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R. Champakalakshmi's Abiding Legacy

We have lost a historian who helped to not only define historical scholarship in India but also painstakingly trained generations of students, who then went on to enrich their chosen fields.
R. Champakalakshmi.

Historians like S. Gopal, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra, or B.D Chattopdhayaya, Suvira Jaiswal, Harbans Mukhia, K.N. Panikkar and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who established the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS) in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the 1970s, making it one of the most remarkable departments for historical scholarship, stood out for several reasons. Not only were they some of the finest historians of their generation; they were equally committed to their research and teaching, and took pride in the institution they served. With the passing of Professor Radha Champakalakshmi on January 28, 2024, we have lost a historian of JNU who helped to not only define historical scholarship in India but also painstakingly trained generations of students, who then went on to enrich their chosen fields.

It was in the late ’60s and early 70s that a new generation of historians, including Chamapakalakshmi, Noboru Karashima and Y. Subbarayalu, emerged. With their serious interrogation of sources and their rigorous interpretation, they were engaged in substantively extending the horizon of historical enquiry. That was when the visionary founders of the history centre at JNU invited Champakalakshmi to join the faculty so as to give the Centre for Historical Studies a pan-Indian dimension in its research and teaching. Their decision reflected their vision of institution building.

Champakalakshmi’s presence in JNU, from 1972 until her retirement in 1997, was to pave the way for a mature incorporation of peninsular Indian history into the generally north Indian centric discourse of Indian history.

I was first introduced to the scholarship of Professor R. Champakalakshmi as an MA student in Central University, Hyderabad, and that made me decide on the research area to pursue. The article recommended to us was her presidential address to the Ancient India section of the Indian History Congress in 1986, titled ‘Urbanisation in South India: the Role of Ideology and Polity’. Deftly weaving evidence from the early centuries of the Common Era to those of the second millennium CE from the Tamil south, she emphasised the growth of urbanisation as part of social transformations engendered by multiple factors, foremost among them being political and ideological processes.

Also read: An Era Called Champakalakshmi

Another article – the prestigious Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiah Memorial lecture she had delivered in 1989 titled ‘Ideology and the State’ – revealed a precise analysis of religious institutions, where each statement revealed the depth of knowledge of the primary sources, be they inscriptions or texts, composed in Tamil or Sanskrit, and the firm positioning of religion and ideology within the socio-political contexts. Her work opened the eyes of generations of students like me on how to contextualise the study of socio-economic structures and ideological traditions. I consider myself fortunate that I had the opportunity to move to the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, to work with this doyen of South Indian history, under whose joint supervision I completed my MPhil dissertation.

Champakalakshmi’s first monograph was published in 1981 and focused on Vaisnava iconography in the Tamil region. The richness of discussion of the various aspects of Vaisnavism – the Pancaratra and Vaikhanasa agama tradition, the vyuha and avatara concepts, the Tamil Sangam evidence, the alvar bhakti traditions and the magnificent iconography of the early medieval period – make it a must even today for any researcher working on south Indian history and/ or history of religious processes. Possibly due to her extensive fieldwork for this book and subsequent research, Champakalakshmi’s familiarity with every part of the Tamil region was obvious to her colleagues in the field, and it was very rare for anyone to dare challenge her on sources or historical issues related to the region.

Her next major publication Trade, Ideology and Urbanisation: South India 300 BC to AD 1300 (1996) came out a decade-and-a-half later, comprising revised versions of several previously published articles. Bringing together years of painstaking research on the voluminous Tamil inscriptions spanning the 6th to 13th century, as well as the complex literary evidence across more than a millennium, Champakalakshmi drew attention to the long history of urban centres patronised by the Pallavas and Cholas in particular, be it Kumbakonam in the Kaveri valley, Kanchipuram in the Palar valley, among others. That urbanisation cannot be understood simplistically, and that urban centres have many lives, or may lose their relevance over time, and the institutional fulcrum provided by agricultural development, state formation and expansion, and trading networks are crucial to these processes is brought out admirably in this work.

Yet again, the importance of religious institutions like the brahmadeya and temple in promoting resource mobilisation and urban growth are revealed with aplomb by the scholar. Her brilliant analysis of the Brihadisvara temple as a royal project, from the choice of location so as to control the fluvial plains of the Kaveri delta, to its naming as Rajarajesvaram, its humongous size and iconographic plan, and its maintenance of retinues of service personnel, is unsurpassed.

Champakalakshmi on occasion expressed her concerns regarding the larger politics of interpretation in the historical field. One instance where she pitched in fiercely was in her outright denunciation of the theory of Segmentary State propounded by the American historian Burton Stein, which posited that the early medieval Chola rulers did not have actual control over their vast dominions, and only possessed a ritual sovereignty, and that their patronage of the brahmanas and the Puranic sectarian traditions along with their building of numerous temples attested to this. This typical Indological position of seeing everything through the lens of brahmanical ritual and authority, which insidiously appears even today, melded with a new imperialist historiography and anthropology that reduced history to the enunciation of cultural identity.

Joining other Indian scholars who roundly criticised such a view, Champakalakshmi, using her formidable understanding of sources, wrote a heavy critique of Stein’s thesis in a review in the well-known journal Indian Economic and Social History Review (1983). Yet, she, along with her colleagues, welcomed Stein to the CHS as a visiting professor a couple of years later. That was the spirit of academic debate and dialogue that Champakalakshmi and others fostered in the CHS.

After her retirement, Champakalakshmi published two other books – The Hindu Temple (2001) and Religion, Tradition and Ideology: Pre-Colonial South India (2011), both being authoritative and vast in scope. In a way, with these publications and the numerous lectures she gave after her move to Chennai, both within and outside India, religion once again became the focus of her historical eye, for her forays into research at the University of Madras in the 1950s and 60s were related to Jainism. In the Introduction to the latter work, Champakalakshmi unequivocally rejects the notion of tradition as something that is monolithic or immutable, and eschews the terminology she used in the former book – Hindu – in favour of ‘brahmanical’ while referring to the many forms of religious cults and practices mediated by the brahmanas. In Religion, Tradition and Ideology: Pre-Colonial South India, Champakalakshmi covers the brahmanical and sramanic traditions, and a range of textual, epigraphic, archaeological and visual sources that reveal her immense scholarly range.

From my early days in JNU, something that I was often asked in conversations was whether I was Champakalakshmi’s daughter or niece. I remember mentioning this to her. The twinkle in her eyes and her smile remain etched in my memory. As recently as six months ago, I had a WhatsApp message from someone in Trichy asking me for my mother’s book! Gurus are up there with one’s parents they say, and Prof. Champakalakshmi’s support in my early years in JNU, including talking to my parents when they got anxious about me, certainly meant that she occupied that place in my life. It has been many years since I was in touch with Prof. Champakalakshmi; but the life of the mind is such that even without physical contact, one may feel the line of communication through the generous academic output of one such as her. With students trained by her now teaching far and wide across the world, south Indian history is no longer on the margins. Although she will be missed, she has left behind an abiding legacy.

R. Mahalakshmi teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. She specialises on the pre-modern history of south India with a focus on religious traditions.

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