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