On 17 September 2015, Mahesh Sharma, the union minister for culture and tourism, inaugurated a week-long exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi, or the National Academy of Art, in New Delhi. For the past few days, Sharma had been at the centre of keen public attention. Earlier in the month, he called the previous government’s appointment of the scholar and historian Mahesh Rangarajan as the director of Nehru Memorial Museum “illegal and unethical,” stirring up a controversy that eventually led to Rangarajan’s resignation. A few days later, Sharma went on to describe former president APJ Abdul Kalam, who recently passed away, as a nationalist and a humanist “despite being a Muslim.” Most recently, the culture minister stated that it is against Indian culture for girls to go out of their homes at night. The underlying idea of the exhibition—Cultural Continuity from Rigveda to Robotics—that he inaugurated on last Thursday, seemed to me, in line with Sharma’s recent statements
Sharing the stage with the joint general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Krishna Gopal, and classical dancer Sonal Mansingh, Sharma, a known RSS ideologue himself, lauded the efforts made by made by the Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas (I-SERVE) to hold this exhibition, which, he said, was based on “scientific facts.” According to a brochure I had collected on my way in, the aim of the exhibition was to “reconstruct before you [sic] the true history of ancient India,” and dismiss the Aryan invasion theory, which posits that Indo-Aryan languages were introduced by the invasion of an Aryan population from the north. It also sought to establish the Ramayana and Mahabharata as historical texts.
I-SERVE is a Hyderabad-based non-profit, that, according to its website, is “dedicated to dig [sic] out the technical details of Vedic sciences from ancient Indian literature.” Since 2008, I-SERVE has been listed as a recognised scientific and industrial research organisation by the ministry of science and technology, under the umbrella of social science institutions.
I was puzzled by the location of an exhibition that claimed to be based on scientific facts in the tranquil galleries of a prestigious academy of art—as opposed to the pages of a scientific journal. My bewilderment was compounded by the fact the chosen gallery was an institution such as the Akademi. Although the Akademi is funded by the ministry of culture, its website states that it is supposed to work as an independent body: “at an arms length from the government,” and to be run only by its own general council and executive committee. However, as of April 2015, the ministry of culture took control over the Akademi, citing complaints of administrative and financial discrepancies. The section on its website that lists the governing body of the Akademi now simply states the body is “Superseded by the Govt. of India, Ministry of Culture," according an order that was passed on 1 April 2015.
A little after the ministry of culture took over, in June, the Akademi was host to an exhibition titled Yoga Chakra: Tradition and Modernity—A Multi-media encounter with Intangible Culture. This exhibition, which ran from 21 June to 28 June , accompanied the celebrations of International Yoga Day on 21 June. It was, according to the ministry of culture, meant to allow visitors an opportunity to “feel and understand the concept of Yoga as it is practised today, encompassing the traditional within the contemporary context of modern lifestyles.”
When I visited the Akademi on Monday, 21 September, it was flooded with posters and placards directing the visitors to the Rigveda to Robotics exhibition. The exhibition shared the main hall of the Akademi with a second exhibit—a collection of contemporary portraits of fictitious people from the Dutch Golden Age. The brochure claimed that Rigveda to Robotics had displayed “extracts from Rigveda containing astronomical references along with sky views, generated by using planetarium software” apart from, “matching exactly the description given in Valmiki [sic] Ramayan.” The exhibit itself included fifty-or-so printed boards panelled on the walls with clusters of text and diagrams, all of which were in some way meant to illustrate how I-SERVE’s calculations proved the occurrence of the events spoken of in the Hindi epics. One panel, with a quintessential drawing of a young, blue-skinned Ram behind the text, noted the birth date of the Hindu god as 10 January 5114 BC; another one claimed that Hanuman met Sita in Ashok Vatika on 12 September 5076 BC. The board panels were full of such information: the date and time of Ram’s exile—“4 January, 5089 BC”—along with “important dates and events of Mahabharata era.”
A panel described the methodology of the method that had been used to arrive at these dates: “In Vana Parva of Mahabharata (3.230.8), Rohini is called the elder sister, which means at the time asterisms were being counted from Rohini as equinox was on that. Astronomically, there is precession of equinox by one degree in 72 years.” The explanation continued, using phrases such as “Spring equinox is in 3rd quarter of Purva Bhadrapad Asterism” and “equinox has moved by 5.25 nakshatras since this reference in Mahabharata.”
Another panel, titled “Date and Time of Exile of Shri Ram” depicted a crowded star chart captioned “Ayodhya sky of 4th January 5089 BC 7:05 hrs 28 [degrees] North and 82 [degrees] East.” The explanation accompanying the chart said, “7 days earlier, Moon had cut Sun’s path in Pisces constellation” and that on 5 January, “Shri Ram was exiled in Pushya Nakshatra.” Many of the panels included similarly indecipherable star charts along with brief explanations. The star charts were one of the few visual elements of the exhibit, in addition to pictures of ancient jewellery whose “resemblance to modern-day artefacts is,” according to the brochure, “striking; [sic] revealing the continuity of our culture till date.” Other exhibits included photos of drilled teeth and drill heads reportedly found on Neolithic site in Mehrgarh in present-day Pakistan, meant to prove that dentistry began in the ancient Indian subcontinent.
In the two hours I spent there, the attendance for this exhibition was in single digits; the few people that passed through the halls spent very little time reading the boards.
Unable to glean much from the wordy cardboard installations, I came back out, and approached the lady sitting on the small desk at the foyer, who seemed to be in charge. She introduced herself as Saroj Bala, a retired officer of the Indian Revenue Service and the current director of the Delhi chapter of I-SERVE. Bala asked me what I wanted. “I wanted to understand what this is,” I said. She tilted her head slowly to the side and said, “You have to figure out what it is,” pointing a finger at me, and stressing the “you.” “It has to be absorbed, not explained,” she explained, before adding, “It is not like painting.”
“It was important to find out if they—the epics—are true or not,” Bala continued, “So we started to look for evidence behind the stories in Ramayana and Mahabharata, because we were not ready to believe otherwise.” In the brochure for the exhibition, I-SERVE claims that the conclusion it arrived at—that the Ramayana and Mahabharata were not myths, but historical events—is “corroborated by oceanographic, archaeological, geological, remote sensing, paleobotanical, ecological and anthropological evidences.”
Satarupa Bal, an archaeologist trained at Pune’s Deccan College who is working with I-SERVE tried to explain the methodology used by the organisation to reach these conclusions. However, in her lengthy explanation, she merely rephrased what I had read in the brochure and on the panels: “The information provided in Ramayana, for instance, is really elaborate. It talks about the planetary conditions and constellations, and it is all sequential and you can tell how much time has passed between two events,” she said, and continued, “So we fed all this information into this software called Planetarium Gold—it is a Japanese software, which is very good—in which you can input the details of the constellations that were seen from a particular point on the planet, like Colombo in the case of Hanuman meeting Sita in Ashok Vatika, and it gives you the projection of the sky. The view of the sky projected by the software matches the description of that day in the epics.” Planetarium Gold is indeed a software manufactured by a firm called Fogware Publishing that publishes educational and reference products, such as CDs and DVDs, that serve as educational aids for school students, although Bal might be slightly mistaken: Fogware identifies itself as a silicon-valley based firm, not a Japanese one. Described on Amazon as a “tool for budding astronomers,” Planetarium Gold can be purchased for $25—a little over Rs 1500 at the current conversion rate. Bal told me that they—presumably members of I-SERVE—had compared the view of the night sky on particular days as seen on Planetarium Gold with the descriptions in the epics, and that they found that “everything corresponds.”
As of now, I-SERVE’s studies have not been endorsed by any government bodies conducting research in these fields. According to the brochure, Rakesh Tewari, the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, was invited to be the chief guest at the inauguration. However, Tewari was not present at the inauguration. Rajesh Kocchar, the former director of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, told me that “The methodology, even if rigorous, is never going to justify a conclusion that doesn’t fit in with the broader historical evidence.” He further pointed out that the claims made by I-SERVE, such as Ram’s birth on a fixed date in the ancient past or that dentistry began in Mehrgarh in 7000 BC, present more problems than they solve. “When you reconstruct the past, all the pieces have to fit in; you can’t take a piece of the bigger puzzle and create a story in the vacuum,” he said. “5000 BC [the century I-SERVE claims is the birth century of Ram], for instance, is Neolithic time; metal was not known then and wheeled vehicles—chariots and such—were not conceived. So you also have to address the technological problems presented by this.” Kochhar added, “And now that I-SERVE have [sic] established the birthdate of Ram, shouldn’t it be logical to jettison that age-old tradition of celebrating Ramnavmi?”
In a country such as India, it is not unusual to hear someone talk about the events chronicled in the Ramayana and Mahabharata as if they had actually transpired in the distant past. Throughout my childhood—which was spent in a traditional Hindu household—the characters and anecdotes from these epics were often invoked by elderly family members as sage monitions or moral prescriptions. But I had yet to come across anybody this eager to make me believe that all of it actually happened. It made the question that had been lingering at the back of my head more urgent: Why was it so important for Bala and her ilk to establish these stories as facts? Why, in her own words, were they “not ready to believe otherwise?”
Unfortunately, the answer to this question wasn’t forthcoming. When I asked Bala, she rehashed what Sharma had said at the inaugural: “The next generation may say that somebody wrote Ramayana and Mahabharata sitting in their bedrooms, so it is necessary to collect scientific basis for their historicity.” I had read this quote before and remembered being intrigued by it. Even if, as Bala told me, it is “necessary” to collect scientific facts about the scriptures, surely the ideal way to go about it would be to publish academic papers in peer-reviewed journals. After all, the “next generation” is hardly likely to remember a thinly-attended exhibition at an art academy when it strives to learn about the history of the world, even if it was inaugurated by the culture minister. I brought this up repeatedly in my chat with Bala, but she consistently evaded the question, instead choosing to repeat what she had said earlier.
According to its website, the Akademi was set up in 1954 “in pursuance of the dream of the first Prime Minister of independent India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for a cultural and national identity.” Every year, the Akademi confers the National Akademi awards, a prestigious award given to only the most promising of emerging artists all over the county. In 1955, the first year the Akademi awards were given out, one of the awardees included the painter MF Husain. This year, the Akademi received for their consideration, 6100 entries by 2344 artists, of which they chose 15 entries. Other names that have previously exhibited at the Lalit Kala include the renowned artist Subodh Gupta, while distinguished artists such as Jamini Roy and A Ramachandran have been the recipients of its fellowship. By all accounts, it appears that Rigveda to Robotics is another episode in the on-going refashioning of the country’s cultural and historical institutions in the nationalistic image of the ruling government. Instead of chasing academic recognition, I-SERVE, it would seem, settled for the next best thing: an exhibit sanctioned by a ministry that shares its beliefs, supported by a group of people that advocate that the audience should “absorb” the claims of the exhibition without an explanation.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that we are holding this exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi,” Peeyush Sandhir, associate director of I-SERVE Delhi told me, “the ministry [of culture] recognised that this is art before granting permission.” He pointed towards the paintings for a new exhibit being set up on the open ground floor, “Look at them, they are the artist’s idea of looking at the world. Just like that, this is our idea.”
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.