The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. ~ Robert Frost
Considered to be the world’s foremost scholar on the history of Early India, Romila Thapar, has spent 60 years of her rich life teaching. She started her career as a Reader in Ancient Indian History at Kurukshetra University (1961-62), followed by a stint at the University of Delhi in the same position till 1970.
After which she joined the of late started Jawaharlal Nehru University as Professor of Ancient Indian History. Here Prof. Thapar created a curriculum for History at the postgraduate level, which would include discussions and debates, open for all ideas and intellectually vibrant. Thapar along with some early colleagues of hers is the sole reason for the glory the Centre of Historical Studies has seen.
In a conversation with Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative, Prof. Thapar said, “with every branch of knowledge, it is essential to realize that you have to ask questions. That you have to question the existing knowledge and unless you question the existing knowledge, you cannot go any further.” Thapar and her colleagues had envisioned a way to have a healthy tradition of public discussion and questioning. Tagging her just as a historian will be an understatement. She has been a public intellectual, activist, feminist, and dedicated practitioner of the historian’s craft.
Prof. Thapar was a student of English literature at Panjab University in Shimla before becoming the master of the historian’s craft. As a young girl, her father Daya Ram Thapar offered her to choose between dowry for her marriage or money for a degree; deciding to pursue higher education, she has never looked back. She wanted to join the University of Oxford, she sat for the entrance, but they said she was substandard and refused to admit her. She made her mind and joined the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and earned a Doctorate in History in 1958 under Dr. A.L. Basham titled ‘Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas’ which came out as a book in 1961.
After she finished her Ph.D. in 1958, she was offered to stay on and teach at SOAS in a temporary position, which she took and then returned to India in 1961.
Thapar, above all her achievements, is a resilient, unapologetic, independent woman who challenged a patriarchal world, faced attacks on her scholarship from the extremists, not hindering her dedication towards doing an honest job as a historian – asking questions relentlessly. Her work on Asoka as an Emperor challenged all the existing scholarships of the 50s and shaped the conversation of future works on Asoka.
She tried to reassess Asoka both as a statesman who inherited and sustained a large Mauryan empire and as a person who had strong beliefs in changing society through what seems to have been a concern for social ethics. Over these years as an academic, she has widened her research interests from understanding empires and the making of societies and cultures and their interactions to how history has been written and perceived, the historiography and most recently the contemporary past and the relationship of the Past and the Present along with the history of Dissent in India.
At 89, she is ever so elegant, graceful, and humble. I first saw Prof. Thapar at an event at the University of Chicago, Centre in Delhi, but interacted only when we invited her to deliver the Karwaan Distinguished Lecture in September 2020 titled ‘Writing the Early Indian History’ marking her six decades in academia. Her house is home to not just her humble being, but to an immeasurable collection of books, any reader would be fascinated by. As I conclude this article, I am reminded of a phrase by Khushwant Singh to perfectly introduce Prof. Romila Thapar to the readers, ‘she is like the winter landscape in the mountains.’ On November 30, this year, Prof. Thapar will be completing ninety years of her rich life.
Feature Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons