histories: Past and Present in Odisha. Her lecture focused on the ‘History of Satya Mahima Dharma’, which she referred as a ‘true’ history of a radical faith that posits its veracity on the divinity of the founder. The other sources in her discussion were malikas, a genre of apocryphal texts that speak of the evils of kali yuga and the prophecy of the destruction of the world followed by subsequent redemption through the appearance of an avatar. In this study there is a persisting prevalence of morality and normativity of time for the purpose of understandings the past and the present, and the pasts in the present. She stressed that the study of such genres in local tradition will enable historians to rethink historical consciousness by acknowledging ambivalence and ambiguity as crucial features of historical imagination, and broaden their understanding of history since in such understandings the history features as imaginative tellings of the past which confers a particular meanings on the present.

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Dr. Rajarshi Ghose from the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Kolkata, talked about modern historiography that emerged as a discipline in Urdu during the second half of the nineteenth century with Shibli Numani (1857-1914) as one of its exemplary practitioners. The title of his talk was: Uses of History: Shibli Numani and the Muslim middle class in colonial Bengal. Dr. Ghose shared with the audience the researches of Shibli Numani on the prophetic and caliphal periods of Islamic history, the history of Farsi poetry, which led to his occasional but important interventions in the study of South Asia’s medieval and Islamicate past and establishment of an important component of the cannon of modern South Asian historiography at the Dar al-Musannefin at Azamgarh. His presentation focused upon the belief of Shibli in the power of history to inspire communitarian action and how Muslim intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal read, critiqued and recreated Shibli’s historical works, and how this particular cultural practice was symptomatic of the broader identitarian struggles of the Bengali Muslim middle class during that period. Dr. Ghosh’s paper argued that Shibli’s historical works created possibilities for men like Ahmad, Islamabadi, and Chaudhuri to articulate their own religious and political aspirations which further echoed Shivli’s stance on nationalism, struggle, and Hindu-Muslim unity.

Prof. Antje Linkenbach from Max-Weber-Kolleg for Advanced Social Research, Erfurt, Germany, gave a presentation titled: Organizing a Meaningful Past: Narrating, performing and writing history in the Uttarakhand Himalayas (India). She spoke about multiple ways of memorizing and representing the past found in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Dr. Linkenbach discussed three different forms of historical representation, which she encountered while doing anthropological fieldwork in a village located in Uttarkashi District where the history of the village is remembered through narratives especially migration and settlement, clan composition, political power dynamics and position within the wider political framework. She also talked about how the religious history is enacted in form of an annual yatra, while also remembered through narratives. Through the example of this village in Uttarakhand, Dr. Linkenbach stressed on the question how historical constructions are influenced by context, communicative situation and the way history is used as framework of interpretation and action in the present. Her paper was an important example of how places can provide cultural conditions for three-fold way of arranging information as way of history recording i.e. the oral, the visual and the written. Toward the end she posited question of how historians should read sources – oral, written, visual and theoretical – along the lines of scholarly works dealing with these materials.

Prof. Saurabh Dube from El Collegio de México presented his work in the form of a critical ethnography of expressionist imagination in the works of Dalit artist Savindra ‘Savi’ Sawakar. The title of his talk was: Tousled Temporalities: History, Modernism, and a Dalit Iconography. In his paper, Dr. Dube engaged with four overlapping themes concerning history and temporality: first, variable forms of historical consciousness with respect to the degree of symbolic elaboration, the ability to pervade multiple contexts, and the capacity to capture the imagination of people; second, the consciousness of the past exceeding the documentations of objective historiography; third, the history existing as a negotiated and reworked resource at the core of social worlds; fourth, tracing the production of social space and time as amorphous and abstract entities beyond their passive roles in everyday activity and epistemic. Through these themes, Dr. Dube explored the issues of history within South Asian modernism and the dalit iconography.

Dr. Christine Vial-Kayser, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History from Paris-Sorbonne at Nalanda University talked about the changing trends in cartography and how that impact the visual world of the maps. The title of her presentation was: The Globes of Coronelli or the Doomsday of Epic Cartography. Dr. Vial-Kayser began by talking about the gigantic globes which were commissioned in the late seventeenth-century as a gift to the French king, Louis XIV. According to Dr. Vial-Kayser, these initial globes were a mix of scientific knowledge and invention, which employed cartographer’s imagination and artists’ talents to convey a sense of wonder. Soon after the globes were finished and exhibited in the castle of Marly, a new trend in favour of maps using accurate astronomical information arose in France, and the globes lost their appeal despite their beautiful setting. Through illustration Dr. Vial-Kayser showed that these new maps were made rationally, showing only lands that were known and their topography. Their fantasy lay in the images of the fauna, the flora or of the inhabitants. In words of Dr. Vial-Kayser, these maps were scientific, yet dry. Toward the end of her presentation Dr. Vial-Kayser introduced the audience to yet another changing trend after the nineteenth-century when epic maps make a come-back into the fashion more as objects of curiosity imbued with fairy tales narratives, a view that is now retaken by some contemporary Indian artists.

Prof. Aditya Malik from Nalanda University was the last presenter for Day One of the workshop. His talk was titled: The Poet’s Dream: Imbroglios of History and Imagination in the Hammira-Mahakavya. Through his paper, Dr. Malik raised questions relating to a different genre of history – the history emerging from a dream. This concerned the historical narrative present in the Sanskrit poem, the Hammira-Mahakavya, written by Nayachand Suri, a Jaina poet and scholar from the fifteenth-century, who was actually influenced by the appearance of poems’ hero, Hammira, in a dream requesting him to write his own history and the history of his lineage. Hammira was the Rajput chieftain of Ranthambore from Rajasthan who died dramatically in a battle against the Sultan of Delhi in the twelfth-century. The historical accounts of the events from Nayachand Suri’s poem subsequently found their way into different languages – not only Sanskrit, but also Persian, Rajasthani, Hindi and even English – in different genres – epic poetry, ballads, royal chronicles, translations, and scholarly essays across vast regions of space and of time. In relation with this unique context of historical writing and genre, Dr. Malik raised several important questions about history-writing: Can history, i.e., an account of factuality commence in a dream? How do spirals and whorls of meaning emanate from an ephemeral dream? What sorts of ripples in space and time does the poet’s dream set off once it has been birthed in material form as written language? How does the inception of history, literature, and region flow from the poet’s dream?

Day Two:

Dr. Sujith Kumar Parayil from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, presented with the title: Visual History: Materiality, Ideal Image and the Grounded Aesthetics. In his paper, he focused on various photographic practices in India to examine how visual mediation of the social or social mediation of the visual was practiced in India. Dr. Parayil raised questions like how early photographic practices in India articulate the ideals of material/public and spiritual domains of the Indian society within the context of Indian modernity? How photographic space provides a platform for native to articulate their idea of modern? What are the props used to enunciate their refashioned identity? What are the social signifiers and connoted meaning associated with the objects, things, pose, look and gesture of the photographed subjects? How does it delineate the social and hierarchical positions of communities and their cultural capitals? Dr. Parayil worked with ethnographic, studio, and family photographs as his primary sources to demonstrate various facets, which are intrinsically connected to the domain of visuality as well as writing a visual history of India in general. Dr. Parayil demonstrated that in order to write a visual history of the region, culturally practiced and socially legitimized signifiers are important tropes of discussion.

The presentation entitled: Searching for Another Rajagriha: Reevaluating Archaeological Method and Historiography was a joint presentation by Dr. Abhishek Amar, Visiting Associate Professor of History and Archaeology at Nalanda University from Hamilton College (USA) along with the School of Historical Studies post-graduate students Pritha Mukherjee, Shaashi Ahlawat, and Arun Kumar Akella. The group discussed about their project titled Rajgir Archaeological Survey Project (RASP) in the context of new historical writing. The project is being developed by School of Historical Studies, Nalanda University in collaboration with Bihar Heritage Development Society. The project is aimed at reconstructing the longue durée history of Rajgir through a critical examination of texts and material culture. The presentation included discussion over problems with the present historiography of Rajgir, followed by suggestions taken from recent archaeological survey practices carried out In South Asia. Toward the end, the group demonstrated the possible outcomes they are expecting from the survey which might take over two years for its completion. However, the reports will be published on the regular basis during the survey operations which have been planned to make publicly available through online media.

Dr. Sraman Mukherjee from Nalanda University talked about the travels of Buddhist relics from British India to the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). The title of his talks was: Moving Objects: Buddhist Relics in the Historical Consciousness of Southern Asian Worlds. The moving objects were addressed by the speaker as material registers connecting new worlds of antiquarian collecting and market, connoisseurship, display and scholarship, state diplomacy, and rituals of religious reclamations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In his paper, Dr. Mukherjee was reading the shifting social and cultural locations of objects as processes of translation and change in the field of historical and art historical studies. The relics of his presentation were the famous Piprahwa relics discovered in 1898 from Piprahwa Kot (near India-Nepal border). Dr. Mukherjee mapped the shifting spatial and temporal locations of these relics across changing institutional, cultural and political spaces – archaeological sites, museum galleries, and practicing Buddhist temples. Through this exercise, he explored the multiple identities and meanings that accrued around these objects. His paper brought out the complexities of networks under modern regimes of diplomacy, scholarship, and religious practice, across a transnational Theravada world in Asia and beyond, and their role in producing new visibility and multiple identities and meanings around Buddhist relics.

Dr. Murari Kumar Jha from Nalanda University gave his talk titled: The South Asian Context of Mughal Notions of Kingship and Sovereignty in which he discussed the political ideology of the Mughal Empire. He engaged with the question that how the dynastic line of a Central Asian seminomadic warlord had gained acceptance in South Asian society, and why did it remain a powerful source of legitimacy well into the nineteenth century? Or why did the legitimacy of the Mughals far outlive the decline of its actual power in the eighteenth century? Dr. Jha approached the existing Mughal historiography at two levels: first, revisiting the formulation of the Mughal imperial ideas during the reigns of Humayun and Akbar, and second, re-evaluating the layered notions of Mughal kingship and sovereignty. In his essay, Dr. Jha suggested that far from being exclusively Central Asian the Mughal imperial ideas drew heavily on the pre-existing notions of South Asian kingship.

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Dr. Samuel Wright from Nalanda University gave a talk about the Sanskrit intellectual practice between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The title of his talk was: Imagined Absences: recovering the historicity of Sanskrit scholars in early modern Bengal. Dr. Wright discussed scholars’ awareness of the developments of the period – political, social, transregional polities. He also talked about the displacement within the discipline of nyaya (logic) from Mithila—the earlier centre of nyaya studies. He stressed that while several studies have examined Sanskrit scholars speaking to each other via their scholarly writings, little attention has been paid to how Sanskrit scholars spoke to polities, regional rulers, and local administrators. As a result, according to Dr. Wright, Sanskrit scholars in Bengal during the period are nearly always described in secondary literature as politically and socially withdrawn from larger political and social realities. In this light, paper examined few such neglected historical documents and colophons, addressed how Sanskrit scholars spoke to and about polities in Bengal during the Bengali Sultanate and Mughal periods.

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