Dr. Shereen Ratnagar is one of India's most distinguished archaeologists and a longtime contributor to Harappa.com. She was interviewed by Omar Khan in Bombay on December 18, 2018 following a visit to the Cricket Club of India (CCI), where her father had been a life member. The interview starts with her early life and career as an archaeologist and author of numerous important books on the ancient Indus civilization, most recently The Magic in the Image: Women in Clay at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa (Manohar, 2018).
Omar Khan: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Shereen Ratnagar: I was born right here in a hospital at Charni Road and I grew up in Mumbai. I’m a genuine Mumbaikar.
Omar: What year you were born in and what did your parents do?
Shereen: I was born in 1944. My parents were both educated people in their own ways. My father was in finance but he was determined to spend half of his life doing the things he thought were more creative, so he took violin lessons from Mehli Mehta [Zubin Mehta’s father]. He collected art and he and my mother got absorbed in attending talks and auctions, getting to know classical Indian art. They kept themselves occupied as each of we three children left the nest.
Omar: Where are you in the sibling hierarchy?
Shereen: The last.
Omar: What was your father like? What was your mother like?
Shereen: I am getting to miss them now and to appreciate their qualities. True, both could blurt out thoughtless remarks at times. But all children feel offended by the parents, and therefore get judgmental – but there is no need to carry a grudge one’s whole life. When I see my father’s ideas of justice and how he spoke up, I think I learnt that from him. He did not try to become popular. My mother and her deep compassion for the poor is the second thing I hope I picked up.
Omar: What kind of person was your mother?
Shereen: My mother was loving, and she almost showed more affection for her sister’s children than for us. We used to tease her about it but that was her way of opening herself to everyone. She was very good with children and they all gravitated towards her, as they did to one of my uncles who has the same qualities.
Omar: Anything more you know about the history of your family, like when did they come to Bombay?
Shereen: My mother’s father was a District & Sessions Judge – Dr. [B.R.] Ambedkar once argued in his court. He once passed strictures against the Bombay Police [in colonial times] because they arrested women who were only picketing a shop which sold British goods and he ordered the release of both ladies immediately. He incurred the displeasure of the colonial government and he realized the writing was on the wall – that he would never get to the Bombay High Court – so he took voluntary retirement. He was someone who was very much respected by the family.
Once I even asked my father, why does everyone stand when Behram Papa comes into the room? I thought you had to stand only when women came into the room? So he explained, he is the elder of the family. Although he was born bone poor. He went to college with one brown shoe and one black shoe. He was an orphan and his aunt brought him up. But there was enormous respect for him.
I used to make excuses to cry and say I am going to fail Gujarati this year at school; and so my mother would know what the game was, phone my grandfather and says she wants to come and do her Gujarati lessons with you and of course I used to love it there. The cook would make our favourite jellies, and I would sit and learn Gujarati with him armed as he was with his big red and blue pencils.
Omar: What are your earliest memories of school and which school did you go to?
Shereen: At school, I was a cry baby. I used to hang on to my sisters and I did not let them leave me for a long time-- until one day my class was taken to the zoo and then I was so happy I had actually made a friend, I did not want my sister around.
Omar: Which school did you go?
Shereen: J. B. Petit [a well-known Parsee girl’s high school in Mumbai].
Omar: Until which class?
Shereen: We did our school leaving from there [11th Class, SSC].
Omar: What subjects did you like in school? How did you get into archeology?
Shereen: Actually, I didn't like history very much because I do not think that the teaching was very inspired. I used to love geography because the books were richly illustrated.
I do not how it happened but [Sir] Mortimer Wheeler was lecturing at the college next door to us. The whole family went to hear him but for some reason, I didn’t go. I do not know why. Soon after my sister picked up a book of his, Archaeology From the Earth (1954), and she gave it to me for my birthday. I read it and something clicked. I took it to school without telling the family. My goddess, my science teacher, I used to hero worship her – I said to her I think I want to do this [archeology]. I was in standard 9 or so by then and she said, give the book to me for the weekend, I will go through it and we will see what it takes.
Then she said I think you go for this subject, but do a B. Sc. in Geology and make yourself a little bit of a scientist and then do all this highly speculative work. Everyone was going for arts and having a great time in College, and I did not want to break my head by doing geology. A very foolish mistake.
Omar: So tell me what did you like about the book [Archeology from the Earth]? What do you remember about the book?
Shereen: I still dip in to it. [I liked] the persuasive way in which he wrote, how to stratify the site, how not to take photos. The stories of how Wheeler handled the questions at his own lecture, my father used to tell. Wheeler had a huge sense of humor.
I was taken to meet people like P. M. Joshi. They told him this is what she wants to do, how do you advise her? So he said let her do her BA in History and then let her go to Deccan College, Pune to study with one Sankalia.
