Lotika Varadarajan passed away suddenly and tragically on October 9. Most scholars are associated with institutions. Lotika was an institution in herself. With most people, their output slows down as they get older. Not with Lotika. From the 1980s, the rate at which she designed collaborative projects — as well as her own research — expanded exponentially. Most historians claim specialised knowledge of some corner of time and place, and stay there for the rest of their lives. Not so Lotika. Many scholars offer answers, Lotika asked questions. Those who knew her were familiar with her piercing gaze and questioning frown, which she directed at everything she explored, and her smile that indicated that yet another piece had fallen into place.
Lotika began as a historian (her thesis was on the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales) and developed into an ethnographer. Her article, “Oral testimony as Historical Source Material for Traditional and Modern India,” was published in 1979, when oral history, as generally understood, meant recording the recollections of political figures. Her own work was only partly driven by archival collections. Equally important were conversations with craftsmen and with custodians of museums and handicrafts repositories. For her, the past was not a foreign country and she hunted tirelessly for skills and objects which carried traces of long histories.
Lotika took us along the journeys of objects — the production of silk in Assam for foreign markets, the ports of Bengal, Gujarat and the Konkan and the boats that carried the products to the ships (her familiarity with pegged boats, sewn boats, outriggers, and catamarans came from conversations with boat-builders, and from the shipping manual from Lakshadweep the translation of which she helped publish). She was the co-author of an article on the canoes made in the Nicobar Islands, evocatively describing the rituals and skills that went into their making, their role in the local barter trade and the lunar calendar’s bearing on fishing.
She turned the relocations in her own life to advantage: In the 1970s, when her family moved from Mumbai to Vadodara, Lotika’s work also moved inland, and she began to explore tribal arts and artisanal skills. Textile history and seafaring practices came together, thanks to her familiarity with the French archives and, later, Portuguese sources.
She took us across the seas to the courts and churches of Europe, the dark interiors of which glowed with rich Indian textiles, and then through Turkey and West Asia (she reminded us that Shivaji had an Arab battleship, and a Persian carpet for his coronation).
Back in South Asia, it was Lotika who would work out that chain-stitch embroidery was introduced to Bengal by the Jains from Western India in the 10th century. Political fragmentation had disrupted routes and connections. Lotika sought to restore the sense of the South Asian region and delineate India’s links with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. I can think of one other historian who had the gift of being able to cast his eye over a wide region, and bring together knowledge from archival sources and material culture — Simon Digby, who left us in 2010.
Lotika’s writing reflects her personality — direct, accessible, scrupulously acknowledging other scholars, always an inspiring mentor and never weighed down by self-regard and preconceptions. Read anything written by Lotika, and you will realise that if you listen attentively to the voices from the past, and marvel at the creativity of those who produced objects of timeless beauty and strength, ideology becomes irrelevant. She also teaches us that a researcher’s satisfaction is multiplied by sharing, encouraging and guiding others, and by being humble before communities who did not transmit their knowledge through texts, but who had a deep understanding of the mathematics, sciences and technologies that helped their work.
She has left leads for others to take forward. With the Centre for Community Knowledge at the Ambedkar University, Delhi, she had planned two conferences for 2018: On “Maritime Traditions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans — Inter-Connections in Pre-Colonial times” and on the interactions between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. These will be tributes to her.