This Singh is King of History

06 Mar 2015

Upinder Singh, historian and daughter of the prime minister, has written a pathbreaking new survey of india’s ancient past. we pay her a visit.

It’s a few short steps from the stiff embrace of the SPG at the gate to the warm welcome at Upinder Singh’s door. We meet her on an overcast day at her fortified home on the St Stephen’s College campus in Delhi.


The low sky, wet trees, tall walls and silent guards emphasise the pit-like isolation of the little compound. Outside, the academic year is young, and freshers trot to and fro, looking slightly out of place.

U Singh, as she is known to her students, is a well-respected historian of ancient India, was a popular lecturer at St Stephen’s for more than two decades, and is one of the Prime Minister’s three daughters.

This Tuesday she launched her latest book, a fat volume titled A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India. It is an unusual history book for India, for several reasons — not the least of which is that it is a textbook written by a leading professional historian. Established Indian historians don’t write textbooks.

It is also an exceptionally beautiful book, in full colour on every page and laden with photographs, maps, illustrations and panels casting light on this or that item related to the text. Altogether a considerable distance from the first guideline her publisher laid down: “Six black-and-white photos per chapter,” as she says.

We are sitting at her dining table in a room off the little courtyard. It is an old house, with high ceilings, greying whitewash and a shabby-genteel air conveyed by sagging sofas, tubelights and shelves full of books. “Those are not all the books,” she says, helplessly, “they’re all over the place, that’s why the house is a mess with dust everywhere. There’s a huge number of books and they just go on growing.” It’s the age-old lament of the book lover.

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With educated parents, one of whom is the only Indian PM ever with a PhD, Singh grew up surrounded by books. “A lot were books on economics,” she says. “I always found economics extremely boring. I think I was always interested in areas which involved the imagination and were more creative and so I really did seek out my own readings — couldn’t rely on the eco books in the house.”

This is Singh’s sixth book. The first was a scholarly work, but the second was Ancient Delhi (1999), a book intended for the general reader that describes the history of the Delhi region with a great deal of help from archaeology.

“I found it very difficult to write that book,” she says. “It’s a slim volume but believe me I really struggled because I had to literally tell myself to loosen up and and not fall back on the kind of vocabulary and style that I was used to writing in” for academic readers.

“As I taught history and studied history it just seemed fairly obvious that you have to include archaeological data,” particularly since there are few and scattered written sources for ancient India, and none at all for the millennia of pre- and proto-history.

“Then in the 1990s my friend Nayanjot Lahiri [another historian of ancient India] and I did a village-to-village survey in the Faridabad district. This involved archaeological exploration, and this is a project we were involved in for about two years — and that also did spur my interest and awareness of the tremendous importance of material remains of the past.”

Not only does archaeology help fill the gaps in the written record, it also reveals otherwise inaccessible details about the lives of ordinary people. “We’re dealing with real people who lived long ago,” Singh says, so “it’s essential to try and humanise history, otherwise it becomes something very abstract and meaningless for many young people.”

Her favourite page in this book shows a simple neolithic rock painting from Lakhajoar in which a line of prehistoric dancers undulates elegantly but with obvious vigour across the page. The last figure appears to have tripped and fallen!

Using archaeology to help tell her story is just one of the new things Singh has done in this book. It’s the first comprehensive survey of this portion of our history for decades (remember A L Basham and Romila Thapar), so it brings us up to date with the latest research.

But, she avers, “I don’t want to give a seamless narrative. I want to show to the reader how historians construct arguments on the basis of data — how history is written… Very often, surveys of Indian history tend to give you an on-the-surface kind of account, they run roughshod over grey areas, complexities and details, issues where the literary and archaeological data does not quite match. I’ve tried to be up-front about all this.”

She also reflects new trends in research — gender and family life, and religious history in particular. Most crucially, “I’ve tried to communicate with the reader,” punctuating the text with hundreds of images and with dozens of panels with selections from primary sources like “Rig Vedic hymns, inscriptions, Sangam [ancient Tamil] texts”, along with definitions of terms such as “state” and tidbits like the seven kinds of wives according to the Buddha. It’s very easy to be entertained by this history textbook.

Is the new interest in religious history a result of Hindutva? “No, I don’t think so,” says Singh. “I think religion was neglected for a very long time.” In their focus on economic history and marginalised groups, the Marxist historians of the 1970s and 1980s treated religion “as an ideology — there was a lack of interest in religious practices, ideas, doctrines.”

In February this year, Singh had a nasty religion-inspired surprise, from the ideological right. Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists attacked the history department because, they claimed, Singh had edited a book in which an essay by

A K Ramanujan cast doubt on the existence of Rama. Singh was whisked away to safety by the SPG. The allegation wasn’t true anyway, and the university rallied strongly to her defence. It’s hard to see this as much more than an attempt to harm her father the PM, although all she will say is that it was “clearly mischievous”.

Singh is not the first historian to be threatened, nor will she be the last. “We can’t help but be aware that such a situation exists,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean that you stop writing objective history. You just have to face the consequences. What is frightening, apart from the way in which such groups express discontent, is the fact that what they are trying to impose on us is a monolithic — a very monolithic view of the past and of ourselves.”

There’s ideology even in professional history, and it has results as insidious as, if more innocuous than those of fear. “This comes back to my experience as a teacher,” says Singh: “Ideologies have a way of permeating down into the level of the classroom in subtle ways. What students end up doing — even if you’re not told to — [is] parroting what they think is the dominant view or the dominant line in history.”

The ideological “straitjacket” of the teacher “gets passed on to countless individuals who I think then in the long run may lose the ability to think beyond that ideology. I want this book,” she goes on, “to break through this kind of impasse.”

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There’s no break in the scholarly life for this historian. Her husband Vijay Tankha teaches philosophy at St Stephen’s, their older son studies literature there, and the younger son is finishing school. Even dinner-table conversation, which the parents are rarely able to share with both busy sons, revolves around their work.

“My husband and I end up talking a lot about ancient India and Greek philosophy,” and as they say so do they do — while on holiday, “our travelling is to places where you have old monuments… I like going to the seashore and the mountains, but the kind of holiday I really enjoy, where I feel this surge of energy and excitement is if there are ancient monuments in the vicinity.”

Educated in St Stephen’s, taught there for decades, living on campus, holidaying in history, doesn’t she feel cut off from the rest of the world? “I agree this college is to some extent like a little, sheltered cocoon that I’ve lived in for many years. Each part of the college has some association from my student days or from the time I had just joined as a teacher. So I have a very deep connection with this college. At the same time I’m happy that I moved to the university — it’s a very different setup and you’re dealing with research students, which I’m really enjoying.

I now have the time to do some of my own research. I think that it was also very important for me to step outside and have greater interaction with the wider academic and student community.”

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And what of the world of politics — history in the making — of which she has a ringside view? “I do have my ideas and opinions but I’ve always felt firmly rooted and grounded in my own interests and work. So that has not been affected by my father’s position — I wouldn’t want it to be.” She will say, however, that “I was upset that my father was not allowed to speak in the Lok Sabha [during the trust vote debate]. So of course I do get upset. But then you’ve got to move between the different planes and somehow it all hangs together.”

Upinder Singh
PUBLISHER: Pearson Longman
PAGES: xxviii + 678

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