Archaeologist as public servant


Book cover of Archaeology and The Public Purpose: Writings On and By M N Deshpande
Archaeology is not a subject that evinces public interest. Yet it is a discipline and a practice that is motivated by a public purpose. Much of ancient history lies below layers of earth and even under human settlements, including large cities. Digging through these layers requires skill that is only acquired through training and experience. It is unfortunate that archaeologists often do not get the recognition they deserve. One primary reason to applaud this book by Nayanjot Lahiri is that it focuses attention on one major archaeologist of post-independence India. In the course of doing this, she also provides brief pen portraits of other practitioners in the field who were Madhusudan Narhar Deshpande’s colleagues, friends and in one case a relative. There is another dimension to this book: Deshpande’s encounter with Jawaharlal Nehru. This throws light on Nehru and the public purpose of archaeology.

Deshpande was born in 1920 in a small town in the Satara district of Maharashtra. His father, Narhar Pandurang, was a doctor; the family belonged to the caste of Deshastha Brahmins. Deshpande was thus born into relative privilege. Narhar Pandurang was an active Congressman. Deshpande made an unusual career choice when he decided to become an archaeologist. “Not a single member of his family,” Lahiri notes, “was professionally interested in the world of the material past.” She points to certain factors that possibly determined his choice. One, was that the town of Rahimatpur where he grew up, was dotted with memorials. Second, his father took him when he was 15 or 16 to see historical sites that included Ajanta, Ellora and Gol Gumbad of Bijapur. (All these three would be sites where Deshpande would work as a trained archaeologist). And third, his father introduced him to the Indian national movement and its ambience of national pride.

Deshpande went to a school in Poona and from there joined Fergusson College which had become a major centre of teaching and research in the Deccan. At Fergusson, N V Vaidya, professor of Sanskrit, took Deshpande under his wing and under Vaidya’s guidance he specialised in Ardhamagadhi, a Prakrit language. After obtaining a First in his BA, Deshpande joined Deccan College in Poona where he met his first archaeologist-guru H D Sankalia.

The arrival of Sankalia in the narrative creates the space for Lahiri to present a pen portrait of the scholar. Sankalia had studied under Father Henry Heras at St Xavier’s College, Bombay and then had moved in 1934 to University College, London to train as an archaeologist. While in England, he had worked in excavations with Mortimer Wheeler. He returned to India in 1937 and two years later was appointed as professor of proto-Indian history at Deccan College. Under Sankalia, Deshpande trained to be a Jainologist because of his proficiency in Ardhamagadhi. But Deshpande’s interests, with Sankalia pushing, had already begun to move in a different direction.

Archaeology and The Public Purpose: Writings On and By M N Deshpande 
Author: Nayanjot Lahiri 
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 1,595; Pages: 360

Mortimer Wheeler had started a training school for archaeologists in Taxila and that is where Deshpande went in 1944. Lahiri presents a short sketch on Wheeler, his vision about conserving India’s heritage, the training school he set up, its activities and of some of its students, many of whom became eminent archaeologists in independent India and worked for the Archaeological Survey of India. Lahiri described Deshpande as “a quintessential ASI man”. His career in the ASI began in Madras from where he moved to Patna but it was in Poona, Aurangabad and Dehra Dun that “he did his most sustained and significant work”.

Lahiri explains how the discipline of archaeology to which men like Deshpande were committed had a public purpose. She writes, “…from the time they were inducted into the Survey, [they] conserved monuments, undertook fieldwork, managed museums, dealt with infractions of laws relating to antiquities and protected sites, spearheaded new legislation as also replied to the stream of questions relating to archaeology raised in every parliament session. They interacted with all kinds of people.’’ 

Scholar-archaeologists like Madhusudan were integrally associated with the “nitty-gritty of monument administration and the grassroots challenges that this involved.”

It was in his capacity as a senior ASI officer that Deshpande met Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957 at Ajanta-Ellora. This forms one of the most interesting chapters of the book. This was not a routine visit by a prime minister. For one thing, Nehru had a keen interest in and understanding of history. Second, this trip to Ajanta-Ellora was special because Edwina Mountbatten was travelling with Nehru and India’s first prime minister wanted to share the riches of the rock caves with one of his closest friends. It was Deshpande’s responsibility to give them a guided tour. 

The rock caves of Ajanta-Ellora, especially its women figures, fascinated Nehru and he wrote and spoke about them on innumerable occasions. The 1957 visit, by no means Nehru’s first, was special not only because he had Edwina as company but also because he had as his guide an archaeologist whose special turf was Ajanta-Ellora. Both Nehru and Deshpande had made their first visit to the rock caves in the same year in 1936. The 1957 meeting in the cave shrines produced, according to Lahiri, a special chemistry between Nehru and Deshpande and both of them were together again at ASI’s centenary celebrations.

Deshpande became the director-general of ASI in 1972. He carried out his routine duties as DG with great efficiency. But his great success lay in dealing with an issue that was outside the remit of his office. This relates to the Badrinath temple and here Lahiri reveals an unknown chapter in the history of contemporary India.

The Badrinath temple was not a monument of national importance and thus not in the ASI’s jurisdiction but Deshpande played a crucial role in protecting this structure. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, pioneering environmentalist in Uttarakhand and mastermind of the Chipko movement, came to know fortuitously that a Birla trust was renovating the Badrinath temple and was constructing a monstrous concrete wall around it. He realised immediately that this project would destroy the architecture of the temple and also cause an environmental disaster. Bhatt lobbied politicians and bureaucrats to stop the project. Deshpande was asked to look into the matter and it was his report together with Bhatt’s non-violent movement that stopped the project and led to the demolition of the wall. Thus, a historical structure came to be preserved.

Lahiri deftly weaves in all these facets of Deshpande’s work and career and presents the commitment of one of independent India’s pre-eminent archaeologists. Without Lahiri’s research and her lucid writing, Madhusudan Deshpande would remain an unknown and unsung scholar-archaeologist. The value of this book is enhanced by the inclusion of Deshpande's essays almost all of which are known only to a handful of specialists. Lahiri has carried out a significant exercise in the retrieval of a human being, his work and through that she has drawn attention to the importance of the discipline of archaeology.

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