Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mutable histories on crumbling edifices

Archival narratives were authored, and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state.

Monuments are cast in stone, but not their histories as multiple appropriations in time and space generate diverse narratives of their mute existence. Red Fort has lived through it like none other. From the seat of the Mughal Empire in 17th century to the nucleus of armed rebellion against the British in 19th, it has had its share of history before emerging as the ultimate symbol of a nation-state in the 20th century. In tracing contested history of five monuments in capital Delhi – Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Purana Qila, Qutab Complex and Rasul Numa Dargah – Mrinalini Rajagopalan brings fascinating accounts of their unexpected uses and ideological appropriations by state and non-state actors. 

Each of the five monuments had a brush with the unexpected in the course of their archaeological existence: the Red Fort got turned into a place for rebellion, and resurgence; the Jama Masjid served as a place for self assertion during the pre-independence period; the Purana Qila was considered to rest on the mythic city of the Indraprastha; the Qutab complex has had its share of religious skirmishes; and the little-known sufi shrine of Hazrat Rasul Numa was saved by locals from expropriation by the British. The basic contention of this eloquent study is that each of these monuments exists in the space between archive and affect, lending credence to the notion that the monuments are culturally mutable objects far from being symbols of their specific pasts. In this context, the inheritance of the past is rarely seamless and secular.

Drawing detailed portraits of each of the five monuments, Rajagopalan examines how archival narratives were authored and even tempered to insert specific affects by both the colonial government and later by the nation-state. Interestingly, while the colonial government sought to erase reminiscences of the humiliating losses suffered during 1857 rebellion from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the Indian government did not remove Nicholson statue, the British soldier who had crushed the rebels, as a reminder of our own weakness to serve as a good historical lesson. These affects reflect differing interests and varying motivations toward the same monument.  

Building Histories captures the archaeological history of the five monuments and the institutional preservation that began with the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861, which was given additional impetus by the enactment of the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act by Lord Curzon in 1904. As a distinct departure from its past history of looting, pilferage and destruction of historic structures, the colonial government had an image makeover post-1857 as it started protecting monuments on behalf of its subjects. Could it be an institutionalized atonement for a previous history that included destruction and vandalism of country’s cultural heritage? 

The book is more than an archaeological treatise on the five monuments, as it raises question on what historical lexicon may suffice to accommodate many voices and affects that continually make and remake these structures. Mrinalini Rajgopalan, an assistant professor in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, opines that Delhi’s rich Islamic structures are deeply vexing to those who seek to reclaim India as a geography defined solely by Hindu culture and history. The November 2001 abortive attempt for reclaiming the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in the Qutab complex as a Hindu temple is a case in point. Such parochial reframing of nation and history has been frequently played out on the monuments in the capital city. 

Each monument may be a bearer of specific truths regarding the past, and yet it remains vulnerable to multiple interpretations as the text that sets the regime of truth changes hands over time. No surprise, therefore, that prevailing anxieties between state and non-state actors builds new narratives to justify the imagined past. The creative appropriation of the medieval ruins of the Qila Rai Pithora in south Delhi in 2010, as the remnants of an ancient Hindu empire of Prithviraj Chauhan, has been a way to contain the history and interpretation of the monument. However, there is more to the Qila that is located at the entrance to Delhi, and which has been witness to many ups and downs of the history of India.  

Rajgopalan examines such contestations to argue that since the past could not be retrieved by the contemporary observer, there is a need for each of the monuments to remain a sacred and immutable relic of the past. What worries her is the continuing seduction to redefine the archival past in a bid to avenge past Islamic domination.  

Building Histories narrates extraordinary stories of the each of the five monuments – many of them previously unknown – in making a strong case for pulling archival histories out from the influence of popular emotions. Within the archival representations and affective appropriations of the monuments, the book echoes the need for more nuanced history of architectural objects. 

Building Histories
by Mrinalini Rajagopalan
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London
Extent: 244, Price: Rs. 3,857   

First published in The Hindustan Times online on Nov 11, 2017

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