Exploring history, Harappan-style

A series of lectures delves into Harappan civilisation’s ancient art, technology and the future of excavations
Representational image of Harappan civilisation. (File photo)
Representational image of Harappan civilisation. (File photo)

CHENNAI: Years before, I drowsily dozed off during high school history lessons or painstakingly camouflaged racy Sidney Sheldon paperbacks within the thick pages of my textbook, a graphic novel chronicling two Gallic warriors introduced me to histories of the world. Albeit fictionalised, the colourful panels of ‘Asterix and Cleopatra’ acquainted me with Egypt’s governance, their monarch’s long nose and her love for pearly vinegar drinks, and a poisonous slavery system. Like most children, the limestone and granite pyramid captured my attention.

Miles away from the Egyptian civilisation, Harappan architects may not have built pyramids but they were more competent and considered the best civil engineers, says Professor Vasant Shinde fellow at the CSIR Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. “They could have created pyramids but their philosophy was different. They always thought these monuments or sculptures were of no use to the common people. While the Harappans cared for common people, the Egyptians cared for their kingship,” he states. The Harappans, whose settlement was located in the Saraswathi Basin, retained a democratic system and a slight social hierarchy, he adds during a lecture titled ‘Origin and Development of Harappan Craft and Technology.’

Perhaps, if graphic novelists Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny could have travelled to the future and sat next to me at the last row of the CP Art Centre on #1 Eldams Road on Friday, they would have listened, mesmerised. Perhaps, they could have crafted another volume as an ode to the Harappans who made the first Indian curries. The civilisation has a lengthy list of firsts to their name: the namaste tradition and yoga, processing cheese, and wool.

As history buffs and curious crowds alike walk into the art centre, they are greeted by intricate Thanjavur paintings and the images of the Ramayana and Mahabharata on the wall. A keenly trained eye would be able to mark out the artwork and mythology. Light showered in from windows above the room, its architecture of old Mylapore houses.

Researchers during a seminar on  the Indus Valley civilisation  at CP Art Centre | P JawahaR
Researchers during a seminar on  the Indus Valley civilisation  at CP Art Centre | P JawahaR

‘Lady luck to the rescue’
If Uderzo and Goscinnny required a reference on the features of the Harappan people, Dr Vasant would be the best person to question. The researcher took part in the DNA reconstruction of the people in the settlements in Farmana and Rakhigarhi. After finding who he refers to as Lady Luck — the skeletal remains of a 34-year-old “possibly affluent” woman — a pathway into understanding the origins opened up. “There were different hypotheses from scholars like Marshall who believed that the Harappans came from the West. We thought it should be indigenous people but had no scientific data, only skeletal remains as the only way to study DNA. We eventually succeeded at Rakhigarhi, a site near Haryana,” he explains.

Subsequently, the findings published in the international journal ‘Cell’ uncovered that the Harappan civilisation found its roots “from local foragers rather than from large-scale migration from the West.” However, the many challenges during their hunt for genomes and DNA included a lack of preservation of organic matter and potential and actual contamination scares. “Finding data is like cooking rice,” laughs Vasant.

Data aside, the civilisation had a dearth of technologies in 2,500 BC, including the world’s first commode, an efficient drainage system, and a modern swimming pool. Referring to the check dams that the Harappans installed to harness water and avoid flooding, the CSIR fellow says this could be employed in desert areas. “As archaeologists, we must help nation building.” However, not all perished with the Harappans. Oral narratives have survived and are narrated in India. The best example, as he explains, is the story of the hungry crow. While the Harappans may have immortalised it on a vase, grandparents across the country employ it as a cautionary tale for young ones.

Musical notes on history
While our history textbooks detail money, occupation, and the famous ancient Dancing Girl, musician and Homi Bhabha fellow Shail Vyas points out that music is bound to arise from any human settlements. Can the trade and culture of the Indus Valley be traced with musical instruments? He would not just ardently agree but would come equipped with 10 instruments, of a possible 21, recreated from the Harappans with complex but nearly familiar tunes. Shail plays a video for the audience: the haunting twinges of the strings of a lyre now lost in the past, closely followed by the bass drum beats of a hand drum-like instrument, and then slowly a violin and finally, a flute. All the instruments meld as an orchestra from times long gone.

In 2011, as Shail began his ambitious research in Harappan archeo-musicology, he realised the topic had remained a passing reference in publications. Researchers had mostly left the evolution of Indian traditional music unexamined. “My objective was to know about the instruments, recreate them and use them in music productions today so there can be a revival of them and not just exist as a theoretical framework. The only way instruments can come back to life is when we need to find ways to use them in modern music,” Shail says in his lecture ‘Harappa Archaeo-musicology — its reflections in contemporary Mesopotamian texts and implications in the identification of Harappan trade objects’.

What did these instruments look like? Much like today, zoomorphism and anthropomorphism heavily influenced artistic thought, he states. Thus follows pictures of extensive collections of wind instruments shaped like snakes and peacock-shaped string instruments speckled with multicoloured feathers.

The names of musical instruments travel across regions following their tunes, Shail says. Skimming past Sanskrit names of Harappan instruments and Sumerian names of ones originating from Mohenjo-daro, the musician flags the several linguistic similarities that suggest evidence of cultures mixing (like mrja and meze being drum). Shail hit several roadblocks in his research — the scarcity of evidence, attempting to avoid hypothesis and the perishable nature of the materials of the instruments. “Music has never been studied like this and we’ve never understood how useful the arts can be in understanding history and it’s been neglected a lot,” he says.

Flair for art
“The Harappans aimed at perfection and showed a flair for art. Their seals are masterpieces and so much thought has gone into their art…the artists have closely studied the anatomy of animals, whether mythical or not,” remarks TS Subramanian, retired associate editor of The Hindu. He begins his story with the curious invention recently excavated at the entrance of Dholavira’s northern gate. With ten letters, the world’s first signboard would glow in the dark and gleam due to white gypsum, he added in his session titled ‘Art in the Harappan Civilisation.’

Equipped with 28 slides on a PowerPoint presentation of exclusive photographs of the ancient civilisation’s pottery and arrowheads, the history writer shows the audience there is much to learn from the past. Subramanian poses questions to the audience that remain mysteries, how did the Harappan civilisation polish their gold when they had no sandpaper, or how did they cut rocks with great precision when lacking modern tools? How did they carve out intricate signs of elephants on a 1cm minuscule seal?

“The civilisation is full of riddles and enigmas,” he repeatedly mentions in a mantra-like fashion, never forgetting to cite differing accounts of excavations themselves, whether the son of a famous researcher was present or the accounts of former director general of Archaeology John Marshall. Quoting an example of a rudimentary terracotta cake, Subramanian points out even the Harappans’ basic and crudest inventions could be considered art. He paints a picture: In the biting cold winters, mothers would keep these cakes on charcoal, and once warm, this artifact would keep milk warm for the children. “They’re thoughtful,” he ponders out loud.

Possibility of future excavations
“Only 25% of Mohenjo-daro has been excavated,” Subramanian points out, adding that over 70% of the site has marvels yet to be discovered. According to Vasant, “While we have not excavated the site of Rakhigarhi on a large scale, it’s hard to maintain. Mohenjo-daro was declared a world heritage site but was hard to maintain...the method they developed there pays attention to the different climates. We met local people in Mohenjo-daro and found out they were carrying out the traditional conservation method. So we suggested the best method was local conservation.”

Stepping out of the auditorium with facts, I wonder if Uderzo and Goscinnny would have answers to a question. Where do the innate human adoration for history and the thrumming excitement for stories come from?

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express