Updated: December 23, 2021 4:13:16 pm
(Written by Ashish Chandra)
On the first day of the Pune International Literary Festival 2021 (PILF), historian Upinder Singh held an online audience captive with a talk on her latest book,’ The World of India’s First Archaeologist: Letters from Alexander Cunningham to J. D. M. Beglar’. PILF is being held online this year and is scheduled to come to an end on December 23.
During the talk, moderated by Sanjukta Datta, Singh said the book is an attempt to capture the mind and persona of the father of Indian archaeology, Alexander Cunningham, who came to India as a military engineer but soon got “very inspired and passionate about coins, ancient history, archaeology.”
Later, Cunningham acquired a formal role as an archaeologist becoming the archaeological surveyor for British India between 1861 and 1865, and later becoming the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1871. On the other hand, JDM Beglar was an Armenian settled in Bengal where he worked for the Public Work Department (PWD) with a passion for archaeology.
In the book, Singh has reproduced the 192 handwritten letters written by Cunningham to Beglar between 1871 and 1885. These letters, according to her, provide us with a “ringside view of the archaeological work” done during the formative years of archaeology in India.
She became aware of these letters in 2005 during her visit to Kolkata where she learnt that the Victoria Memorial Hall had acquired these letters. After she received the scans of the letters, she transcribed them as “faithfully as possible” keeping all the punctuations used including the underlining of the sentences by Cunningham.
Singh added that the extensive research she had done for her 2004 book, ‘The Discovery of Ancient India: Early Archaeologists and the Beginning of Archaeology’ had provided her an insight into the history of Indian archaeology. In the former, Cunningham was one of the central figures. The new book is about personal letters that were “never meant to be read by anybody else.”
According to her, while the archaeological reports tell us about discoveries, these letters talk about the “nitty-gritty of archaeological expedition” like Cunningham travelling on elephant back and how they “arranged for their tents, food and suffered from heat and mosquitoes.” “These letters humanises the enterprise of archaeology as it not only talks about the great discoveries but also their great disappointments,” Singh said.
On being asked about the letter that “moved her”, Singh said it was about the drowning of ship Indus off the coast of Sri Lanka in 1885 during the end of the stay of Cunningham in India. The ship contained a lot of valuable belongings and Cunningham mentions partly in the letter to Beglar that he lost 45 boxes of cargo which included his wife’s portrait and photographic books, among others. Singh added that the archaeologists have long wondered what Cunningham was carrying in the ship, and these letters according to her offer some clues.
At the end of the talk, she also delved into the personal friendship between Cunningham and Beglar, and how he “wrote like a friend and not as a boss” to Beglar. This showcased, according to her, the kind and caring nature of Cunningham.
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