Prachi Deshpande
Translation: Sohnee Harshey

Memory and Commemoration Through Historians’ Lenses



In January this year, some members of the Sambhaji Brigade uprooted a statue of the playwright and poet Ram Ganesh Gadkari from the Sambhaji Udyan (public park) in Pune and threw it into the nearby Mutha river. The Brigade’s members justified their actions on the grounds Gadkari had insulted Sambhaji Raje in his 1922 play Rajasannyasa. The desecration of the statue elicited somewhat predictable reactions from various quarters. Some congratulated the Brigade members for daring to fight on behalf of historical truth, while others expressed anger at the rising intolerance in society. Still others declared their intention to reinstate the statue exactly where it had been were declared, while some wrote long posts about Gadkari on Facebook, introducing his works to people in both Marathi and English. Sections of the play Rajasannyasa emerged as ‘controversial’ and began circulating on social media. Several commentators questioned the timing of this act and its possible impact on the gains and losses of particular political parties. Certainly, every political outfit was keen to capitalize on the event.

This article focuses on the question of memory in the study of culture and cultural history. The only reason I have begun with the recent event involving Gadkari’s statue is that it provides a glimpse into the different ways in which historical matters are kept alive in the present. The second half of the nineteenth century marked the beginnings of modern historical thought in Maharashtra. Western-educated writers set aside the old bakhar narratives and attempted to write scientific histories based on actual archival documents. Alongside this modern history writing, several plays and novels based on Maratha rulers and events were also written in Marathi, of which Gadkari’s Rajasannyasa was an important example in this corpus. This creative historical fiction sometimes critically assessed the bare bones of information available in the historical documents, but also drew on them to sketch elaborate, exaggerated narratives, and the Maratha past came alive for new readers and audiences through both these ways. This shaped a broad, popular consciousness and pride about the historical role of the Marathas, informing a modern, regional ‘Marathi identity’, which culminated in the movement for a Samyukta, or unified, Maharashtra. After the new state of Maharashtra was established in 1960, Marathi luminaries from the Maratha as well as contemporary eras were publicly commemorated through statues, and the renaming of roads, buildings and projects. It was as part of this process of commemoration that Gadkari’s statue was installed in 1962 in Pune’s Sambhaji Udyan, and inaugurated by Acharya Atre. (We do not have information on when the garden itself was named after Sambhaji Raje.)

In spite of all these commemorative efforts, the statue’s desecration, the allegations of historical truth and untruth, and the felt need to reintroduce Gadkari to a new generation in order to make sense of this event and its significance, suggests that all these efforts at collective and public memory are neither really collective, nor are they very successful. Although memorials seek to keep the past alive, the preservation or destruction of the past does not appear to depend on the existence or absence of memorials. We all appear to be tired of the politics of statues, but collective commemoration of people from the past is alive in ever-new ways everywhere: birth and death anniversaries are publicly observed, memorial gates are erected, and even competitive events memorialize figures from the past. Writings on various discussion forums and social media on the web, interviews of famous people, and even the set and costume designs of many recent plays and films are suffused with a simplistic, nostalgic yearning for a lost past. Facebook, too, offers us the opportunity to share memories through older posts. It would appear that a rapidly changing world simply cannot do without a dash of memorial tempering, yet this has also made memories a domain of conflict. I have attempted, in this piece, to understand this contradiction, through a survey of the debates among historians about the concepts of history and memory.

Memory / Remembrance / Commemoration

What exactly do we mean by memory? We remember a person, a place, a time, or a custom, and every era has its repository of collective memories. A particular scent or the lyrics of a song can suddenly trigger childhood memories. Some memories remain subconscious. One person might have a sharp memory, whereas another might be forgetful. We make to-do notes on scraps of paper for everyday chores, and the reminders on our mobile phones make sure we don’t forget them. Some people repetitively recite, and ritually remember, the name of God, others memorize poetry, and still others remember formulae through rote-learning. Some people write diaries. Memories of an old lover linger even after marriage to another. In the absence of a grandmother’s photograph, all the recipes taught by her become her abiding memory! Someone advises, “Why don’t you write down your memories and anecdotes about all these vocalists! I bet this would be almost a history of Dharwad of those times!” Programmes on Marathi film music are titled ‘Down memory lane’.

In Marathi, yaad (memorandum or petition), kaifiyat (representation), and saaksha (witness) are all words related to memory, but apart from a widely used cautionary phrase like “yaad raakh!” (better not forget this!), these terms have remained restricted to legal and administrative usage. In the medieval era, the yaad was a petition that influential people made to the state, but the word now refers mainly to numbered lists. The kaifiyat was the written form of oral representations to the state or court, but it eventually transformed into historical narratives as told from specific point of view (for example, the narrative Bhausahebanchi Kaifiyat). In general, the Marathi word aathavan is a deshi, or local word for memory, and smarana / smruti are margi or Sanskritized words for the same concept. These words are often used interchangeably to capture a range of commemorative acts. But based on their general usage, it would appear that the local word aathavan, hints at more everyday, ordinary, even more personal, intimate memory; whereas smruti or smaran apply to more formal, crystallized, collective, or even orchestrated remembrance. You and I might reminisce about a person, or two or three of us may remember a particular incident (aathavan kaadhane), but at a communitarian or social level, we commemorate and memorialize a public figure (smaaraka ubhaarane). It is through such collective memories that both tradition as well as historical knowledge are formed over time.

But then, how do we differentiate between these different registers of remembrance? How do immediate memories become public memory, and how and when does memory transform into tradition or history? The triads of history / memory / tradition, memorandum / representation / bearing witness, and forgetting / reminiscence / remembrance, all gesture towards different, yet overlapping links that are established between the past and present, and it is difficult to give them fixed, transcendent definitions. Instead, their subtle shades of meaning and their usage in everyday life and public spaces, and their precise expressions in individual and collective contexts, can only be comprehended in the context of specific social, power relations, linguistic practices, and the kinds of oral, written, printed or electronic archiving and record-keeping practices that exist in a given region at a given time. For this very reason, even though it is often difficult to differentiate clearly between history and memory, the need to be able to do so is just as important.

Let us examine this issue of the interplay between history and memory in some detail. If the past is very recent, individual, oral memories of it are often available. But the further we move away from it, the more such oral memories are supplemented, and supplanted by written and material sources. Memories of people who experienced a particular event or lived through an era can be orally preserved, but they gradually become dim with time, and are preserved in writing instead. Autobiographies, old newspapers, correspondence, old photo albums, or posts on social media all serve as sources for the writing of biographies, memorial volumes, ballads, and, of course, histories. Yet if we define history as the scientific (or systematically established) knowledge about the past, can we say that it contains an accurate representation of individual or collective memory? “History is written by the victors” is a well-known phrase. Even archives illuminate the history of specific groups in society, and individual, dissenting voices are not heard very often in an objective historical narrative. How then can we argue that history represents the collective memory of the past? On the other hand, how accurate or real is a definition of memory as a collection of experiences and consciousness? Photographs are staged; letters and autobiographies are often censored; and even very recent, immediate experiences are also mediated. For instance, we only get to hear about a political conflict between two groups in our own city through the news the next day. Our understanding of what happened is mediated through the images and interviews that the news channels broadcast. Ambiguity and uncertainty are built into the very language through which memories are recalled: “I swear I had left the bag right here, hadn’t I?” “I think I lived in that house until I was twelve or fourteen years old.” “I must have met her in 1990 or 1992, I can’t remember for sure now.”

This uncertainty only grows as one ages, and there are medical or psychological facets to it, the retention or loss of memory also has important sociological contexts. How do we determine the completeness and credibility of the witness testimonies of traumatic incidents like accidents of bomb blasts? The legendary film Rashomon established very well the ways in which multiple witnesses remember a single event in such different ways. In short, whether it is in the form of scholarly, systematic history, or personal memories, the past is never available in the present in a pristine form, exactly as it was. It is always mediated, which is to say, its specific representation in the present is always shaped by a variety of power relations and cultural, technical practices. It is for this reason that debates among historians about the differences and overlaps between history and memory are not limited to their respective credibility or truth-value. They also take note of the different sources and social-cultural context through which both history and memory take specific shape. Let us take a closer look at some of these debates.

Public memory, Real memory

Euro-American historians and thinkers are not in agreement about the precise differences between the concepts of history and memory. One influential school of thought, exemplified by the French writer Pierre Nora (1989) explicitly differentiates between the two. According to Nora, memory is a real, continuous connection to the past. At a collective level, this connection is preserved through oral traditions and material practices across generations. But this real, continuous connection was broken by the arrival of modernity in western civilization. history emerged in order to fill in the vacuum created by this broken, living connection to the past, but the more an objective, systematic history took root, the more this living connection grew tenuous. Nora’s argument, shared by many others, is essentially that real memory is lost with the advent of modernity. Mere traces of this real memory survive in historical spaces, and people continue to crave the connection to it. The festivals, holidays, memorials, renaming practices, museums and other commemorative practices are all efforts by modern nation-states to somehow satisfy this craving for real memory, but this orchestrated memory never really satisfies it – it always falls short of re-establishing an authentic connection to the past. In English, the concept memory is used for both this real, as well as orchestrated link to the past, but as discussed above, in Marathi the terms aathavani and smruti serve to signal to these living, and constructed commemorations, respectively.

In their celebrated book, The Invention of Tradition (1983), the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger had made a similar differentiation between real and constructed traditions. Even though modern nationalist commemorative festivals claimed a connection to much older, existing practices, they demonstrated that many of them were actually of very recent vintage. For example, the kilt, considered an age-old national symbol of the Scottish people, actually became popular only in the eighteenth century. Similarly, many practices considered ancient tribal customs in parts of Africa took shape only in the colonial period, and so on. Many historians have elaborated on Nora and Hobswbawm’s differentiation between ‘real’ and ‘invented’ traditions to study commemorative festivals in different parts of the world through the lens of ‘collective memory.’ (Confino 1997) They have examined how such commemorative festivals propagate nationalist myths and dominant ideologies, and the social relations that undergird them. The central effort in these studies is to explore the difference between real and orchestrated memory, but indeed, this is proved difficult by the fact that modern commemorations invariably draw on, and reprise older practices and traditions. Pinpointing where the authentic is taken over by the fabrication, thus remains a site of debate among researchers. In spite of this, this scholarship has sought to capture a genuine consciousness about the past and attempting to bring it forth from underneath a superficial staging.

This belief in real, authentic memory is visible in another, distinct approach. Over the twentieth century, anthropologists debated the question of the evolution of human culture from several perspectives. These debates were conducted within the framework of European colonialism, and a hierarchical idea of progress. On the basis of the existence of orality and writing as markers of progress, human cultures were placed along an evolutionary hierarchy. Those with primarly oral traditions were desginated as less developed, and those with greater writing (and later print) more progressive and evolved. Not surprisingly, in this hierarchy, African oral cultures emerged as the most uncivilized, and European civilization the most evolved. With its mix of oral and written practices, and its relatively late exposure to print, Indian civilization fell somewhere in the middle of this scale. A corollary to this evolutionary approach to orality and print was the argument by scholars like Jack Goody (1977) that written cultures had history, whereas oral cultures had no proper historical consciousness, but memory, and it was only as societies moved towards writing and print that their memories transformed into history. In all these arguments, history / memory; elite / folk; writing / orality, west / non-west, emerge as homological binaries, with a similar, notable contradiction. On the one hand, these ideas emerged from wider European imperialist discourses, where the existence of historical consciousness became a means for a hierarchical organization of cultures. Yet, this historical consciousness was also persistently seen as capable of conveying only dry information, and memory was invested with the ability to keep the real past alive. Therefore, even though it is deemed less progressive than history, memory emerges in this overall scholarship as an authentic link to real popular consciousness about the past, as something positive that can critique the objective, but dry history produced in the ivory tower.

