Before anything else, a personal disclaimer, or rather, a claim: I briefly had the pleasure of knowing MN Deshpande. I met him not in the capacity of archaeologist and scholar, but as my school friend Mita’s grandfather, calling him Azoba as she did.

As Class XI students at Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Mita and I often came back from school together to the Deshpande home. I was already interested in history, and although Madhusudan Narhar Deshpande was not the sort of grandfather to lecture teenagers floating around the house, I remember wonderful occasional conversations with him about ancient India.

After one such chat, Azoba lent me his copy of Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. A classic of Indology, it was the perfect book to give an aesthetically and literarily-inclined history student at Delhi University, which I was to become soon after. I did not become a historian, but the book has remained in my bookshelf, its front page stamped with “MN Deshpande, Retired Director General of Archaeology”.

Heinrich Zimmer had held the Chair in Indian Philology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany from 1924 to 1938, but was forced to leave because of his criticism of Hitler. He moved first to Oxford and then to the USA. Soon after his arrival in New York, though, Zimmer died suddenly of pneumonia. Myths and Symbols is a collection of the lectures Zimmer delivered to his Columbia University students in the winter of 1941, posthumously compiled and published by Joseph Campbell in 1946 – the year the young Madhusudan became an Assistant Superintendent in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), where he would serve his entire career, eventually retiring as Director General in 1978.

Deshpande was born exactly a century ago, in 1920, and historian Nayanjot Lahiri’s six essays in Archaeology and the Public Purpose do a stellar job of placing his career in context.

Since the early 2000s, historians have begun to engage with the history of Indian archaeology. Upinder Singh’s fine 2004 volume The Discovery of Ancient India, for instance, traces the establishment of the ASI as well as the individual contributions of archaeologists like Alexander Cunningham, JDM Beglar and James Burgess.

Tapati Guha Thakurta’s Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India, also published in 2004, moves expertly between the colonial and postcolonial periods, and between institutional and individual histories. There are portraits of early Indian archaeological scholars like Rajendralal Mitra and Rakhaldas Banerjee, while other chapters explore moments when ancient Indian art and archaeology have emerged as crucial basis of flashpoints in our contemporary cultural politics: MF Husain’s depictions of Hindu goddesses, for instance, or the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, which hinged on archaeology.

But little has been written about Indian archaeology after independence. Recent Indian history is often a tricky project for historians, partly because sources are often scattered and hard to pin down. So it is fitting that Lahiri’s work on Deshpande emerges, at least partially, from her discovery of an archive.

Early career

The scholar-archaeologist’s family had preserved his personal papers, including personal diaries, notebooks, files, photographs (many of them not in the ASI archives) and professional writing (much of it previously unpublished). Lahiri adds her own research, archival and secondary, including things gleaned from her exchanges with family members, to paint a portrait of Deshpande as a member of a generation that came of age with Indian independence – personally as well as professionally.

The sole exception in a family of Maharashtrian doctors, he was raised by a father who had given up his government job in response to a call from Lokamanya Tilak. Having become a staunch Congressman, Deshpande’s father attended the 1936 Congress session at Faizpur, taking the sixteen-year-old Madhusudan along, though it was some 500 km from their home town Rahimatpur. It was on the same trip that father and son made an excursus to see the famous Ajanta caves – on which Deshpande would come to be an expert.

The search for academic excellence led young Madhusudan to Pune for the later years of schooling, and then to Fergusson College, renowned for language studies. But having started out as a traditional language-based scholar, specifically a Jainologist specialising in an ancient Prakrit language called Ardhamagadhi, how did Deshpande enter the relatively lesser-known field of archaeology?

Again, Lahiri’s answer to that question traverses the academic, institutional and social history of an era: the setting up of Deccan College as part of Pune’s educational renaissance; HD Sankalia’s rise to being the head of its archaeology department; Deshpande’s move to Deccan College coinciding with a two-month field training school in Taxila in 1944, devised by newly appointed ASI chief Mortimer Wheeler to address India’s scarcity of archaeological staff; Sankalia responding to Wheeler’s call by sending his best students to Taxila. Deshpande went too, becoming part of what was to become the defining cohort of post-independence South Asian archaeology.

He did return to Deccan College, but only to find that a Phd had been submitted on a topic very similar to his own, the scholar having remained under the radar because he was in jail (one assumes, though Lahiri doesn’t go into it, that this was one of many promising young Indians imprisoned during the Quit India agitation of 1942 – my mother’s father BM Singhi topped Banaras Hindu University’s Hindi MA exams from jail). Deshpande’s academic ambitions in Jain studies thus dampened, he took Sankalia’s advice and accepted one of the new ASI scholarships offered by Wheeler.

Multifaceted work

Lahiri’s biographical history of Deshpande and his cohort is full of details that offer unexpected pathways into the present. She reproduces, for instance, Wheeler’s Note to the Standing Committee on Education, in which he argues brilliantly and vociferously for an improvement in research on Indian heritage, rather than a “faint and usually sentimental consciousness that this great inheritance exists”.

“[W]ithout a high standard of research at the back of it all, even the most general education will fall short of its goal,” predicts Wheeler. He adds a great metaphor that new India’s research-scorning new technocratic elite might benefit from hearing: a country’s ability to conduct high quality research, he writes, is like its ability to produce a Rolls Royce: it helps maintain “the standard of the less intricate piece of machinery with which most of us have to be content.”

