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Custodian of heritage

Published : Jan 14, 2011 00:00 IST

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Gautam Sengupta: We will try to refine our tools and techniques and identify areas that need greater attention.-V. SUDERSHAN

Gautam Sengupta: We will try to refine our tools and techniques and identify areas that need greater attention.-V. SUDERSHAN

Interview with Gautam Sengupta, Director-General of the ASI, as the organisation prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

THE Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which will turn 150 in 2011, is a vibrant, multifaceted organisation tasked with research in archaeology and the protection of India's cultural heritage. Its activities cover a stunning range: excavation of archaeological sites, conservation of ancient monuments, epigraphy, numismatics, underwater archaeology, survey of temples, administration of museums including site museums, publishing, study of antiquities, running well-stocked libraries, and so on. The archaeological sites and ancient monuments that it protects include Harappan sites, Jaina sites, Buddhist sites and stupas, temples, mosques, churches, forts, sites with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, rock-art sites, and megalithic sites that have dolmens, menhirs, and cairn circles. It has a Chemical Branch for chemically treating and preserving monuments and murals and a Horticultural Branch to beautify the locale around its protected monuments. It has a Prehistory Branch and a Building Survey Project.

The ASI has an academic side too, with its Institute of Archaeology in New Delhi offering a two-year postgraduate programme focussed on archaeology, epigraphy and numismatics. Its archaeologists have proved their expertise abroad, especially in the challenging task of conserving huge monuments that were in ruins in Cambodia, Vietnam, Angola and Afghanistan. With megalithic sites and monuments scattered all over India, the ASI's responsibilities are enormous although it is running low on human resources.

The ASI comes under the Union Ministry of Culture. Frontline met its Director-General, Gautam Sengupta, in October 2010 to learn about his plans for the 150th anniversary celebrations, the areas the organisation will concentrate on, the course it will take in the coming years, the threat to historic monuments and archaeological sites from granite quarrying, urbanisation and industrialisation, and so on.

Before taking over as the Director-General of the ASI, Sengupta worked as Director of Archaeology and Museums, West Bengal, and Member-Secretary, Centre for Archaeological Studies and Training (CAST), Eastern India. He taught ancient Indian history and archaeology at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan; North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong; and the University of Calcutta. He presided over the Archaeology section of the 1995 session of the Indian History Congress. His areas of specialisation include Historical Archaeology and Art History with special reference to Eastern and North Eastern India. He has published extensively in India and abroad. Among his important works are The Eloquent Earth; Treasures of the State Archaeological Museum, West Bengal; and An Annotated Archaeological Atlas of West Bengal.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is your vision for the Archaeological Survey of India as it completes 150 years of existence in 2011? What area of research will you concentrate on?

I will give you a fairly lengthy reply. The 150th year is important for any organisation, more so for the ASI because it is directly related to the rediscovery and interpretation of India's past. It is also related to the management and conservation of our rich heritage.

Let me reiterate that the ASI is committed to its agenda, which has evolved historically over 150 years that is, exploration, excavation, conservation, preservation, museum management, publication, and so on. Although I talk about these four or five broad categories, they will automatically accommodate specialised domains such as epigraphy, paintings, etc. In the 150th year of the ASI, we will try to make a modest attempt to review our performance and do a stocktaking. We will continue to work on the given agenda.

We will try to refine our tools and techniques, identify areas that need greater attention and make a modest attempt in developing an effective coordination this is an important point with all practitioners of archaeology. This will mean State governments, universities, research institutes and individuals who are into this job.

In the last meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology held in December 2009, the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh] gave a kind of a mandate to the ASI to reach out to universities, State governments, research institutes and academia, and we are committed to it. The Prime Minister is also the Union Minister for Culture.

So, apart from doing our own job, we will take up the responsibility of developing an effective coordination with all the stakeholders in archaeology. This does not mean that the ASI at present is working in isolation. What I am suggesting is that there is a felt need for a more effective, vibrant and dynamic communication with all those involved in the craft and practice of archaeology.

There will be special public functions, national seminars, conferences, exhibitions and other programmes to celebrate the ASI's 150th anniversary. There is already a national committee in place. So we will consult the national committee, domain experts, a cross-section of professionals, whoever is interested in India's past, and formulate a schedule and programme through which we will be able to reach out to whoever is interested in India's archaeology and past.

The ASI is contributing to the National Mission for Monuments and Antiquities' (NMMA) ongoing effort to document the hundreds of archaeological sites in India. Many megalithic sites which have dolmens, menhirs, cist burials and cairn circles have been discovered on the outskirts of Chennai and Madurai, and in many Tamil Nadu districts. What steps are you taking to document them and prevent their disappearance due to urbanisation and industrialisation?

This is a very important issue. The NMMA deals with our heritage. But the best way to document these heritage sites is published sources and other materials. The NMMA's agenda does not involve revisiting the sites and tallying with the published reports because it will take a long time.

We will activate our Building Survey projects. Using the same principle enunciated by the Prime Minister, we will tie up with universities, research institutes, learned bodies and various voluntary groups that are working in heritage documentation or management.

We are trying to bring out a number of volumes that focus on historical or heritage buildings. This will be some kind of elaboration or extension of our Temple Survey projects, for which the ASI is a highly dependable source. Just like the Temple Survey projects, we are trying to revitalise our Building Survey projects too. That will supplement the database that is being generated by the NMMA.

Again, this is very important. The fast pace of industrialisation and urbanisation is indeed posing a threat to monuments and our built heritage. But the ASI's authority, legally speaking, is restricted to 3,675 nationally protected monuments. A positive amendment has been brought in 2010 in the existing Act [the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958]. Once this is implemented with all its vigour, it will act as a positive step in safeguarding the monuments and their surroundings.

But let me also try and reach out to everybody through you. Beyond these 3,675 monuments, there are several thousand monuments, some of which are protected by State governments. Let us accept that conservation of a very large number of built heritage cannot be handled by State governments or the ASI alone. Civil society, voluntary groups and learned bodies have their own role, and they should try to support our initiatives in protecting and safeguarding our past.

Under the amended Act, a National Monuments Authority (NMA) has to be set up and the ASI Director-General has to conduct a survey of the prohibited area (100 metres from the protected monument) and the regulated area (200 m beyond the 100 m of the prohibited area) of the 3,675 nationally protected monuments to prepare their site plans. Have you started this process to detect encroachments, new constructions and granite quarries in these areas ?

Yes. The ASI has its own database, Circlewise, on the monuments under its protection. The prohibited area of 100 m and the regulated area of 200 m beyond the 100 m have been further strengthened to ensure better security and more visibility to the protected monuments and their surroundings. The Act is not even six months old. It came into force on April 1, 2010.

Given its inadequate manpower, the ASI cannot do it alone [the ground survey on the encroachments and violations]. Instead we have, with the active support of the Union Ministry of Culture, issued advertisements on expression of interest and we have got excellent response for the ground survey. We have set up an experts' team with well-known professionals in the domains concerned and we have had our first meeting. We have done the first round of scrutiny of papers on the expression of interest.

We had a meeting of the experts' committee including those from INTACH [Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage]. They have spelt out a set of parameters and guidelines on the basis of which we will soon assign works to different bidders. These bidders include institutions with excellent track record in surveying. They are well-known architects and institutions. This is a completely transparent exercise, involving not only the ASI but the Ministry of Culture, civil society and domain experts.

Frontline' published a story in July 17, 2009, on the Tamil-Brahmi site at Tiruvadavur, near Madurai, that is being vandalised by granite quarries in the prohibited and regulated areas of this protected monument.

I read that article.

