Dharma and the Past: Engaging with Prof Romila Thapar

Professor Romila Thapar graciously consented to visit the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH), Manipal University in January 2015. She had expressed surprise and pleasure that her work was to be engaged with by scholars who were not only historians, but also philosophers, political scientists and literary critics. She added that the format itself was unusual: the format consisted of each of the scholars picking one text of Professor Thapar’s, and asking her three questions about it. These questions were mailed to Professor Thapar a month in advance, and she prepared her response. On the day of the presentations, each scholar presented the chosen text to the audience (and part of this presentation included a summary and orientation to the text as the larger public audience may not have been familiar with the text). The presentation ended with the aforementioned questions. Prof. Thapar responded to the general presentation as well as the questions for around twenty minutes, after which the floor was thrown open to the larger audience for questions. The audience consisted of students from MCPH, and the larger Manipal University and Udupi communities, as well as around fifteen students who had been nationally selected to participate in the program.

The first speaker was Professor Raghuramaraju of the University of Hyderabad, who had chosen to speak to on Syndicated Hinduism. This was followed by Prof Sarukkai, MCPH who spoke on “Time as Metaphor”, and finally for the day, Prof Gopal Guru, JNU, who spoke on “Recasting Constructs”. The next day Prof Devika, CDS Trivandrum, as well as Nikhil Govind, MCPH spoke on “The Past Before Us”. Prof Rajan Gurukkal, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Bangalore spoke more generally on the notion of epistemic encounters, and the last presentation was Gayathri Prabhu, MCPH on the many reconfigurations of Sakuntala. Prof Gurukkal and Prof Devika have been former students of Prof Thapar at JNU, and of course, all of the other speakers had, in a way, been familiar with the towering work and presence of Prof Thapar throughout their career. There was a final hour where the selected student participants, as well as the general public, could make interventions, or ask questions.

The program was also leavened by cultural programs—an exquisite presentation of a section of the tenth century Ranna’s Mahabharata by Chandrashekhara Kedlaya, famed exponent of gamaka, and a student performance (by Snehajaya Karanth and GC Madhu, MCPH of select vacana-sahitya of medieval Kannada Bhakti poets).

Professor Thapar generously stated that the event was enjoyable for her, and she felt that all the disciplines of the humanities (history, philosophy, political science, literature, sociology) had much to gain from an increased and sharpened interdisciplinarity.

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