Deshpande himself did not become a university-based teacher-researcher, but his academic interests – in the caves of the Western Deccan, in Prakrit inscriptions, and in the relationship between archaeology, ethnography and history – remained. But this volume’s rarity lies in capturing the enormously multi-faceted work of the practicing public archaeologist in the second half of the 20th century: someone who “conserved monuments, undertook fieldwork, managed museums, dealt with infractions of laws relating to antiquities and protected sites, spearheaded new legislation as also replied to the stream of questions relating to archaeology raised in every parliament session”.

Deshpande’s career ranged from excavations at remote field sites – he writes of working with his mentor Sankalia on “the banks of the Sabarmati in Gujarat and in the river valleys of the Malaprabha and Ghatprabha in Karnataka” – to supervising the conservation of protected monuments, a task that involves a great deal of science, from structural engineering to acoustics to chemistry.

Highlights from Deshpande’s career include executing a conservation plan for the famed Gol Gumbad in Bijapur; following up on Sheikh Abdullah’s personal interest to bring Srinagar’s Hari Parbat fort under ASI protection; working with Indira Gandhi’s government to help pass the watershed Antiquities and Art Treasures Act in 1976 to help prevent smuggling – and arguing against the same government when it proposed a polluting oil refinery at Mathura, only 40 km from the Taj Mahal, and a “beautifying” weir on the Yamuna that would affect the Taj’s foundations.

Much before Indira, Deshpande had encountered her father – when Nehru visited the Ajanta Caves in 1958 and Deshpande, then superintendent of the South-Western circle, took him and Edwina Mountbatten around the caves as “the highest ranking archaeologist of the ASI based in Aurangabad”. Lahiri’s delighted, delightful account – aided by ASI file notings on special toilet cleaning and candid photos from Deshpande’s albums – shows us a man who never missed a chance to visit historic ruins even as a supremely busy Prime Minister, wandering about Mandu for his free day after a Congress meeting in Indore, making and executing a second Ajanta visit to experience the enchantment of the paintings again – and to show them to Edwina.

At the heart of the book is a very different sort of instance of the archaeologist at work. Deshpande’s “jugalbandi” with the famed Chipko activist Chandi Prasad Bhatt is a little-known event that changed the fate of a well-known shrine. The story of how the historic Badrinath Temple was saved from being turned into just another Birla Mandir is a remarkable one.

The temple’s amalgamation of structures, built from the 11th century through to the early 20th, was in the process of being replaced with an all-new structure by the Jayshree Trust, named for the daughter of Basant Kumar Birla. A massive new concrete wall had been built and red sandstone had arrived from Agra, which would have led to a new temple in an architectural style far from local pahari traditions, and an altogether different modern scale.

Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s interventions – reaching out to Deshpande as the ASI chief in Delhi, appealing to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, HN Bahuguna, and organising a public demonstration against the renovation – set in motion a train of events that eventually helped save the old structure. So different was Indian democracy in 1974 that we had politicians in power actually responding to agitating locals rather than being automatically on the side of the industrial magnates.

More remarkably, when viewed from the flattened kneejerk responses of our present, public culture in that India did not equate service to history with being against tradition. A figure like MN Deshpande was emblematic of that India.

Own writings

The book is both on and by Deshpande, with more than half the volume devoted to an edited selection of Deshpande’s own writings (many translated from Marathi). These writings range widely across region, subject and style. Never verbose, Deshpande combines the archaeologist’s fine-toothed comb with an eye for what might interest the present-day layperson.

In a piece on the Maharashtrian site of Bahal, for instance, where he conducted fieldwork in 1952-3, Deshpande suggests that it may have lain on “the ancient route joining Bhrigukachha (Broach), the Barygaza of Ptolemy and Periplus, with Paithan (Pratishthan)”, been part of the kingdom of the Yadava kings of Devgiri in medieval times, and retained some degree of importance till Maratha times. He then explains why the place lost its importance: it did not lie on the railway route and became subservient to Chalisgaon, which is a junction on the Central Railways.

A scholar who limited himself to ancient times may not have ended the piece the way Deshpande does – his approach helps bring the ancient world alive, while also making a point about how the historical significance of a place depends on the vagaries of technocratic modernity.

Like his guru Sankalia, Deshpande wrote often in his native tongue, Marathi, to help communicate the archaeological worldview to laypeople. As a language scholar turned archaeologist, he was as comfortable with etymological theorising about the origin of the name Ajanta based on Pali proper names and local pronunciations as he was describing the specific architectural features of the chaityas at the site. In later life, Deshpande further developed his interest in local worship of various deities in the region, carrying out a fascinating archaeological anthropology that links the present with the past.

Despite his humanism and interest in communicating beyond scholarly circles, MN Deshpande was a true archaeologist: someone whose respect for the past was supreme. And unlike the bombast and lip-service that increasingly passes for “respect for the past” in India, this respect was measurable in the material details.

In a wonderful interview reproduced at the end of the volume, Deshpande explains how in conservation archaeology – the repair and maintenance of old structures and artwork – “structural stability is of prime importance, closely followed by aesthetic considerations.” He continues, “Some might argue that aesthetics is subjective but they would be wrong. An ancient monument signifies the achievements of a particular age and thus bears an indelible imprint...the solution of the problem of conservation of a monument lies in the complete understanding of the monument itself, that is why it cannot be left to civil engineers and practising architects.”

Spending time in Deshpande’s company helps us learn how to learn from the past. It is a lesson Indians sorely need.

Archaeology and the Public Purpose: Writings on and by MN Deshpande, Nayanjot Lahiri, Oxford University Press.