Wednesday, January 11, 2006

How Authentic is History?

Imagine this situation. It is the year 2206, exactly a couple of hundred years from now. A student of History in a virtual classroom in Bangalore [or Bengaluru], with a holographic projection goggles worn over his eyes, is listening to a lecture of his Harvard professor addressing him. As the professor speaks, his voice is automatically presented as sub titles and the presentation he is making is also visible on the left corner of the view. Suppose the professor is dealing with a topic called “India in the late 20th and early 21st centuries” and is discussing how art forms of this era portrayed the way people lived, their lifestyles and interactions with society. And suppose he is also discussing the way people of that era recorded their data and lives on circular metallic disks called CDs and DVDs, and although these methods of data presentation presupposed certain other reading devices called computers, they did ensure that these were available easily for the public. Our student in Bangalore now sees a lot of red squares flashing on the right side of his view, he selects one of the red tabs by calling out a small code and soon the view of his professor is now shared by another student from Lithuania who is eagerly asking the question that whether the people constantly recorded the events of their lives or was it only for select situations. A small message instructs our Bangalore student that he can choose if he wants to hear the answer the professor gives the Lithuanian student or continue with the lecture. Our student also intrigued by the question selects to listen to the answer which the professor gives, where he learns the professor’s opinion that, going by the sheer amount of data stored on these circular devices and the fact that many are yet to be deciphered, it may seem that people actually captured their day to day lives on these devices!

Soon the lecture takes a more interesting turn. The professor activates a full view projection and starts playing a “record” of the day to day life in 20th century India. He instructs the students to observe the unique lifestyles that are apparent in that era. Soon the students from around the world hooked onto the virtual classroom are seeing a man in cooling glasses and a rough mustache, wearing a shirt with collars turned up, walking in the centre of the screen. The swaggering man suddenly throws a cigarette in the air, and using a pistol lights the cigarette, which lands right into his mouth. The students are now watching with rapt attention and shocked when all of a sudden a bunch of similar looking men pop out of the background bushes and break into a rhythmic dance and song sequence! The song continues, but soon a lady and a bunch of ladies who look like her, pop out of the background as well. The professor interjects to inform the students that they can watch the entire archive of this and similar footage at a particular link and dictates an assignment for the students to research “The instances of pistol use to light cigarettes in 20th century India” and then declares the forum open for questions. The right side of our student’s view is now flashing with little red cubicles indicating that other students have questions. Soon the professor calms his students down by saying that the presentation was an entertainment sequence from the late 20th century in India. But the students are still perplexed, and the professor tries to explain that based on a comparative study of similar “entertainment sequences” from around the world at that time, it can be concluded that this kind of song and dance sequences was unique only to Indian culture at that time. He goes on to declare that research has shown that due to the sociological framework of the multi-ethnic, multi lingual and multi religious culture of India in that era, there must have been a strong urge for people to break into such song and dance sequence during the middle of the day, to relieve stress, to establish social contacts with the members of the opposite sex, to express anguish at failing and the joy of succeeding. The professor further assigns the students tasks to present theories as to the chronological developments of such phenomena. With this our student in Bangalore, with a sense of fascination at his ancestors, logs off from the history lesson, determined to understand the uniqueness of the philosophy behind such behavior by his predecessors!

Back in the present, does this small anecdote from a probable future seem far fetched and unbelievable? Is it illogical to think that the future this close [200 years] will have such a distorted view about the past? We don’t break into song and dance sequences in the middle of our day, why it is in our movies is still a mystery to me. I have always argued with my friends that unlike our history [before the computer age], we will be leaving behind a very comprehensive, less destructible account of ourselves than what our ancestors with paper, papyrus and stone have left us. But off late I am having second thoughts about this enormous data we are leaving behind, if it will be easily understandable in the future? With the wheels of change setting such a blistering pace recently and in the future, will this account of us be intelligible to the denizens of the future? This thought leads me to one more speculation; is what we consider as history, authentic, or is it an “entertainment sequence” of the past which we are interpreting as history?

I read in an article that history as we know it is based on someone’s account of what he or she saw and experienced during any particular span of time. So is it correct to assume that what we read, see or decipher as the evidence of the past is essentially someone’s interpretation? This assumption may not be entirely true, since what we base as historical fact is not based on a single persons account but on accounts of many people which have common threads in them. But still there will be a gap which cannot be bridged; for instance by correlating accounts of many people we may be able to ascertain that certain events occurred at a certain period of time. But based on these assumptions, can we make conclusions about the behavior of the people involved in the event? The example of the future sequence seems a little far fetched; it would be difficult to come to inappropriate conclusions, since such assumptions would be considerably reduced in the presence of an enormous collection of stark visual data. But again as the example tries to highlight, even this visual data taken out of context can be taken to mean very different things. Now when one compares a visual documentary to one that was written on papyrus or carved on stone, the amount of imagination on the part of the reader in case of the latter is more than evident. The architectural reliefs on temples, churches and palaces have long been taken as relevant evidence to the society of the place they are situated in, but can they not be only the “director’s” opinion about the actual situation. With the amount of pull the saints, popes and kings exerted on the artisans and builders of the day, can these be accepted as valid historical evidence?

The more I see of the current trend in movies and soap operas, I wonder that if these were seen in the future as to indicate the status of society today, I begin to come to the conclusion that, in the future there will be a very inappropriate estimation of our times. It might be an entertainment sequence today, but what if they are viewed as depictions of authentic reality in the future? Maybe just as some of us believe that in ancient India people cavorted around in their birthday suits, based on the reliefs on the temples in Kahjuraho, people in the future may believe that we Indian’s broke out into song and dance in our day to day lives based on our movies!

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