Just say history and you will hear a collective moan. Dates, kings, kingdoms, maps…why, why, why? What use is it to me today. “I hate history”, people proudly proclaim. Why then is history never dropped from the curriculum, but studied year after year?
India has a treasure trove of eminent historians. Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Ramachandra Guha, Sumit Sarkar, Satish Chandra, Upinder Singh, Dwijendra Narayan Jha to name a few.
We decided to chat with Maya Raj Krishnan who is the Assistant Professor, Department of History, Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai and get to the bottom of these questions.
1. Did you always love history? But why?
Yes. It was love at first sight. My history textbooks were always more interesting and made more sense to me than maths or science. Here was something I could read on my own and understand, unlike other subjects which had to be explained by a teacher.
2. What in the world is history?
A scientific and systematic study of the past.
3. History is boring. Why should anyone read history, besides that it is part of the curriculum?
Imagine if you had no memory at all. Every day you begin from the very beginning. Could you understand yourself? History is to society what memory is to an individual.
4. How does history help us in our everyday lives?
History tells us what we were like in the olden days so that we can plan our present and future.
5. Is reading history a lot like reading stories? Why are these stories important?
Yes, admittedly history has a lot of stories. But they are stories based on sources or evidence. Think of historical sources like books, coins or buildings like clues of a puzzle. We can get a picture only when we collect all the pieces and put it together.
6. We have been learning about the Indus Valley civilization in school. How is that interesting?
The Indus Valley Civilization is one of the earliest urban or city-based cultures in the world. The people of theIndus Valley Civilization (IVC) have left behind seals with a script in a language that has not been deciphered so far. Wouldn’t it be great if you could solve this riddle?
7. I love history. What can I grow up to be?
A historian of course. You could research into historical mysteries, solve some riddles, write books for people on historical themes, become an archaeologist, the list is endless.
8. Can you tell me the names of some famous historians?
Herodotus is the father of history. A great Greek historian.
9. What does a historian do?
Historians study the past based on evidence and write books on the past. They read, write and research about history.
10. How many kinds of historians are there?
There are as many kinds of historians as history. If you specialised in Indian history you may be called an Indologist, similarly an Egyptologist or Sinologist. You can study old coins and become a numismatist. Study inscriptions and be called an epigraphist.
11. Can you tell me how you became a professor of history? What did you study to become one?
I loved studying history so much as a student (still do) that I decided to do it for life. Another big influence was my father who taught me the art of history. I studied among other things a lot of history. I got a doctorate in the subject and decided to teach.
12. What makes a good history student?
Curiosity and persistence
13. Is everything we read about history true? We weren’t there. How does one double check?
There are very many versions of any event or happenings in history. Of course, all of them can’t be right. Hopefully, the history you read is thorough and based on evidence. Unless someone is able to convince us that the history we are reading is false we accept the narrative.
One reads all versions of the event and decides based on the most compelling scientific narrative.
15. How does one research history? (I’d like to learn more about my family’s history)
There are libraries and archives which have a lot of books and records which the public can use. You can begin by reading more about the area your ancestors came from. From there on as you dig deeper you might find more details.
16. Can you tell where I can read history differently (more fun) than as it is shown in our textbook?
History can be made simple or entertaining but history is serious business. As serious as any other subject. But having said that, I find the Horrible History series by Scholastic a really fun way for children to get interested. (You can learn more at: https://shop.scholastic.co.uk/series/53)
You could start writing the history of your family by building a family tree. Or write the history of your locality. Interview some elders who have lived there for ages! You can start with oral histories.
17. Could you give me some strategies to learn and understand history better?
History is not only dates or boring facts. It’s as exciting as an adventure to the past. New lands wait to be explored and new cultures await your understanding. Approach history with a sense of wonder and discover a whole new world.
18. History doesn’t seem so bad after all. Is going to a museum of history a good way to learn about it?
It is a wonderful way to learn. Seeing artefacts and displays help us retain what we have learnt in our classes much better.
Hmmm..History seems like fun after all. It’s not just dates and strange names of kings gone by, but the story of how our world has become what it is today.
An interesting writer of history for children is Subhadra Sen Gupta. She has written many interesting books that while giving the reader many historical facts, does so like an adventure. Let’s Go Time Travelling, Girls of India: A Mauryan Adventure, A Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of India, Saffron, White and Green, Mahatma Gandhi:The Father of The Nation and Exploring India:Kings And Queens are only some of the wonderful books she has written.
The Hindu newspaper asked her this question.
It is very often seen that children tend to hate the subject of history. What do you think is the reason for it?
Children don’t “hate” history. They dislike the way it is taught in school. They love historical fiction, watch historical television serials and films. Sadly our textbooks turn something so full of life into dead facts. I can get a class of kids to enjoy history just by telling them what people ate for breakfast in Harappa or what they studied in school in Mughal times…information our textbooks rarely have.
Someday all that we do today will become part of history, just as it did for the people before us. Jump into your history book again and watch it come alive, with this new take on it.