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Various Strands of History  Nov 06, 2015

As a part of the tenth year celebrations of IISER Pune, four talks were organized and hosted by the institute from 30th October 2015 to 2nd November 2015. The speakers were (in the order of presentation) Professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Professor Nayanjot Lahiri, Dr Jonathan Turney, and Professor Mahesh Rangarajan. The lectures come under the larger lecture series of “Science and Beyond.”

   Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair             Professor Nayanjot Lahiri                    Dr Jonathan Turney                 Prof. Mahesh Rangarajan

Professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s talk was the first of this set; she delivered her lecture on 30th October. She is currently Professor of Linguistics and English at IIT Delhi. She spoke on “Imaginaries of Ignorance: Five Ideas of the University and the Place of the Humanities Within Them”. In her talk, she outlined five models or templates of universities, each distinct from the other, based on the role each template envisages for the humanities within its syllabus and within its broader ethos. This role is in keeping with what an institute of higher learning deems its role in society to be. She also traced the history of the modern university in India, bringing in examples from all over the country. Professor Nair also raised the definitions commonly ascribed to the seemingly dichotomous terms, knowledge and ignorance, and how this binary determines the very nexus of higher education.

The second talk on 30th October was by Professor Nayanjot Lahiri, who is one of India’s leading archaeologists and currently a Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi. Prof Lahiri has recently published a biography on Emperor Ashoka (Ashoka in Ancient India, Permanent Black), and her talk, titled “Ashoka: Interweaving Archaeology with the Emperor’s Story” delineated the process of teasing out and consolidating the personal and political persona of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka from archaeological remains such as his stone edicts and other historical writings. Professor Lahiri emphasized the importance of context in the re-creation of a historical personage and also examined how this context could be used to speculate on the moorings of the common people of the time.

How the future has been imagined and created in the past in certain select instances was the focus of Dr Jonathan Turney’s talk. Dr Turney’s talk, held on 31st October, was part of the academic collaboration between IISER Pune and the British Council. Dr Turney is a science writer, reviewer, and editor. His talk “Futurama: does the past cloud our thinking about the futures to come?” had examples ranging from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York (which eventually led to the rapid construction of highways in the US) to advertisements about flying cars released as recently as 2014. He argued that it is impossible to think of the future without also simultaneously invoking the past. The contexts relevant to the past are often responsible for how we imagine the future will be like.

The last talk in this series was held on 2nd November. The speaker was Professor Mahesh Rangarajan, until recently Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Prof Rangarajan’s talk was titled “Nature and Nation: Framing Wildlife Society Relations in an Emerging Economy.” He wove a narrative using several instances of world history wherein wildlife, flora and fauna have played a crucial role in creating national (and state) identities. He also raised the issue of national boundaries which may or may not comply with ecological spreads. Furthermore, boundaries created around nature may appear protective, but the matter of protection is never quite as straightforward. The talk also touched upon conflicts that arise, especially in developing nations, with regard to infrastructure deemed essential for economic development on the one hand and ecological conservation on the other. He highlighted landmark policy decisions adopted in independent India with regard to ecology, but also pointed out how it is rare to find policies that have not adversely impacted some group or other.

- Reported by Pooja Sancheti