Documenting the undocumented

Historian Vikram Sampath’s new book Bravehearts of Bharat brings alive the tale of 15 Indian heroes who have gone missing from our country’s history pages

author_img Tunir Biswas Published :  15th November 2022 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  15th November 2022 12:00 AM
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Vikram Sampath

Inspiration struck historian Vikram Sampath during a candid conversation with economist Sanjeev Sanyal when the latter pointed out that the history of India is usually presented as a long list of battles where our country has always lost. “If you look at all the major battles in our history, be it the battle of Tarain, battle of Plassey or others, you’d notice that we have only a series of memorable wars that are essentially litanies of loss. But the fact that we are still around as a civilisation means that there must exist a few wars in our past that we won. So I tried to look for examples of wars or heroes who went against the accepted notion of losing, which was quite a challenge. That’s where the idea for this book originated,” shares Sampath.

The evening with Sampath and Sanyal happened in 2020. In the last two years, the seed that Sanyal planted in Sampath’s psyche, has finally borne fruit as the latter is coming out with his new book Bravehearts of Bharat, which tells the tale of 15 Indian heroes who have gone missing in our country’s history pages.

 

“Another reason why I felt the writing of this book was needed is that popular Indian historiography suffers from having a Delhi-centric perspective. The history surrounding the capital is ‘mainstream’ while others are considered ‘regional’. For example, South Indian history is considered regional. But that’s not the correct outlook. The histories of the Cholas, Pallavas and Chalukyas are just as mainstream as the Lodis and Khiljis. So, I felt our history is very lopsided and region-specific. Another issue was about gender balance. Women in India have not gotten their due in Indian history. I wanted to address some of these issues with this book,” says Sampath, about his book that features historical accounts of eight men and seven women hailing from all across India.

 

Since Bravehearts of Bharat features figures seldom mentioned in history, Sampath had to travel the country and rely on oral accounts to get his information. “Since the story of the people in this book is largely undocumented in mainstream historiography, I relied heavily on the literature of regional languages and had to travel a lot. I looked into folklore and oral narratives as well. For example, the story from Karnataka is about Rani Abbakka. To write about her, I had to go to a specific region. All of these people are still alive in local folklore and literature. With all my research and travels, I tried to draw a common ground between documented history, oral narratives and folklore,” says the author of Savarkar: A Contested Legacy.

 

For Sampath, a biography isn’t just a retelling of someone’s life but also a window to history. “Every biography has this subtitle ‘Life and Times of so and so’. The ‘times’ are just as important as the ‘life’. Those times are what give us the historical context in which these people have operated and how they have influenced the circumstances and vice versa. Like Virginia Woolf once stated, biographies are the most restrictive of all arts. A biographer is circumscribed with so many limitations. Most people don’t keep any records, especially of the worst periods of their life. A biographer, who is looking at it from the outside, needs to make a lot of conjectures but s/he is an artiste who’s committed to an oath of being as objective as they can. Most important is that the biographer needs to be a neutral bystander,” he explains.

 

So, how does a biographer, when given copious amounts of information, edit and maintain the vision for the book? “It is a difficult process. One is of course to have a linear narrative from birth to death of the person and what are the important milestones in their life. At least, that’s how I plan the structure. Biography for me is history. I also assess these milestones by putting them into the context of the circumstances in which my ‘protagonist’ was operating. Certain details, that may be interesting but are not pertinent to the larger narrative of that person’s life, shouldn’t be dwelt into too much,” concludes Sampath, adding that he is thinking of working on a sequel of the book, which would include heroic accounts of people from areas that weren’t featured in the first volume.

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