Romila Thapar: Interpreter of things past
The Kluge Prize is another feather in the cap of the acclaimed historian
Historian Romila Thapar was chosen for the 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in
the study of Humanity instituted by the United States Library of Congress recently.
Emeritus Professor of History at New Delhi's Jawaharla Nehru University, 77-year-old Romila will share the $1- million award with Peter Robert Lamont Brown, 73-year-old
Professor of History at Princeton University. Thapar is a well-known name in the world of academics, whose writings have profoundly changed the way India's past is understood both at home and abroad.
According to the Library of Congress, Romila and Brown brought "dramatically new perspective to understand vast sweeps of geographical territory and a millennium or more of time in, respectively, Europe and the Middle East, and in the Indian sub-continent".
Romila "created a new and more pluralistic view of Indian civilisation, which had seemed
more unitary and unchanging, by scrutinising its evolution over two millennia and searching
out its historical consciousness".
At the beginning of her career, Romila challenged the conventional historiography. In her
'History of India' (1966), she broke from the prominently held view of an unchanging India,
characterised by a past and static golden age. This work accelerated the adaptation of the
social sciences in Indian universities and became a standard teaching text in Indian schools.
Romila opposed the rewriting of history text books to espouse the agenda of the party in
power during the NDA rule — 1998 to 2004. This in her opinion was an attempt to propagate
a revisionist history in classrooms and political discourse.
"Once we accept one religious group's agenda and beliefs to be taught in public schools, it
opens the door for every other group to do the same thing. As educators, we have to make a
distinction between history on the one hand, which involves questioning existing knowledge
about the past where necessary, and faith on the other, where even myths are acceptable, the
two have to be kept separate. The first is the domain of the historian and the second that of a
priest", says the noted historian.
Romila declined to accept the Padma Bhushan twice — in 2005 and 1992. In a letter to the
then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, she said: "I only accept the awards from academic
institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards".