Thursday, November 13, 2014

WHY DO WE STUDY HISTORY? Subhadra Sengupta

Hear it from the very insightful and eloquent author- Subhadra Sengupta

Featured Image:

We at Saffron Tree are indeed, very honoured to have her for our inaugural post.

This often happens when I’m doing a session on history in a school. A small puzzled face will ask, “But ma’am, why do we have to study history?”

Think about it, it’s actually quite a valid question. There are clear and understandable benefits to learning multiplication table, drawing maps or understanding the theories of Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton. What do we gain from studying history?

It doesn’t help that India’s history is five thousand years long. It is also very complex with at time half a dozen kingdoms popping up simultaneously and then vanishing without an explanation and there are three kings named Chandragupta who drive children to tears. Studying history can be hard and the further you go back in time the more difficult and confusing it gets.

The study of ancient civilizations is like reading a half finished jigsaw puzzle. Did the Harappan Civilization have a monarchy? Ah... ummm... I’m not too sure... may be... maybe not. Was Tutankhamun murdered? I think so! But other historians don’t agree. Did the Vikings discover the continents of America? Ask the Vikings. And so it goes.

I deflect the question about why we study history by asking in return, “What will happen if we don’t study history?” Then we will not know anything about ourselves, how this country evolved, why we have customs and traditions, religions, festivals, literature, dance, music, architecture... it is all a part of our history and they make us what we are.

We stand before the Taj Mahal listening to a tourist guide tell us the story of Shahjahan’s love for Mumtaz Mahal and how the marble from Makrana in Rajasthan was transported to Agra in carts drawn by camels. That is history. When your mother puts green chillies in the potato curry we remember that we only began to use chillies and potatoes after the Portuguese introduced them into India. These gifts from their colonies in Mexico and South America included chillies, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, peanuts, cashew nuts... that is our culinary history. When Anushka Ravi Shankar plays Rag Mian ki Malhar on her sitar, she is playing a raga created by Mian Tansen who was the court singer of Emperor Akbar. That is our musical history.

Civilizations are works in progress. If we don’t know what happened in the past, how can we move towards the future? We need knowledge of history in every aspect of our lives – science, sports, fashion, communications, engineering...

Even then some of the faces before me look a bit doubtful and the questions continue. Just because I’m using a computer doesn’t mean I need to know the history of information technology. Who cares what Chanakya wrote in the ‘Arthashastra’, I plan to be a businessman. Why do I have to memorise dates? Especially when in ancient India even historians can’t agree about them.

Then I talk of family trees. Do they know the story of their grandparents? And the faces brighten and the hands shoot up. There are stories of the adventurous scholar who left his village to come to the city to study at a university; the journey of an ancestor from Marwar in Rajasthan to Calcutta where he became a trader in jute; the grandmother who came to Madras from Tirunelvelly to learn classical dance from Rukmini Devi Arundale.

Then I want to know why their family’s history is so important for them. They often can’t articulate a reply but they begin to understand what I am saying.

I often meet readers in their twenties and thirties who confess they hated the subject in school but who are now fascinated by history and historical fiction. For instance, one of my books, ‘Saffron, White & Green’ is a history of our struggle for freedom and it was written for children but is often bought by adults.

History is what we are. It is our story and human beings need their roots as much as they need ambitions and dreams.

The problem is that our textbooks focus on dates, kings, battles, economic policy, acts of parliament and somewhere we forget the most important element of history – that it is the story of people. Not just of kings, priests and warriors but of tribals, lower castes, women, farmers, potters and weavers. We need to put people back in our histories. Why don’t textbooks talk about the epic voyages of Chola ships to Bali where our textiles taught them to create batik designs? About how they painted the walls of caves in Ajanta for hundreds of years? Or tell them that Babur wrote a diary and Krishnadeva Raya composed poetry. More than Akbar’s conquests I find it truly fascinating that he was nearly illiterate.

Children like battles, they make exciting reading but not when they get confused between the dates of the two battles of Panipat and the teachers cuts marks. They love to listen to the story of a man in a chhoti si dhoti and a voluminous shawl walking for a month to Dandi to pick up a handful of sandy sea salt. They don’t really need to know all the points of the Minto-Morley Act.

So parents, teachers, if you want children to get a sense of history you have to move away from text books and walk out of classrooms. Take children to a monument and let them touch the carved pillars as you describe how the stone carvers worked. A museum offers us our history through things and things can say so much. Harappan pottery looks so much like what our potters still make today. An image of a goddess shows us jewellery designs. A sword and shield has so many stories to tell.

We are shaped by our history. Not just our attitudes or traditions but even our taste in food, clothes, furniture. Somewhere there is a history lurking there like a happy ghost. Once we put people and their stories back in history, children will like it even if they plan to become rocket scientists. It will all make sense.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails