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New narratives of history

By Ananya Guha

History is a thin wraith today. It has been seamlessly crafted into the politics of the times. Three instances warrant our attention. Firstly the Taj Mahal, secondly the movie Padmavati, and thirdly the temple Somnath. In all three, politics and politicians have been involved in the controversy and verbal battles.

In the case of the Taj Mahal, apparently it was not mentioned in the brochure of the Tourism Dept of the Govt of Uttar Pradesh. To this someone replied that the Taj Mahal is of universal fame and need not be mentioned anywhere. Then the Chief Minister of the state entered into the imbroglio and declared that it was of international tourist importance, and he would personally visit it which he did. He declared a cleanliness campaign there, visited the place with much fan fare and muted fear, what with so many escorts, police escorts in the pitch. Just around the same time a Swiss couple were beaten up by some youth in Fatehpur Sikri, thereby adding fuel to the fire, although direct connection with the Taj Mahal controversy could not be made, prima facie. In the meantime one or two ruling party politicians made derogatory remarks about the infidel Shah Jahan, who lived some five hundred years ago. One called the Taj Mahal a grave, with much panache and of course virulent animosity against Muslim marauders. In the meantime the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was preparing his massive entourage for the visit. 

The second controversy revolved around the legendary Rajput Queen Padmini, in the movie Padmavati based actually on a poem, yes a poem, and not based on history. The film was not even released when a Rajput group accused the producer of insulting the Queen, who committed Jauhar on the sacrificial pyre, in depicting a supposed relationship between the notorious Alauddin Khilji and Padmini. The trouble spread to other adjoining states of the country, even to the South with political parties of diverse opinions joining the fray in the protest against attack on the sensibilities of a royal family. The tensions have not subsided; the film has not yet been released and the debate continues, especially on television channels.

The third and the latest is Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the Somnath temple. How dare he when his great grandfather was opposed to building it, and his grandmother was so touchy  about wanton poverty and stench? And the insinuation was also that, how dare he garner Hindu votes, taken up  again most vociferously in television debates. This added to the fact that his signature was found in the ‘ Not Hindu’ column register for tourists. Somnath Temple apparently, after the ill fated looting by Mahmud of Ghazni, had to make such a distinction, with honour and chastity.

In all these three events it is history which has suffered. A majestic building has been demeaned. A movie based on a poem has been distorted beyond proportions. And, a visit to a temple, for political reasons yes, has been pigeon holed into a place for people masquerading as ‘holy.’ History can always light the imagination, kindle stories and tales, and explore new narratives. But in these three instances history was seen as a shortcoming of facts. Are facts and history the same? Does not history emanate from facts and then goes on to build succinct  narratives of society, culture or architecture? Is politics an adjunct of history? Yes it is but contemporary politics; of that specific time and place. But by investing the politics of today in history; in the past, we have made it into almost a sanguinary battle field. 

The present narrative we hope will not be recorded in the annals of the history of  our nation. Making such petty debates and tirades will only make history a slaughter house for those we hate. Surely history cannot suffer from such an ignominy of crisis. Every person who has read history in school knows that history is studied as a series of events, eras and dynasties. School text book history highlights certain chosen facts as the narratives for history. Thus everyone knows about the monumental Taj Mahal, or the illustrious Padmavati who made a sacrifice for her husband and the land, the kingdom. Textbooks also say that the Somnath temple was looted for its wealth by Mahmud of Ghazni. These are factual representations of history. But whether history is a chronology of facts is the question. When we did our school board examinations, we were asked say to give an account of Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement. The answers were factual, focusing on taxes levied. But when you read Shashi Tharoor’s book on the British in India, one realizes the damage that it did to the Indian economy, as a source of exploitative measure, the money going to the coffers of the Empire and not for development within the country. A chronicle of events, merely cannot be a historical narrative. The narrative will lie in interpretation. So will Cleopatra’s nose change the course of history, or for that matter Padmini’s act of Jauhar, or the destruction and rebuilding of the Somnath temple?

But wait, Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal has often been described as a monument of love dedicated to his wife, and this has endured through time and space as a historical type. Historical spaces need reinvention of typology, and cannot remain static as simply a building or event. The changes have to come through discourses or narratives. Shah Jahan might have been a cruel administrator, but the monument dedicated to his wife, became in the course of time a product of history, because of its stupendous technical craft merging with the notion of a monument for love. And there were skilled men behind the creation of such a technology. Because the historical monument cannot be overlooked for its craft and stupendous technology, the controversy of it not being mentioned in a tourist brochure could not withstand its sheer history, colour of imagination and the controversy petered out because the rationale of history is withstanding the onslaught and ravages of time. True the Somnath temple was recast after destruction, but the marauders did not create history, they destroyed it, and the invader versus the native dialogue became a perpetrating sense, not for history, but for justice, political justice, cashed on by politicians, when ballot boxes become bullet boxes, as is happening now.           

So to say, simply that history is being distorted, is to see at what point imagination and emotion  take over from the  mantle of history, a world of interpretation, charting out the course of events, change or the future. It is the dynamics of change, which is central to its logic. Interpretations will arise out of such situations. In all the above instances history has been used to shield emotions, because of the interplay of contemporary politics.

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