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Beyond textbooks

For Dr. Nagaswamy, history has been more a passion than merely an academic pursuit. Read on to know more about his love for the past...


FOR DR. Nagaswamy, history isn't an isolated account of the past, something that interests only the academicians. History to him is both personal and social. "Atleast that's how we must look at it. Interest in history comes only when people learn to associate it with their personal lives," he explains. The small piece of coins he holds in his hand, which is part of a larger collection, belonging to the Vijayanagar Empire, demonstrates the association he talks about.

The 74-year-old former director of Tamil Nadu State Archaeological Department would argue before any skeptics that only with the true understanding of history a person could identify himself with his culture and learn to respect other cultures. He devotes his freetime trying to inculcate this understanding by showing them the pictures of South Indian monuments and giving precise details of their significance.

Inspiring children to learn about their age old culture is something he has been doing from the days of his directorship. The small booklets with pictures and details of monuments, which he prepared and distributed to school children 20 years ago, were not only popular among school goers, but also won the appreciation of UNESCO officials. Taking children to the monument close to their locality and involving them in a clean up activity is also a method Dr. Nagaswamy adopts to create interest.

Interest in history came to him, when he first became the curator of Madras Museum, the oldest in the country, in 1959. The amaravathi statues lying in store at the museum triggered his imagination and made him study every aspect of history and archaeology in detail. "Finding out the date of an artifact would double the excitement of an archaeologist, because we are in the unique position of putting an object in the right context," Dr. Nagaswamy says.

In his case, archaeology isn't just a tool for self-gratification. The knowledge and information he possessed about South Indian bronze statues made him an expert witness in a case well-known as Padhur Nataraja statue case.

The artefact in question vanished without a trace, until it was found in the hands of an individual in London a few years ago. Under the auspices of the Union Government, Tamil Nadu filed a case in London High Court to claim the statue. On the verge of losing the case, the government decided to seek the expertise of Dr. Nagaswamy to decisively turn it in their favour.

"I presented crucial information to prove the statue was stolen and it rightfully belongs to the country, which won the case for us," Dr. Nagaswamy recalls. He also represented the Indian Government as their advisor, to work with the UNESCO's project on Bruhadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur.

Studies about Indian influence on foreign countries had also taken him to Malaysia, Thailand, and most interesting of them all, Cambodia, whose history was inextricably linked with India till the 14th Century.

Dr.Nagaswamy gives many details, personally gathered from his epigraphic studies. "Inscriptions there show Cambodia was called Cambodia Desam and most of its architecture was based on ours," he observes, pointing at the geographical proximity between India and Cambodia that enabled exchange of people and culture.

Promoting cultural exchanges by learning foreign languages would reveal more about the contacts that existed between India and other South East Asian nations. Dr. Nagaswamy considers unfortunate the fact that little initiative has been taken by the government to promote such activities: "It will also give Indians a chance to tell the world the significant contribution made by us in the development of other cultures. Of course, such studies would be extensive and would go on for a long time."

He also believes history has to be taken out of classrooms and taught in such a way that it prompts children to keep learning, even when they choose to pursue different careers. "It would pass on knowledge about our culture to future generation," he says.

In recent years, he has been visiting various countries addressing seminars and offering advice on archaeology related matters to the governments. His ability to passionately express his feelings for artefacts is noted by scholars of Indology.

A collector of coins and artefacts, Dr. Nagaswamy also has thousands of books, audio and video material on Indian arts for reference by research scholars.

L. SUBRAMANI

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