Historian Chithra Madhavan on sifting through the mists of time to bring history alive to a new-age audience
Edward Gibbons took 13 years to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, spanning seven centuries and three continents. The acclaimed book sits plumb on a glass shelf, jostling for space in her hall filled with a bronzed figurine of Krishna’s nag nrithya, wooden replicas of Hampi’s horse pillars and gold foil and bejewelled Tanjore paintings of Rama’s pattabhishekham. It’s a microcosm of the world that historian Chithra Madhavan has inhabited for nearly four decades now.
Author of seven books — on the history and culture of Tamil Nadu, the Vishnu temples of South India, Sanskrit education in ancient and medieval periods — and compiler of tomes on sculpture and the Srirangam temple, Madhavan’s rare interest in Ancient Indian history was piqued when she was a child. “I had always been interested, even in the junior classes when studying at Sishya. But it was in Class VIII that I was fascinated with the Indus Valley civilisation. This was followed by family trips to temples across South India and I was stunned by the architecture. I knew then: this was what I wanted to do,” says the historian, who recently wrapped up a series of evening lectures in the city.
Although she scored more in Economics as a higher secondary student, it was History that she chose to graduate in from Ethiraj College. “My parents were supportive but others felt there was no future. In India, what does one do as a historian? One had the option to become a lecturer, but how many had the choice to do that?” she asks.
The true historian is moved by curiosity, and goes beyond memorising the litany of kings, queens and battles. The path that Madhavan decided to traverse led her to a Masters and MPhil from the University of Madras — where she also chose to study numismatics and epigraphics — and a PhD from the University of Mysore on the Sanskrit inscriptions of Tamil Nadu. This she followed up with a post-doctoral fellowship from the Indian Council for Historical Research.
“The guidance of my mother, a scholar in Sanskrit, was a huge advantage. This period in History is an amazingly interesting one. But it’s the way it’s presented, in a dry manner, that chases the student away,” she rues.
Wanderlust teamed with academia has driven Madhavan to take history into the open, to audiences as varied as children in museums and students at Kalakshetra and the Asian College of Journalism, to disparate adults who want a slice of culture. “My focus is on temple architecture, sculptures and inscription. It’s a combination that gives us the best picture of Tamil Nadu. It’s an evolving world: new archaeological findings happen often enough. Recently, a Chola copperplate inscription from the 11th Century was discovered in Mayavaram.”
‘Catch them young’
While Madhavan agrees that students in India rarely initiate the process of historical findings, there is no dearth of interest. “At Kalakshetra, a paper on heritage is compulsory for students of music, dance and the visual arts. I would like to see more students take it up as a mainstream profession,” she says.
“The onus to catch them young is on schools and parents. We need to imitate the West in this regard. Their museums draw crowds because the children are introduced to their past early on. The Bronze Gallery at the Government Museum, Egmore, has treasures made of the lost wax process. The mould is broken after each is made, and while there are similar pieces, there is never the exact same one. The museum also has an incredible number of copperplate inscriptions. It is easier to draw the young in now, with so many Internet tools easily available,” says Madhavan, who is keen that temples, which also serve as sites of history, have plaques detailing their authentic past.
Madhavan is currently researching lesser-known temples, such as the Vada Madurai temple in Tiruvallur district with its miniature Ramayana panels, and recently concluded a series of lectures on birds and animals as gods, vahanas and as exotic creatures. “Talks help keep interest alive,” she says, counting the terracotta temples of Bishnupur on her must-see list.
And, is there a favourite? “Hampi…any number of times. There is the Tungabhadra, Nature, ruins, temples of worship, stray sculptures. There’s history in those hills.”
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