That’s what I did after I finished my BA. I wrote to [H. D.] Sankalia. In those days there was snail mail so one day I got an inland letter card calling me to meet him on a such and such a date, which was the next morning! So [I] yelled and got so excited and said he has called me! [There] was no way of booking a ticket, so I was on my own in an overnight train for the first time. My father came to see me off. I didn't even have a handkerchief so he gave me his and he said just wipe that berth before you sleep on it.
I slept in the overnight train and I got to Pune in the morning. I took a rickshaw and saw the Deccan College. I was really excited and he [Sankalia] was there of course.
Omar: How did that meeting go?
Shereen: In his reserved way . . . you should see that he cared about hospitality because he called Malti Nagar out of her room and said this student is probably doing archeology with us, will you take care of her? Make sure she at least has lunch. I will send her to you at lunchtime – and then he took me around, sat with me, talked with me.
Omar: How did he strike you as a person, he is a very famous figure in Indian Archeology?
Shereen: He is totally underestimated. For me, he was a modern man even if he wore a dhoti; a man of science, a rational person. He used to deal with all kinds of eccentric people; once some people buried the remains of a cow and then went back to examine the skeleton a little later but one persone observed it all with binoculars from the safe distance because he did not want to be contaminated by a dead cow. There were people like that.
He was a field man and he cared for us. He never told us women students what to do and what not to do. Why are you dressed like this or what are you doing there? Why did you come back to the hostel so late? Never. He was open enough. When I went and gave him my first book, to read it and annotate, which he did meticulously, I was overwhelmed. But all the things he did not like, he told me about them also.
Omar: Which book, what was the title?
Shereen: Encounters: The Westerly Trade of the Harappa Civilisation (1981). I got a very vicious review for that book.
Then he called me again and he said “we discussed this at Deccan College among us teachers and there was one suggestion that I reply to this review. I [Sankalia] said no, let the man hang himself. I just want to tell you [Shereen] that. We will let him hang himself.” That taught me how to deal with such things.
Omar: How did you get into Indus Archeology?
Shereen: That was very late because I had been to the Institute of Archaeology [in London] and done a Mesopotamian Diploma. That was a three-year rigorous diploma with cuneiform. I never knew I had to do cuneiform till I got there. My first panicky letter was to Sankalia to say can you get me out of this track? I said I did not know I have to do cuneiform and he said of course I will not get you out of the track. He said: "sit down and learn it."
So two papers out of seven were on the language, which was very tough going. By the time you came back from the first summer vacation, you had forgotten all the signs and everything. You had to start all over again.
Omar: Tell me about going to London? This must have been eye-opening as it’s your first time abroad?
Shereen: We had been as a family before. I had a sister there, married there, and got some good hard headed advice from my brother-in-law. He was English. He told me you are not to drink if you don’t like to drink; don’t think you won’t be considered modern if you refuse to drink at a party. Learn to say “no.” So that was good advice, hard headed advice, for the free atmosphere I found myself in.
I suppose I was desperately poor, but I used to do babysitting to make the few odd shillings. Among the memorable moments of my life was going to the Festival Hall for concerts.
Omar: Who do you remember seeing?
Shereen: Oh I had kept a diary, which when I came back, I gave to my father. I heard Rubinstein, I heard Paul Badura-Skoda. I heard Alfred Brendel. Among the violinists there was Isaac Stern, cellists I heard included Tortelier—among great conductors were Eugene Ormandy, Klemperer.
Omar: Tell me about the Institute, what did you study there? What were the professors like? Did you meet Mortimer Wheeler?
Shereen: No, not him. When I went there it was Seton Lloyd in charge. A very kind, very understated person who I really got to know when we were in Iraq and I realized what a sense of humor Seton had. He was a good person to know. He taught us as an architect. Every lecture of his was something.
His successor [was] David Oates. David Oates was superb as a teacher, as a researcher. I had him as a teacher before he had his desperately painful back problem. Then he would sometimes skip lectures. He had a sense of humor.
Omar: Were there any other Indian students at the Institute then?
Shereen: I don’t think so. There were some crazy ladies who kept mistaking me for an Israeli and it used to make me mad. There was one lady lecturer, Barbara Parker, who later became Lady Mallowan who used to tell me not to go to all these demonstrations in Trafalgar Square for the Palestinians. She said these people – the Zionists – will beat you up, they are dangerous. “Have you told your mother and father that you are doing this?”. I said of course not. She was concerned. She knew the rough side of the Zionist parties around, but we all use to go together. A lot of our students used to discuss this.
Omar: Who were your friends then?
Shereen: John Curtis was my class friend. Amielie Kurt was my class friend. She then became a very renowned professor. You know about John Curtis. He was a keeper of Western Asiatic antiquities at the British Museum when he retired and he went back to Iraq, again and again. Then there was Svend Helms, best digger I know. There was Tony McNicol who unfortunately died. He was also a very good stratigrapher too.
