K. Nitya Devayya
Where is history?
Growing up, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who enjoyed creative pursuits and engaging in the social sciences. It certainly created an environment that shaped my appreciation and curiosity in the arts. While my peers were confused about which academic stream to choose for high school, I knew from an early age that my calling would lie somewhere in the vast field of the humanities. However, the decision of what to select within that wide and deep pool was the next challenge, and influenced my choice to seek admission at Ashoka University. I was promised a chance to try out a range of subjects, to see if my interest lay in, to mention a few, English, Sociology/Anthropology, Environmental Sciences, or History. Upon entering college, the foundation courses were my first taste of understanding that these disciplinary divisions were arbitrary. Our professors did their best to introduce us to different sources, media, and theories of interpretation, placing value on cross-disciplinary interactions to better understand the complex and chaotic world we live in.
As a first-year student, this was a big jump from what was taught to us in school, which had been text-book based and exam-oriented. Nonetheless, it took a few semesters to get a hang of how to approach my academics, which also changed the ways I began to read the world around me. An important thing I’ve learnt is to ask myself - what is it that I know, how do I know it, who is telling me what to know, and why are they telling me to know it? Trying to understand the process of knowledge production and transmission is a helpful tool to keep in mind in order to sift through the cacophony of information that floods our senses these days. Be it questioning the daily news, identifying harmful tropes perpetuated by beloved popular culture, or confronting family practices that I took for granted, the conscious attempt to think critically was encouraged by what I was learning from my professors and peers in college.
By my third semester I had decided, with some hesitancy, to declare History as my major. I use the word “hesitancy” because I was still unclear about the value of the subject in today’s time. However, the different courses I took at Ashoka across disciplines gave me some perspective to see the influence of history in our daily lives. Perhaps most evident is the role of art and media in using a genre like historical fiction to present narratives of the past, powerful enough to evoke strong emotion and action with consequences in real life. A personal interest of mine is in the power of archives, museums and memorials as public markers of history. They offer a tangible medium to draw our attention to the past and affect the way we look at our own histories and our relationships in the present with other humans, non-humans, and the environment.
I have come to understand that history is important because stories are important. All cultures narrate stories to give meaning to their practices, traditions, and provide explanations for their existence. The past is given value because it offers a way to legitimize claims as we negotiate the present. Since the present keeps changing, so do our needs, and the way we read the past also reflects that. As people try to reconstruct the past, “facts”, whether something happened or not, if they are “true” or “false”, are influenced by the positions we hold in the present, our socio-political identities, and what we believe is at stake. The different sides in a conflict will look at a shared history and concentrate on different evidences, sources, and modes of interpretation in order to justify their contesting claims and actions.
Reading the historian is equally essential for reading history. The historian, or the interpreter and communicator of the past, is ultimately a human with deep roots in the present. Their unique subjectivity will directly affect how they read and present their theories to the public. The public then reads the history while grappling with their own subjectivities. The potential that this has to impact beliefs, prejudices, attitudes and actions is immense and, based on how you look at it, can be terrifying or inspiring.
So where do I see history today? History is not something that is relegated to dry textbooks and inaccessible scholarly research. It is something that is imbued in everything around us; among others, it is present in art, religion, war, family, clothing, food, language, the way societies choose to represent themselves, govern themselves, and through the frames of references we use to navigate the world around us. For better or for worse, it is impossible for us to separate history from any thought or action that we make. To not recognize that is foolish and to not believe in it is dangerous.
(Reproduced as received; not edited by Permanent Black)