Aprolific writer, Nayanjot Lahiri’s new book is a foray into the post-Independence trajectory of Indian archaeology. The method of enquiry involves tracing the life of MN Deshpande, who served as Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (henceforth ASI) from 1972-1978. The premise is promising as it can demystify life in one of the premier institutions of archaeology—the administrative work, the challenges and difficulties involved in excavating and conserving sites. The enquiry is made easier as he is one of the rare figures to leave a cache of papers that sheds light on ASI. Thus, the book brings to light some rare gems—visits of Prime Ministers, conservation struggles, correspondences with varied scholars and other officials.
The work forms a part of a long-standing enquiry into the history of the development of Indian archaeology. Significant discussions have traced the development of the subject in the colonial era. However, works focusing on the post-Independence phase have been few and far between. It may be asked whether a discussion on the post-Independence phase is necessary. The answer lies in the difference in the intellectual milieu of the two eras. The colonial period led by visionaries like Alexander Cunningham and John Marshall was an era of great explorations and excavations: Taxila, Sarnath, Nalanda, Arikamedu, Mohenjodaro and Harappa. There was an emphasis on early historic cities with some contributions to pre-history and proto-history. Archaeologists in the post-Independence era have instead focused more on pre-history and proto-history, with meagre work on the later periods. Hidden within this shift is an elegiac tale of the decline of a great institution. Once at the forefront of archaeological research in the subcontinent, it is now usurped by university archaeologists. Adding to its woes are delayed publication reports and relaying of unsatisfactory summaries in the pages of the Indian Archaeology—A Review (IAR). The book thus is a necessary enquiry in the field.