This tension between history and memory can be discerned all around us. In everyday political-social discourse, debates over controversial historical events sometimes foreground the scientific nature of history in order to argue for a particular point of view, and sometimes foreground the authenticity of a memory whose eternal truth can never be captured by history. Both concepts need each other to establish their own distinctiveness. This tension between history and memory both shapes power relations in society, and is in turn also shaped by these social relations.

Scholars of Indian history have drawn creatively on these European debates over history and memory for a critical study of nationalist history-writing. Every nationalist history has a narrative of pride and glory. Socially dominant groups and their ideological standpoints figure prominently in these narratives. If exploited and oppressed groups find a mention at all, it is in a way that does not disturb the overall narrative of pride, and events, groups or perspectives that diverge from, or oppose this overall narrative do not really find a place in it. Naturally, lost wars, or the exploitation of other nations and peoples are deliberately excised from such a glorious narrative. Since the last few decades, many scholars have studied such marginalized, diverse, oppressed and contrary experiences and perspectives from across the Indian subcontinent through the framework of memory. For example, Shail Mayaram’s study of the traditions of the Meo community of Mewat in Rajasthan (2004) highlights the community’s perception of itself as both Rajput and Muslim, and its acceptance of both Hindu and Muslim religious ideas and practices. Rulers from the Mughals, and Rajputs down to the British in the twentieth century labelled the Meo as rebellious, illiterate and backward, but in their own consciousness, these negative traits emerge instead as virtuous elements of bravery, independence and love of tradition. The Meos have preserved their distinct identity and tradition through a unique oral tradition. Although the victims of gruesome violence during the Partition, when a large number of Meos migrated to Pakistan, they are still in greater numbers on this side of the border. The Meos and their history find no place in the nationalist historiography of India and Pakistan, which are based on the idea of continuous and overwhelming conflict between Hindus and Muslims, with its climax in the Partition. Mayaram examines their oral tradition through the lens of collective memory, and the title of her book, Against History, Against State eloquently makes clear her overall approach to it.

An extreme position in this Indian scholarship on memory is Ashis Nandy’s. Nandy (2004) accepts the sharp divide outlined above between history and memory, and emphasises history as the principal tool of Western imperialism. This imperialist discourse, he argues, promptly labelled as myth, lies or baseless anything which did not fit the established idea of history in the nineteenth century, and it was the propagation of this narrow idea of history through colonial education that resulted in the destruction of the long-term memories and traditions of the colonized cultures. Nandy’s somewhat sweeping polemic identified Western colonialism as the ultimate villain, leaving little room to critically assess pre-colonial tradition and memory. Unfortunately, this framework has unfortunately inspired several writers to interpret all of pre-colonial Indian culture through a nostalgic lens of a lost, authentic memory. For instance, Bhalchandra Nemade’s novel Hindu (2010) is based on the idea of polyphonic pasts and painstakingly sketches long-term collective memories preserved in daily life and language, but its nostalgic and emotional representation of this precolonial past fails to engage with the realities of political and social inequalities and power relations, and stops short of becoming a truly polyphonic representation of memory. (Deshpande, 2015) However, Mayaram’s perspective, summarized above, is more complex. Even as it critiques colonial and nationalist history-writing, it is very aware of local social inequalities, and outlines how their form changes through successive rulers.

Zakhor: Memory’s duty

So far we have talked about long-term memories created through deep tradition. Let us turn now to the study of memories of individuals who have experienced specific, traumatic events, which is an important, distinct strand in memory studies. Here too, memories have been understood as being more immediate and personal than mainstream history. For instance, the individual memories and experiences of survivors of Nazi concentration camps has brought alive the historiography of Nazi brutalities in a way that mere statistics could never do. Psychologists and neurologists have also examined the issue of buried, subconscious memories and their role in post-traumatic stress disorder, and the ways in which reviving such memories of trauma might help in healing the victims with its long-term effects.

Healing through memory also has religious, spiritual contexts. The well-known Catholic idea of redemption is made possible only through an acknowledgement, through confession and recalling of sin.In Jewish thought, The Hebrew idea of zakhor, or collective remembrance, is central to Jewish collective consciousness. (Yerushalmi 1982) Keeping alive a memory of migration and marginalization through shared rituals of remembrance has been critical to the preservation of a distinct Jewish identity and community. This religious importance of memory and the importance accorded to memory recall in modern psychotherapy have become peculiarly intertwined in the therapy of Jewish survivors of the Nazi holocaust. As a result, the memory of the Holocaust has acquired a special sanctity in popular culture as the ultimate symbol of the millions of victims of all dictatorships. Yet, many Jewish historians have also criticized the increasing commercialization of this terrible episode, particularly in the United States, to the extent that a critical discussion about it has become difficult. (Finkelstein 2000, Klein 2000).

Yet, historians are torn about how exactly to utilize such individual memories of traumatic events as primary sources, with ongoing debates about how to establish their credibility. The extent to which such individual memories can be generalized in the absence of other evidence, and the means of determining how individual statements are shaped by wider social environments, are both at the heart of these debates. (Friedlander 1997-2014; LaCapra 1998) All in all, the examination of individual memory is bracketed both by psychological, as well as collective, contexts. In the subcontinent, scholars like Urvashi Butalia (2005) and Nayanika Mookherjee (2015) have written very poignantly about the challenges of including the deeply personal experiences and memories of women who faced sexual violence, in the wider historiography of Partition and the independence of Bangladesh. Of course, Marathi Dalit autobiographies and memoirs have powerfully demonstrated the importance of individual memory in bringing alive the history of long-term social oppression.

Memory and Performance

So far in this piece, we have considered the tensions between the binaries of history and memory, orality and writing, elite and folk, and individual and collective. Let us now see how several scholars have explored the messy, overlapping space between these dichotomies through the lens of performance. Understanding when, how and why specific aspects of the past are revived, and indeed performed, in the present, is an important way to make sense of contemporary cultural practices. Moving beyond the nostalgia of the past, or raucous identity politics, the category of performance allows us to think productively about everyday material culture, pedagogical practices, ideas about senses and aesthetics, and the ways in which individuals negotiate social spaces. For example, Christian Novetzke’s History, Bhakti and Public Memory (2009) is an insightful study of how practices of memory and performance have created an enduring devotional public around the figure of the Bhakti poet-saint Namdev. Novetzke interprets Bhakti itself as a practice of memory, and explores the figure of Namdev as the original kirtankar, explores how the performance of kirtan has served to transmit and preserve the memory of Namdev’s ideas and compositions. Here, performance serves as a critical bridge between the domains of orality and writing. We usually think of written texts as more enduring than oral sources, yet Novetzke moves away from these binary poles, outlined above in the writings of anthropologists like Jack Goody, and brings the kirtankar’s apparently ephemeral performances combine with written badas (notebooks) together to show how an enduring commemoration continues across generations.

Let us look at two recent and quite different analyses of memory and performance from the history of Tamil Nadu. Bhavani Raman’s recent book Document Raj (2014) is about the establishment of the modern bureaucracy in place of old scribal practices, after the introduction of Ryotwari land settlements in colonial Madras Presidency. What does this have to do with memory? Raman does not just note the duties of each administrative officer. She first investigates how tax records were kept at the village and district levels before the British got to Madras. This record-keeping was multilingual and complex. Village accountants (kanakkupillais) did not keep detailed written records – a lot of their calculations and records were memorized. Village genealogies, memories of drought years, farming information, sharers in the harvest, and conflicts all formed part of this memorization. The accountants used palm leaves to jot down some things, as primarily mnemonic aids, when they had to actually ‘perform’ their records orally in front of the visiting district-level supervisors at specific times during the year. (As an aside, even Novetzke describes the kirtankar’s badas as primarily mnemonic aids for the performance)

This regular and authorized ‘performance’ of tax-records was the special skill of village accountants; it also shaped their own authority, as his authoritative recitation of the past was critical for the resolution of conflicts in the village. District level officials compared the village accountant’s memory and notations with their own information. It was through the give and take, and negotiation between their respective recollections that local power relations were re-established, and the narrative of local history as well. In areas where the Marathas held power, records were kept on paper, and were often more detailed than the village records on palm leaves; naturally, in such situtations transactions of memory involved linguistic exchanges as well. Raman examines the ways in which the tinnai, or verandah schools in villages focused on the cultivation of memory skills in mathematics education. These mental calculations also enabled village officials to negotiate on the spot a wide diversity of weights and measures and calculations needed in everyday agrarian life, from calculating how deep or wide a canal should be (to ensure that powerful farmers got more water!) to how much grain a sharecropper should get.

British officials viewed this world through the lens of suspicion. They saw the incomplete written records as accountants’ efforts to hide information, and interpreted the mnemonic skills taught in the schools as either mere rote learning or unreliable. By emphasizing more detailed written rcords in place of oral ones, they brought about profound changes in the region by instituting a ‘Document Raj’. Along with writing practices, ideas of authenticity and forgery also changed as a part of this shift. The practice of personal signatures for attestation increased, as did the necessity of full titles and written pieces of paper for peasants to prove that they had rights to tenancy, ownership or sharecropping. The lack of such documents also made it easier in many regions to separate poorer peasants from the lands they occupied and cultivated. In this way, by keeping the performance of oral material at its core, Raman’s study tracks deep-seated changes in Tamil society, education, rural caste-class relations. We see thus, how memory was not just a mental faculty, but a skill cultivated across specific political and socio-cultural contexts.

Davesh Soneji’s study of the transformation of Devadasis’ worlds in South India, Unfinished Gestures (2012) approaches memory and performance from a different perspective. Devadasis immediately conjure up images of dancers ‘offered’ to specific deities, and the practice of prostitution in the guise of a traditional religious practice. From the nineteenth century, social reformers in Madras commenced efforts to bring about changes and improvements in the Devadasi customs. In 1947, the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act rendered the practice of offering women to God and the performance of dance in temples illegal. The Act was intended to ‘free’ poor women, art as well as society in one fell swoop. Soneji explores the impact of this Act on the social world Devadasis, and their aesthetics of dance, through interviews of women in various communities in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The eroticized dance of the Devadasis appealed neither to reformers imbued with Victorian ideas, nor did it appeal to Brahman dancers like Rukminidevi Arundale who wished to refom the dance form. Gradually, under Arundale’s leadership, this dance form transformed into a classical, but Bhakti-infused, comparatively ‘pure’ dance form now known as Bharata Natyam.

Soneji throws light on the diversity of dance practices within Devadasi dance, especially outside the temple environs, and the different assets and rights of Devadasi women. His interviews bring forth the Devadasis’ own consciousness of their history as a tragic narrative. But this narrative is not simply presented as an alternative to Bharata Natyam. It compels the reader to confront questions about how an art form and its repertoire are preserved; what the role of memory and performance is in this preservation; and the relationship between the repertoire and the performer. Often, during Soneji’s interviews, the dancers, no matter how old, would get up and start dancing in the process of recounting their memories. They would forget to speak. Their memories are preserved through their repertoire, and come alive through performance. This is similar to when one has to actually sing a song to its rhythm to properly remember it, even when one knows the tune and lyrics by heart. Soneji persuasively shows that Devadasi memory is embodied in their dance. As Walter Benjamin suggested (1937), their past tears through the official historical narrative of Devadasi ‘improvement’ and appears before us, even if for just a few seconds. In this way, viewed through the lens of performance, memory studies do not just depend on the question of truth or falsehood, but becomes a tool for understanding the changing skills and cultural practices in various administrative, devotional and artistic domains. It in this way that the study of memory can be truly useful in the contemporary era.


Prefaces and advertisements of old historical plays often claimed to represent the lost past hubehoob, or exactly as it had been, on the stage. The playwrights believed that the past could be represented ‘as is’, and the audiences of the plays were also confident of seeing it as it had been. The newly educated, Brahmanical, elite class was enthusiastic about having arrived in the modern age, and having grasped the concept of historical truth. It was convinced about the its cultural and intellectual framework being correct, and it is also fair to say that it was just as clueless about worldviews outside its framework. (Chakrabarty 2008) Various ideological, political and social upheavals in the second half of the twentieth century have thoroughly shaken this conviction. In theoretical debates about history, as well as in the realm of popular democracy, alternative views and controversial recollections of the past are trying to gain a foothold. One of the outcomes of these conflicts is that the representation of figures and events of the past – be it Gadkari’s statue, or Shivaji Maharaj’s in the Arabian sea; the inclusion of excision of particular figures from school textbooks; or the depiction of Bajirao and Kashibai on the silver screen – has overwhelmingly become a question of collective identity. The insistence that a particular community gets to decide how a particular figure’s public representation ought to be, is growing among all religious and caste communities. In public discourse, memories are no longer just memories; they have become sacred memories. On the other hand, even though scholarly debates among researchers about the deep and complex links between history, memory and performance are rich and useful, they have remained in the confines of the ivory tower either out of a perception of being jargonistic, or out of the fear of a popular, violent reprisal from an ‘aggrieved’ community. This scholarship therefore has moved ever more out of touch with this public, identity-based discourse on memory.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur offers an interesting, positive perspective in this regard. Usually, history, collective memory and individual recollections are also shadowed by the possibility of forgetting. It is often the fear of this forgetting that memory is garish and raucous. But instead of fear, can we think of forgetting more positively? Can forgetting also be orchestrated, just like memory is? These are some of the questions Ricoeur addresses in his book Memory, History, Forgetting (2004). We have seen above that lost battles are often edited out of the golden-age narratives of nationalist history. (Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that attempts are on to argue that Rana Pratap never lost to Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati!) But Ricoeur is saying something else. He links forgetting to forgiveness, and suggests that the acceptance of some memories as valid, and then deliberately deciding to forget them at a collective level nationally and internationally, is key to the development of a meaningful, moral political order. The Christian ideas of redemption through a ritualized remembrance and forgiveness are a clear influence on Ricoeur’s ideas.

This may seem a naïve argument. It can also be seen as a cruel and convenient way to disregard many people’s efforts to overcome the bitter recollections of long-term exploitation, through an aggressive restaging of the exploitation’s memory. But the importance of Ricoeur’s argument lies in its efforts to explore the possibilities and limits of morality, justice and equality by bringing together history and memory, and memory and forgetting into one common framework. In the end, he wishes to underline that without a sharp and consistently critical approach, neither history nor memory remain meaningful. Let us end with his words:

For the professional historian there remains…the uncanniness of history, the unending competition between memory’s vow of faithfulness and the search for truth in history. Should we now speak of unhappy history? I do not know. But I will not say: unfortunate history. Indeed, there is a privilege that cannot be refused to history; it consists not only in expanding collective memory beyond any actual memory but in correcting, criticizing, even refuting the memory of a determined community, when it folds back upon itself and encloses itself within its own sufferings to the point of rendering itself blind and deaf to the suffering of odier communities. It is along the path of critical history that memory encounters the sense of justice. What would a happy memory be that was not also an equitable memory? (500)


Prachi Deshpande is Associate Professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. She is the author is Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700-1960.

Sohnee Harshey is an independent researcher based in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. She completed her M.Phil. in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

(Many thanks to Meghna Bhuskute for prompt help with editing and clarifying the ideas and language in the original Marathi article.)


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