Whatever the criticisms against him may be, ICHR chairman Y Sudershan Rao is a romantic person. And he romances history, the subject he specialises in. Else, why should he say when he walks the streets of Ayodhya, he feels he has been transported to a different age, maybe that of Valmiki? Consciously or not, he is subscribing to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s command that ‘the historian ought to love the past’.
It is possible that Rao is powerfully inspired by historical novels or pieces of fiction that draw on history. Tagore’s ‘Khudito Pashan’, though not a work of historical fiction, has elements of history to it, like the narrator weaving his fantasies while staying in a mansion built by Gujarat sultan Mahmud Shah. And almost on a similar trajectory with Rao, the narrator flies to medieval times, falls in love with an Iranian woman, from the time of Mahmud Shah at that, and feels he is no more in Gujarat but in the dark alleys of Baghdad.
Or take Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali. It has descriptions of the evolution of a boy as a deeply romantic personality who reads historical novels such as ‘Rajput Jibon Sandhya’ and mentally enacts scenes from Mughal-Rajput wars, exulting in the thought: ‘What a world is this! It has only beautiful moonlit nights, clashing of swords, meeting of wonderful faces …’ And then when Chittor falls and Rana Amar Singh accepts Mughal suzerainty, his vision turns misty and he sees, realistically, nothing before him but the bamboo forest with which he is so very familiar. He has returned to his own world.
Modern historians, that is historians who would not write history as though the subject were a branch of literature, might debunk all this. For them the whole notion of the historical novel is a fallacy. It is only a clothing of facts in their bare outlines with imaginations, however rich, that cannot correspond to the reality of the times the facts belong to. But then Michael Oakeshott himself said in 1933, “History is the historian’s experience. It is made by nobody save the historian...” Another great western historian, RG Collingwood, made famous through his work The Idea of History, had remarked: “The past which a historian studies is not a dead past but a past which in some sense is still living in the present.”
Some historians have not taken kindly to the observation that the historian ought to love the past. Much of the past is such that it cannot be loved, like the conditions in which the serfs lived or the overwhelming power Pope Innocent III or Henry VIII wielded. But surely that is not all there is to it. The student of history can love the story of the growth of republican opinion in France, or the drawing up of the French Constitution after 1789, or Napoleon’s Code. Likewise, if Rao can discover, through sustained historical research, traces of the existence of the village republic in ancient India by using the Ramayana as an extrapolative text, he will have contributed to the production of knowledge, to use a modern phrase.
Rao may be a product of a groundswell of opposition to the westernisation of history teaching, but he has enough support from the West. And from the East too.