ancient history

Transfer of archaeologist from history-defining Sangam era site leads to uproar in Tamil Nadu

Opposition parties have accused the BJP-led Centre of attempting to derail the excavations since Hindutva groups are uncomfortable with its findings.

In 2015, the Archaeological Survey of India began the first phase of its excavations in a nondescript village 12 km from Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu. Over the next two years, at Keezhadi, archaeologists unearthed a history-defining Sangam era site – the first concrete proof of the existence of urban settlements in that epoch in Tamil Nadu.

The Sangam era, from 400 BCE to 200 CE, refers to a period of ancient Tamil Nadu in which Tamil culture and language evolved to its zenith, producing some of the finest literature and art in the language. This period was named after the Sangams (academies) of Tamil poets and writers said to have existed in and around Madurai. In Sangam times, Tamil Nadu consisted of parts of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Sri Lanka as well.

Carbon dating of the artefacts recovered from the Keezhadi site have placed it at 200 BCE. The artefacts excavated include pottery pieces with inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script, copper beads and a variety of metal tools. The settlement has been found to have complex drainage systems such as the ones found in the Indus Valley Civilisation, and brick structures, showing that it was once a flourishing settlement.

The excavations started with four trenches in 2015 and expanded to 102 in two years. The project is now spread across 110 acres.

The team excavating the site was led by superintending archaeologist Amarnath Ramakrishna, who has overseen two phases of the project. However, in a sudden development last week that left many surprised, Ramakrishna, who belongs to the institution’s Bengaluru office, was transferred to Guwahati in Assam. This came a few months after the excavations at Keezhadi were halted due to the lack of funds.

At that time, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre defended the halt in the work at Keezhadi by claiming that it was preparing a status report on the excavations. But after a storm erupted over the suspension of work on the project, it gave the nod for the third phase of digging.

Opposition parties have accused the BJP-led Central government of attempting to derail the excavations at Keezhadi since Hindutva groups are uncomfortable with its findings. They said that the excavations have added strength to the idea that an advanced and secular Tamil civilisation – independent of the Hindu tradition – may have existed in the South during the Sangam era. This claim has been central to the cultural assertion of Dravidian politics, which has used Sangam literature to distinguish Tamil Nadu from the rest of the country.

Controversial transfer

In response to a questionnaire from Scroll.in, the Archaeological Survey of India said that Ramakrishna’s transfer was made according to norms. “Transfer of ASI officers at the level of superintending archaeologist is governed by the existing transfer policy and the transfers are affected as per the transfer policy,” stated Rakesh Singh Lal, additional director general of the Archaeological Survey of India.

According to the rules, a superintending archaeologist is transferred every two years. Ramakrishna started work in Keezhadi in 2015.

The official added that 26 officers have been transferred along with Ramakrishna. When asked if an abrupt transfer in the middle of a crucial excavation could affect the project, the official added that “transfer of officers does not affect activities of ASI. New officer who takes over will take care of work of his predecessor and the work will continue”.

But political parties in Tamil Nadu are not convinced. They have pointed out that of the 27 transfers, only Ramakrishna was attending to a major excavation. Currently, the Archaeological Survey of India is excavating four major sites – Keezhadi, Binjor (Rajasthan), Vadnagar (Gujarat) and Urain (Bihar). The officers in charge of the other three sites have not been disturbed.

G Ramakrishnan, Tamil Nadu Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that the Centre tried to derail the project by stopping funding in October. However, the Union government was forced to restart the excavation after the Opposition took up the issue in Parliament, he added.

Ramakrishnan said since funding for the project could not be stopped, the Centre was now trying to slow down the excavation work by transferring the officer in charge. “This is not some clerical work,” he said. “Excavations need continuity.”

He added that those who try to paint a homogeneous picture of India’s ancient past were uncomfortable with the new findings, which suggest that a secular civilisation flourished in South India in the ancient times.

The criticism was also echoed by Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. She said that evidence of an independent Tamil civilisation was getting systematically subverted.

This reporter has learnt that Amarnath Ramakrishna has challenged the transfer order before the Central Administrative Tribunal, which on Thursday told the Archaeological Survey of India to consider his petition to reconsider the transfer. A senior ASI official said Ramakrishna wanted to continue his work in Keezhadi since the third face of excavations, which begin next month, were possibly the most crucial given the depths it would reach.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.