Brunch bookmarks: Lending an ear to the echoes of the past
Vikram Sampath does not come across as a person who courts controversy. Yet, the Bengaluru-based historian has hit the headlines because he has just written a biography of a very controversial person: Veer Savarkar, the man who formulated the philosophy of Hindutva.
Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924, Sampath’s biography of the man hailed as a villain by some and a hero by others, is the first of two volumes covering the life of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Veer Savarkar) from his birth in 1883.
This seems somewhat out of character for a historian best known for books like Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars, My Name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician and Voice of the Veena, S. Balachander: A Biography. But Sampath finds this assessment of his subject matter amusing.
“Characters who have been maligned or forgotten are the ones that attract my attention the most,” he says. “As a historian, my passion is to search for untold stories, to write about people who deserved much better recognition than they got.”
For instance, Sampath had to dig very deep to be able to bring Gauhar Jaan to life via words. “She was the first Indian musician to record on the gramophone,” Sampath says. “I could only find her records at chor bazaars and junk shops. So I decided to start a trust to archive the music of that era, and today we have over 1,500 records, restored and uploaded on SoundCloud with a following of five lakh people.” His book on Gauhar Jaan is also being made into a film by Ashutosh Gowariker.
50 shades of grey
“My first brush with Savarkar happened in 2003-2004 when the controversy about Mani Shankar Aiyar dislodging his plaque at the Cellular Jail took place,” Sampath recalls. “Though there are hardly any references to him in our textbooks, Savarkar’s name is often used in contemporary political discourse. There is great interest in the man, but also constant attempts to either sully or glorify his image. Now it is a historian’s burden to make facts available as they are so discerning readers can realise that there are really no black and white answers when it comes to history; rather, a huge range of fuzzy greys!”
For three years, Sampath researched Savarkar’s life at archives across India and abroad. “I also looked at Savarkar’s own writings in Marathi. That opened up a new dimension to the man’s life and vision, and helped clear the cobwebs that history and politics have shrouded his image in. Interviews with his proponents and opponents and support from his family, especially his grandnephew Ranjit Savarkar, completed my research,” says Sampath, who is an Aspen Institute Fellow and currently a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.
Man of mystery
Everything about Savarkar is unknown to a majority of us, Sampath says. “No one knew that Savarkar was one of the first Indians to start a secret society much like the European secret societies,” he says. In the early 1900s, Savarkar was in London for five years and built a vast network of revolutionaries across Europe. “Savarkar also produced a huge body of work for the revolutionary movement and coined the phrase ‘The First War of Indian Independence’ for what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny.”
The historian admits that he was surprised to find that revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose considered Savarkar as a figurehead of the revolution.
The hot buttons directly associated with Savarkar are Hindutva and Article 370. “He coined the word Hindutva but for Savarkar, Hindutva was not related to Hinduism as a religion, but as a sense of cultural identity,” says Sampath. “Over the decades, this has metamorphosed into something different, but Savarkar’s line of thinking was clearly different from that of the RSS. In fact, the very first paragraph of his writing says: ‘we have to draw a line between Hinduism and Hindutva.’”
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From HT Brunch, October 26, 2019
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