Friday, February 15, 2008

Histories and Memories

Desi Knitter writes on working with Arvind N Das on the documentaries (that have been linked earlier at this blog):
I have been knitting a bit on the cardigan, but have nothing but a green blob to show. February is the Month of endless blather and boredom Job Candidate Seminars, Conferences and Symposia. It has also been a challenging month for various other reasons, among them being an unwieldy and quite exhausting course I am teaching on South Asian civilization. I call it “India from the Indus Valley to the Silicon Valley” because it begins in Harappa c.2500 BC and ends with the Indian tech boom in the early 21st century. 4500 years in 16 weeks is dizzying, and not merely because in the first few weeks I am well outside my comfort zone of the 18th century and onward. I am enjoying catching up on new research on the previous eras and finding interesting ways to link up this longue duree with the present, without making it seem like a literal longue duree in the classroom. Dynasties? Out. Battles? Out. Everyday life? In. Material culture and trade? Yeah. Social relations and religious practices? Sure. But this excitement comes with the slightly nauseating feeling of being on a roller-coaster for a bit too long. I want to get off, because it’s only the 8th century and I’m already sick of talking about long-distance trade and pottery.

This emphasis on everyday life reminded me of a documentary film series on South Asian history by Arvind Das, a journalist and historian with tremendous energy, verve and humour who drew on the Marxist historian D.D. Kosambi’s approach to South Asian history, but added a good dose of his own polemic. With very, very few material resources of his own, Das just set off with a camera team to capture on film Kosambi’s argument about the material practices of the South Asian past discernible in the present, and put together a remarkable set of episodes about Indian history. Most of these are now available on Google video. Fresh out of my master’s, I worked briefly on the project during its initial stages as a basic research assistant, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I like to think that it was there that I began formulating some ideas about historical memory that I examined later in my doctoral work.

The link above is to one of the episodes on the Mauryans and the Iron age. Suddenly coming across these files on the web after more than a decade, I spent hours poring over them. Some of it is so clunky and informal, and some of it absolutely inspired. It is delightful to see Arvind again in his familiar blue shirt and oversized glasses facing the camera, and remembering bygone times when we argued fiercely over everything from Buddhism to Maoism. My flood of memories reminds me how my own historical thinking has changed and sharpened over the years, but also how eagerly, and how much, he taught me. I miss him, and like to think that if he had not died so young, so soon, we would have continued to argue, over lots of Glenfiddich and Classic Milds.

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