August, 2016

A trip in History with Professor Nayanjot Lahiri

In an interview with Anita Rajan, Prof Lahiri talks about her teaching experience at Ashoka University and rewards of being a historian.

History has always been a discipline of intrigue and multitude of facets. Prime Minister and Writer Winston Churchill rightly said, “History, with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”

Najaynot Lahiri, Professor of History at Ashoka University believes that it was curiosity and enjoyment that brought her to study and practice history and archaeology. She says,  “ There is great pleasure in studying the past, just as there is in reading great literature or listening to music.  A piece of pottery, an unexpected mound, an old painting, an archival page, all of these can be as pleasurable, all clues and relics of a world beyond our own.”

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 Professor Lahiri studied at St.Stephen’s College in Delhi, and    then went to study at the Department of History, University of  Delhi. After this, she taught at Hindu College and has served as  the Dean of colleges at the University of Delhi until 2010. A long  list of contributions and achievements follow her name, and was  also asked to analyse the impact of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Ordinance, 2010 and was asked to draft an alternative bill for Parliament. The bill was then passed as a law in March 2010.

Professor Lahiri who joined Ashoka in January this year recalls, “I was attracted to the vice-chancellor’s (Rudrangshu Mukherjee) offer because it gave me a chance to teach different kinds of courses, and embark on an adventure of sorts.”

While teaching at Ashoka University, Professor Lahiri is also involved in various other projects; and some of her research interests include Ancient India and Indian Archaeology. Upon being asked about her current projects, she says “I am at present working on the remembrance and memorialisation of emperor Ashoka across Asia. It involves field visits and forays into texts and epigraphs so as to explore the connections that are claimed with Ashoka in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and China.”

‘Study of the past’ – the phrase almost sounds mysterious, and brings to mind movie scenes, where one sees excavations, stumbles into ruins, old sites and an array of caves, and all in all, an air of mystery and the unforeseen. We asked Professor Lahiri what has been the most rewarding aspect of being a historian and got a straightforward reply, “I have enjoyed making a career of the past because it has fascinated me. That I have been able to find a few answers to questions that I began my research career with is the most rewarding part of being a student of the past”.

It would be an understatement to say that Historical Study and Archaeology require patience. Amidst the research and study that goes into these disciplines, the basic idea is to keeping going on, following a trail to unearth societies, stories and streams of thought from a time so far away.

Professor Lahiri says “The most important reason for staying with this line of study is that as you dig deeper, you realise how little you know. So, it makes you feel less certain and self-righteous about people and cultures in general. The other reason that has ensured my interest in History is the ubiquitous presence of the past around us. The past in India is not dead and out there. It is very much part of the living present. Somewhere, this reminds of what T.S. Elliot said: ‘The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past but of its presence’.  And looking at those relics and elements from the perspective of a historian, you realize that there is  so much that remains to be understood through a historian’s gaze.”

Asked about how her teaching experience at the University has been, she says “It has been very enjoyable and challenging and fun”, and one can almost picture a reminiscent smile on her face.

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