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On Heritage and History - a Lecture by Romila Thapar

30 December 2014

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Video recording of the Second Rukmini Devi Memorial Lecture delivered by Romila Thapar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, on Dec. 20, 2014, at Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai.


" It is indeed an honour for me to have been invited to give this lecture, and I greatly appreciate it. Kalakshetra has been something of a legend from the time it was founded by Rukmini Devi and subsequently for the work that it sustains. The respect for the institution grows both for the attention it gives to what we regard as our heritage and for helping in the construction of an on-going heritage. Since both history and heritage conduct a dialogue between the past and the present, we have much to talk abou

‘Heritage’ means that which is inherited. It is used for many things – from genes to geometrical patterns, from property to culture. It was once assumed that heritage is what has been handed down to us by our ancestors, neatly packaged, which we pass on to our descendants, as is implicit in the term, parampara. We sometimes call it tradition. This is what goes into the making of our cultures and our civilization. Heritage is thought of as static whereas tradition is said to mould our way of life. We prefer to think that these have been passed down from generation to generation, relatively untouched. But the more we seek to understand them, the more we realize that each generation changes the contents, sometimes marginally and sometimes substantially.

More recently it has been argued that tradition is actually the inter-play, of what we believe existed in the past, combined with our aspirations of the present. In exploring this inter-play and the new ideas it generates, our concept of heritage takes shape, or can even be invented to serve the needs of the present. Rituals and ceremonies, thought of as ancient, are often on investigation found to be recently invented. The past therefore can even be invented in order to legitimize our actions. Historians now investigate what we call, the invention of tradition.

The on-going discussion of what constitutes heritage or tradition leads to analyzing concepts such as culture and civilization. There is no easy definition of these and there have been intense arguments about their meaning especially at times when existing norms are questioned. The European Enlightenment in the seventeenth century resulted from striking historical changes and became a time when new questions were asked. Basic concepts needed fresh exploration. In India too, we are experiencing similar change and the constituents of heritage need to be examined afresh.

Heritage can be of two kinds. One is natural heritage that came from the physical creation of the earth. This is the heritage that we are currently busy depleting because we cannot control our greed for the wealth that comes from destroying natural resources. But by linking environment to history, this heritage is now being seen as essential to the other one.

The other heritage is the one that was cultivated and created by human effort. What we refer to as sanskriti and shrishti also involve creating and constructing and interestingly is often either juxtaposed with or contrasted with prakriti, that which is natural. This is what goes into the making of what we call ‘cultural heritage’. It includes objects and ideas that determine our pattern of life. They define our concepts of culture and civilization. This heritage is the subject of my talk. I shall try and explain how the historical assumptions that went into the making of these concepts have changed. Consequently, historians now see heritage not so much as something inherent and inexplicable, but as constructed and changeable. [. . .]"

See full draft text of the lecture at: