This dhoti wearing  academic in the U.S. knows Indian archaeology from the inside

Ashish Avikunthak

 Few men can give us a better understanding of the  saffronisation of archaeology and the  temple mosque controversy than  Ashish Avikunthak.  He  has spent 20 years researching Indian archaeology, he is a sensitive film maker, social activist, a multi faceted figure.He has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Stanford university,  he teaches archaeology  and film studies in Rhodes Island university in the U.S. and has  just authored a book  Bureaucratic Archaeology about the role of the bureaucracy in the field.

It takes years to get proper results from archaeological excavation, he says. As we sat in a lovely shaded terrace in Shirke Niketan bungalow in  Kandivali suburb Mumbai, he said  it would take thirty years to  properly dig  this  much  terrace space.  But  the field is now  taken over by vested interests and we are going to have more  demands for  digging from  the saffron brigade in the coming years  in pursuit of its agenda, he says.

He is also most unusual  for an academic who has spent so many years in the U.S. He always  wears khadi, a  loose dhoti and kurta, has his hair tied in a bun, has a thick drooping moustache  and he looks more like a  poet, an  artist, a musician.

As someone who has been wearing khadi for nearly 30 years and has sporadically worked on a spinning wheel for the past 25 years, the substitution of Mahatma Gandhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Khadi and Village Industries Commission calendar and diary for 2017 is more disconcerting than the obvious symbolic impudence, something that we as a nation are used to since the coming of Modi, he says

The employment of Modi’s iconography is an explicit politics of obscene propaganda-making, reminiscent of authoritarian regimes across the world throughout history, he says.

Ashish  is a poet and activist at heart.

His real name is  Ashish Chadha,  he is born a Punjabi, his father hailed from  Mardan in  pre partition  Punjab  which came to be   dominated by  Taliban. He  thought Chadha does not make a good surname for a  poet and  coined a new name  Avikunthak. Simplicity is his hallmark, he never uses the prefix Dr to denote his  doctorate, says  film historian  Amrit Gangar who has known him for decades  through his  highly experimental films shown in various international film festivals. Ashish’s wife Debolina is a Bengali film actor .

He says the Hindutva brigade  has little use for  the essence, the good part  Indian culture. For example no other country has such a long  continuus tradition of   orally transferring knowledge for  more than 1500 years as in the case of the Vedas, this is unique. Similar is the case with  ancient Indian philosophy.

Some of our excavations may not have  revealed spectacular monuments, but  there are some  very artistic  objects of high craftsmanship as in Harappa.  He says a people can be highly civilised without   great monuments and a  written script.   Jagannath Puri temple has a continuous  tradition of worship  for one thousand years and Chidambaram  for 800 years.

The Harappa findings have  emboldened the  Hindutva elements  in boosting claims of  our ancient  culture. They are politicising it  and have turned the Dhola vira site in Gujarat into a tourist attraction.

He says archaeology can  only  help us to interpret  the finds from excavated sites. We can never definitely say  a masjid has come up after demolishing a temple.  However,we can say that  remains of a temple were used in the making of a mosque depending on the situation.

To talk with him is to gain a fresh understanding, interpretation of Indian culture and philosophy. And also anecdotes. He says the Narmada river is of much longer historical record than the Ganga and there is a story that the Ganga comes once in a year to the Narmada to purify itself, that story is based  on this  historical   time difference.

For his book he  interviewed a number of   officers of the  archaeological survey of India, the government department. Many were afraid of talking on controversial issues and feared losing their jobs.  That delayed the publication of the book which was written a few years ago but could be published only now  with  some  experts, dead, and others  have retired and are beyond  punitive action.

There are good and bad archaeologists. There are also cases of corruption and CBI investigations. Most of the workers digging the sites are poor adivasis and Dalits and inflated  number of  workers employed on sites is shown in muster rolls, the money pocketed.

He became interested in archaeology when he was greatly disturbed by the demolition of the Babri masjid. These were his days of activism. He  worked among  communal  riot victims as also in the Narmada struggle. Fortunately, it was easy to get admission in the prestigious Deccan college in Pune  in the  1990s.

Then he studied in the U.S. and  after that there is no looking back.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book on public transport


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