Rebuilding the past: Memory against history

Be it a religious or secular monument, the conservation and preservation are meticulously carried out, the premises are made admirably clean and uncluttered.

Published: 22nd June 2021 12:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd June 2021 12:46 AM   |  A+A-

Visitors at an architectural site in Aihole, Karnataka.

Visitors at an architectural site in Aihole, Karnataka.

For the last few decades, we have been living through a certain culture of remembrance marked by an obsessive fascination with history. It manifests itself in a variety of cultural practices. To mention a few, there are a very good number of contemporary artists across the country producing works based on photographs of recent history. Painting the images from the life of Gandhi represents a glaring example. Another is the urge to copy the photographs of the family album. Photographic or painted images that seek to evoke a sense of childhood memories also make their pronounced presence. This apart, some others set themselves to copying the works of the old masters (Ravi Varma, for instance) in an attempt to reinterpret them through their compositions, or quotational paintings as they are sometimes called.

This is not only a strange case of art. It is equally striking to see that the state of Kerala, to cite another example, has undertaken in recent years a massive project of museumisation of the cultural and historical past. There are large and small-scale museums based on a variety of new-fangled themes, “as if there were no tomorrow”, to use Hermann Lubbe’s words.

This memorial sensibility, so to speak, is much more visible in the rebuilding of historical sites across the country. To catch a glance of it, take any important historical site like the Qutub Minar, Sanchi Stupa, or the temple architecture of Khajuraho, Konarak, Aihole, Pattadakal, etc. Until a few decades ago, these monuments had a deserted look. They hardly appeared ‘worth-seeing’ for the general public (except for those who had either historical or antiquarian interest). People rather found themselves to be happy with moving into landscapes or seascapes for their unique natural beauty.

However, historical sites in recent years have come to play an important role in our contemporary culture. Be it a religious or secular monument, the conservation and preservation are meticulously carried out, the premises are made admirably clean and uncluttered; all the more, the monument is made to be seen in the midst of a lavishing landscape with exotic flowers, lawn, turf and a variety of plants and trees spreading over the entire premises. Through this process the whole ‘site of history’ has been virtually transformed into a ‘site of seeing’ by making it an extraordinarily beautiful place—as beautiful as the Taj Mahal.

Landscaped garden at a historical site in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.

On this score, what is to be seen and experienced is not only the given monument but the entire site itself. This in fact comes to reduce the historical past to a useful material, an inevitable presence for providing amazing visual delight that the site seeks to offer. So much so that the monument of a given site on the one hand loses its historicity, and on the other, assumes an enormous presence as a visual image of the past but oriented towards deepening the experience associated with the landscape beauty.

A historical site, for this matter, is incessantly crowded over today. It seems to be nearly impossible for one to concentrate on the monument proper to observe it for whatever reason, because one’s attention may be disturbed by the disquieting presence of crowds all the time, all around. Moreover, as the site sets the tone for a festive mood, after a cursory look, the visitors seem to be more interested in spending time in the picturesque landscape. They stroll and roll over there rejoicing, and find themselves engrossed with shooting multiple selfies and videos with a mob-camera set on a selfie-stick. In all these, what in fact should have been the predominant presence and preoccupation with the monument as a reference point has now been taken to be an idyllic setting for joyful moments.

This accounts for the fact that it no longer brings about real memories or a strong sense of history. It rather helps create an illusion of history in which the monument is miraculously turned into a spectacle for instant entertainment. Although we may tend to look at this spectacularisation as an accidental side effect of the way history is re-presented, in reality it is not so. It is obviously an intended result of the strategy carefully administered by cultural tourism that has set the same in motion in heritage tourism, spiritual tourism, ecotourism, adventure tourism, etc. This comes to explain largely why museumisation and memorial practices fail to have a reinvigorating force in shaping our memory as a record of deep experience of history. What is left out is certain pastness that is made felt through its glittering images. Hence we have “the Incredible India”. The “incredible” is reborn and made felt time and again. The past has become the present—remembrance in the midst of deep forgetfulness, or memory against history.

‘‘Remembrance of things past is not necessarily remembrance of things as they were,’’ said Marcel Proust. It resonates more meaningfully now.

Chandran T V.

Art critic and author. Teaches art history at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram



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