The story made the State government stop the quarrying, but the quarry owners went to court saying that the original lease agreement with the State Mining Department mentioned 50 m as the safe distance. The Madras High Court allowed their plea and so the quarrying has resumed now. How can you stop the quarrying?

Let me tell you that the ASI is a highly understaffed organisation. The government is aware of the problem and is making its best efforts to strengthen the ASI by providing additional manpower. Whatever may be the extent of additional manpower, such problems cannot be tackled by government initiatives alone. Unless civil society comes forward to defend our heritage, there is very little hope for our monuments. I am not saying this in order to evade our responsibility. Monuments in remote areas are guarded by one attendant. In many cases, the nationally protected monuments do not have the minimum requirement of attendants. So by the time the communication reaches the authorities, the damage is already done.

As I said earlier, the ASI must put in its best efforts to stop these. But civil society and people in the neighbourhood too should take proactive steps on these matters. The ASI or the State governments cannot really make much progress on their own.

Have the ASI circles started issuing demolition notices to illegal constructions within the prohibited and regulated areas of its protected monuments?

Yes. For example, if you go to Vijay Mandal in New Delhi. Many of the illegal buildings in Vijay Mandal have been demolished. Legally, I cannot issue demolition notices. The ASI is not a demolition brigade. Unless we are provided with the necessary manpower from the law-enforcing authority, we cannot act. In many cases we get excellent support, and where we get excellent support, we have always acted on them.

Will you demand that the ASI be given the power to arrest those who deface and mutilate protected monuments or build illegal constructions in prohibited and regulated areas?

I cannot respond on this immediately. This is a legal issue. Will gaining more power really help? Unless there is an active civil society which will stand by you, an active neighbourhood which shares your cause as its cause, hardly anything is gained by more power.

On the Ayodhya issue, what did the ASI's report to the Allahabad High Court say?

I have not seen the court's verdict. I cannot comment on that.

The Times of India' reported that the ASI report said that a massive Hindu religious structure existed there [Ayodhya].

The ASI has not issued any official statement on this matter. Nobody has made any statement. The ASI does not have anything to say on this matter.

I am talking about the ASI's report to the court. Do you feel vindicated by the court verdict?

I will not comment on that. The ASI has nothing to say on this matter.

The ASI was also dragged in earlier....

Any number of questions on the subject, I will not answer.

The ASI was dragged in on the Sethusamudram issue too.

On this also, I will not comment.

There are excavations going on in many sites, but there are very few carbon-dating laboratories. Will the ASI set up its own radiocarbon laboratory to speed up the dating of artefacts?

What you are asking is important. India is not deficient in scientific manpower. What is absolutely important is an effective coordination mechanism. Our task is to reach out and identify scientists, laboratories and institutions with whom we can collaborate. Technical manpower is spread over different laboratories in this country, not just in the Institute of Physics [Bhubaneswar], the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) [New Delhi], or the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) [Mumbai]. So we are trying to have a proper coordination mechanism.

It is with this objective that two months ago, a major seminar on archaeological science was held. It is a matter of happiness that representatives from many of the leading scientific institutions discussed issues at length. One of India's foremost scientists, K. Kasturirangan, who is a Member of the Planning Commission and a former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, guided us on this matter. We have now set up a National Advisory Committee to go into the details of evolving an effective coordination mechanism for proper utilisation of scientific tools for archaeology in India.

We are also strengthening our Science Branch. We are setting up a laboratory at Aurangabad. It will cater to the requirements of day-to-day conservation and scientific preservation of Ajanta and Ellora. We are strengthening our Science Branch so that it can devote more time not only for conservation but research in archaeological science.

Do you not want to set up a radiocarbon laboratory of your own?

[There is] TIFR. We have to first assess what are the facilities available in the country and what needs to be done. The Secretary of the Department of Culture made a categorical statement that the Ministry of Culture is keen on supporting this initiative.

You have an Epigraphy Branch in Mysore. But what about numismatics?

The materials available with the Epigraphy Branch form a priceless treasure. The ASI is the custodian of thousands of estampages. In Mysore, we have Sanskrit inscriptions. In Nagpur, we have early Persian inscriptions. We have launched a number of initiatives to strengthen not only our epigraphy wing but numismatics in India.

The government has agreed to create additional manpower in the Epigraphy Branch. It has instituted a number of national professorships in epigraphy and middle-level fellowships in epigraphy and numismatics. The cumulative result will be capacity building, training and publication of inscriptions in the coming years.

The ASI has done excellent excavations on the Harappan sites at Dholavira, Bhirrana, Lothal, Kalibangan, Rakhigardi, Sanauli, and so on. So will you contribute to the decipherment of the Indus script? Iravatham Mahadevan, Bryan Wells and others are working on its decipherment.

The ASI has already published Mahadevan's The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables. This is a major academic discipline and this is going on.

But the ASI, at the moment, has no plan to take up a special project on that. This is an important issue and scholars are working on it, and we welcome this activity.

Will you establish a full-fledged marine archaeology centre to excavate underwater sites along the Indian coast?

The ASI already has an underwater archaeology wing. It is understaffed. What we are planning to do is to tie up with the National Institute of Oceanography at Goa and arrange for technical training of our young archaeologists. We are also working in tandem with the Indian Navy.

Two important things: we need to identify our agenda in underwater archaeology, and this has to evolve in the coming years in consultation with our domain experts and institutions.

Wonderful murals have been erased by whitewashing and sandblasting in many temples in Tamil Nadu.

You published a major story on Chola murals [ Frontline, June 1, 2007]. Unfortunately, we cannot work on monuments where we have no authority.

But we are ready to extend all kinds of technical support for conservation and we are ready to provide material for publication.

T. Satyamurthy and P.S. Sriraman, both of the ASI, documented murals of the Raja Raja Chola period in the Raja Rajesvaram (Brihadisvara) temple.

Yes. Sriraman. We have always encouraged this kind of publication not only by ASI scholars but independent scholars of other institutions, in any major initiative.

You are doing excellent work in taking care of the Taj Mahal and ASI monuments at Hampi, Khajuraho and so on. But at sites such as the huge bas relief at Mamallapuram, called Arjuna's Penance, vendors and vehicular traffic are unrestrained.

As I said, we are understaffed. The Government of India and the Minister for Culture have given us generous support, both in terms of manpower and resources. So whenever such problems occur, if you inform us, we will try to take care of the problem. That does not mean all problems will be solved to everybody's satisfaction. But we will make an honest attempt.

The excavation at Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu was done by Alexander Rea more than 100 years ago. The site was re-excavated about six years ago. Will you resume excavation there?

Excavation matters are not decided unilaterally by the ASI. There is a standing committee for excavation. It did not give any proposal this year for Adichanallur.

This is probably because our hands are really full because of the Thanjavur project [millennium celebrations of the building of the Brihadisvara temple by Raja Raja Chola].

People are writing the report on Adichanallur. Once that report comes out, we can think about it. Every site is not excavated every year. Let the Adichanallur report come out. Then we will review the issue.

The ASI does not give permission to take photographs of displayed objects in its site museums. But the National Museums in New Delhi and Kolkata readily give permission.

I cannot comment readily on the matter. But we will certainly examine the issue and find out what the options are.

Even scholars have been denied permission at the Nagarjunakonda museum in Andhra Pradesh.

Scholars will not be denied permission. There are certain rules. For example, you cannot use flash.

How do you estimate the contribution of Sir William Jones, Alexander Cunningham, James Burgess, John Marshall and Mortimer Wheeler to the growth of the ASI?

Very substantial. If I have to discuss their contribution, that itself will form a long interview.

Your website gives an excellent review on their contribution.

That is nothing. We could have written pages after pages on their contribution.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 14, 2011.)

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