MN Deshpande: The Public Archaeologist

In her book on the late iconic chief of the Archaeological Survey of India, author and historian Nayanjot Lahiri surpasses her own high standards in history writing

For a person who played a pivotal role in shaping and giving direction to archaeological explorations and the building and sustaining of a nodal institution for that purpose in India, MN Deshpande’s Wikipedia entry is pithy, to say the least: just two paragraphs. It is a pity that it hasn’t yet recorded the year of his death and so it would appear that he is still alive at 100. But a new book by the renowned historian of ancient India, Nayanjot Lahiri, herself an archaeologist, promises to fill that gap in our memory and academic literature about Deshpande, whom the author calls ‘a public archaeologist’.

Archaeology and the Public Purpose: Writings on and by MN Deshpande draws a lot from the family archives of the Deshpande clan, one of whom was the grandniece of the man who is the subject of her study in this book. It was a chat that Lahiri had with Ashoka University colleague Ashwini Deshpande that opened the doors to the family and its well-preserved archives.

Public intellectual is a far more familiar word: it stands for people typically in academia who, besides their contributions to critical thinking in a particular field, also interfere in public discourse to offer solutions to problems and question the logic of what those in power intend to do. Public archaeologist is a different breed, not the equivalent of the public intellectual in archaeology. She uses that description for archaeologists in government-associated departments who deal with the public in all walks of life. She is not talking here about archaeologists in universities.

As you progress through some 345 pages of this book that, with her focus on Deshpande (1920-2008) as the protagonist of this absorbing chronicle, Lahiri makes a bold attempt to not only be a public intellectual making her point clear, but to also advocate that archaeologists be at the helm of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) of which Deshpande was once Director General, and a very good one at that. Lahiri rues that bureaucrats who have no academic knowledge of archaeological research and the evolution of the discipline in India have headed ASI. She calls them “file-pushing director generals and not professionals honed at archaeological sites”.

This book by Lahiri, therefore, besides being a careful examination of Deshpande’s dynamism and lifelong devotion to archaeological research in India, is also an appeal (or is it a warning?) to bring back the expert at ASI. She gives numerous examples of how knowledge of the subject and training at sites are paramount to the running of ASI from the life and times of Deshpande. One interesting anecdote is about a person who stopped the Badrinath Temple in Uttarakhand from being a Birla Mandir in the 1970s. Chandi Prasad Bhatt was the iconic face of that movement. But Bhatt’s work was possible thanks to the intellectual backing of the then chief of ASI, Deshpande, the news of which are not widely publicised. It is in this context that we need to take a relook at the whole idea of a public archaeologist.

Lahiri explains what she means by the term in the beginning of the book and why it is important to understand the role of well-trained archaeologists in promoting the discipline in free India. For her, that usage refers to anyone who engages “with people and institutions in the public domain”. She stresses that “it does not mean, as is understood in archaeological literature, as that field of archaeology which relates to the public interest”.

In part II of this book are reproduction of writings by Deshpande himself on a wide range of his rigorous work at the sites of Ajanta, Ellora, Tabo, Nadsur caves and others like Qutub Minar and Gol Gumbaz, apart from his speeches, letters, essays and personal notes on archaeology’s contribution to history; problems around conservation in India; his comrades-in-arms and inspirations. Notable among his accounts of people are those of Professor HD Sankalia (which is translated from Marathi), Deshpande’s guide; friend and colleague BK Thapar; and ascetic Gurudev Ranade. Lahiri has also reproduced an amazing interview Deshpande had given to Sunita Paul four years before his death.

Lahiri, an award-winning author of many in-depth studies on ancient India, including on Ashoka, pre-Ahom Assam, archaeology around Indian trade routes, Indus Valley civilisation and others, talks in detail about the purpose of writing this book. One, it was a “fitting tribute to a low-key scholar”, according to Lahiri. She also delves into the question of how archaeologists trained in pre-independent India marked a watershed moment, in retrospect, in research studies in free India. These people whom Lahiri talks about are a “bunch of newly minted archaeologists” who some years before 1947 “made a tryst with the trowel and spade”. Some of them, Lahiri writes, came to be schooled (mostly by the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler) among the ruins of the fabled city of Taxila near Rawalpindi in 1944 and others at the ancient port town of Arikamedu in Pondicherry in 1945. Some others had worked in Karnataka. Deshpande was one of these young archaeologists and he started off at Taxila. Some of these people, like Deshpande, went on to not only conserve monuments and do fieldwork and manage museums, but also engaged themselves in the making of legislations and contributed immensely to the understanding of the political establishment and the people of the nuances of archaeological research. People like Deshpande were involved in even partitioning museum collections at the time of independence and in housing refugees in monuments, Lahiri writes. All this made him and his comrades value field work and made them skillful at handling properties that came under ASI and in coming up with lengthy and exhaustive reports on each discovery and extraction – and also in taking in their stride administrative and political challenges.

Lahiri, for sure, bemoans the dwindling position of such specialists in the India of today. While dwelling at length on Deshpande’s meetings with several others in general and specifically with the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she writes, forcefully, as an aside, “If Nehru were alive today, while he would approve of the fact that the cow and the tractor coexist in India, he would also not fail to notice how much the lives of cows matter today than those of the people who depend on them”.

In this book, we discover how Deshpande spent his years following retirement in 1978 in a meaningful fashion: speaking and organising seminars and lectures and writing on a subject that was so dear to him. Lahiri puts the spotlight on one of the comments he made towards the end of his life, which was specifically on Lord Ram. And then the author concludes, “For Deshpande… Ram was not an entity that resided in a specific spot in Ayodhya. The life and work of this gifted archaeologist brings to focus the ways in which the spiritual, with all its connotations of peace and calm, imbued his understanding of the material past and the integrity with which he approached that past.”

Lahiri has always been a scholar’s scholar, taking a break only once perhaps: when she wrote Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India two years ago. She herself admitted that she had to let the hair down to write that “light” book. This one, rich with photographs not found in ASI collections and unpublished articles and photographs, all obtained thanks to the Deshpande family archives, has her analysing an illustrious predecessor, a scholar from a very scholarly point of view, again with an academic rigour so natural to Lahiri. It is a book that needs to be read and re-read, but most importantly read between the lines.

First published in Open

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