Omar: How you get into Mesopotamian Studies? When did you go to Iraq?
Shereen: That was what Sankalia had advised me. He said to do it [Mesopotamian studies] because on the names of this faculty [at the Institute for Archaeology], “I see no one who is eminent in Indian Studies.” He said Allchin is in Cambridge, you are going to London. You do either Iran or Mesopotamia.
When I went to see Seton he said I suggest you take the Mesopotamian branch because there are more teachers for this than there are for Iran.
Omar: When did you go to Iraq?
Shereen: After I finished my diploma. It used to be the tradition, if the teachers were satisfied, to go off on a fellowship to the British School in Baghdad. So I went off. I couldn’t sleep for many nights as I was going to see the desert country for the first time. I went by train too, I vividly remember the halt and change in Istanbul. Somehow, I got to Baghdad, not particularly tired because it was not a very crowded train. It brought to my mind the contrast with India, sitting [scrunched] the whole journey.
I got into a taxi in Baghdad. Then I couldn’t find the British School. Finally I got to the school, but there was no one there – the taxi driver then drove me to the British Embassy, whose officer on duty told me that they had never heard of the British School of Archeology! That was hilarious.
Meanwhile Jeffery Orchard, a wonderful person who was running the school, had gone off to pick me up at the station. The whole thing was a little cross-wired.
Omar: How long did you spend in Iraq?
Shereen: The first time I went I spent about a year, ten months. I was doing a research project, which was for David Oates, who was trying to see if there were clues to which god that temple at Tell al-Rimah was dedicated. We went to see various sites with Jeffery and without Jeffery.
John was also there. We went to the excavation camp at Tell al-Rimah and I had a hilarious time there. I can’t remember doing much work, but I was so-called Registrar, I had to do the intake of every ruddy ‘antiquity’ that people brought in.
Julian Reade was there. He would put all kinds of things on my desk. He said we do not know now whether we are significant or not, you had better register them. When David Oates walked in he would say throw them away. I thought for safety’s sake I would keep them.
I learnt from many of them. David Hawkins also came by. We went to see some Assyrian sites. Then Seton and Heidi came. I met these people in a very non-formal atmosphere. I was told some horrifying stories that in the German excavations you had to stand when Herr Direktor came into the room. You could not start eating until he did. I do not know if that was true or not true. The Germans were in the south, south of the Jebel Sinjar and it rained, rained, and rained that season. The hunting spiders came out of the ground and there was a lot of tamasha over them. They told us that if they bite you we will have to take you to the hospital.
Omar: How did that experience get you further into archeology?
Shereen: It got me into the social context. Here was a previous colonial power (Britain) which is now digging, among people who they obviously consider inferior to them. The way the Americans are working in India today, I will tell you frankly, it was not like those days. With Oates, with Julian Reade there was genuine cultural understanding. I mean Julian would pull my leg and say, "do you recognize that building?" as we walked into Mosul railway station – and obviously it was like many railway stations in India, and he said do you know who you owe this to?
That kind of teasing but from a cultured person, let’s leave it at that. But I also understood that they lived and socialized in their own world, because of Saddam Hussein's rules. A foreigner could not mix with Iraqis or go to their homes. That was what I was deprived of when I craved to go into at least one Iraqi home and have some tea. I just couldn’t.
When I said okay let me go this Friday. I am going up to Tell Afar and will thereafter take the bus and go to such and such place--and David Oates said you will not do that. I just wanted to meet some Iraqis on my own, not as a part of an English expedition. I couldn’t. But the English were not mean. They were good people. I appreciate them.
Omar: After Iraq, what came after that?
Shereen: Then I came back to England. People were watching me. Was I going to compete for a job? Then Prof. Sankalia met my father at one of these lectures in Bombay and he said look, we are advertising a job. We may consider giving it for Western Asiatic Archeology, ask Shereen to come back because she has to appear for the interview.
So my father wrote and then I came back and they are all so good to me [in London] because now I was not competing for any job. It was sad saying goodbye to my friends, but this was a new life here.
Omar: So you started in Pune?
Shereen: No, then I did not get that job. No one ever got it. Then someone came to me and said there is a new university named after Jawaharlal Nehru and they are willing to try out newly qualified people who cannot get jobs elsewhere. Write to this person Romila Thapar. So I wrote to her and she sent me a form for a junior fellowship. I got the junior fellowship and started work. I could bring in all my knowledge and training of Mesopotamia.
I tried to see the relevance of Harappa, to join the two, did a lot of reading. What I appreciated about Romila Thapar's supervision was she said I do not want a thesis which is full of facts. I want something that understands the ancient economy, that tries to understand trade, a thesis that is more socially oriented, theoretically oriented.
You know I realized when I went to JNU and discussed things with cups of chai under the babul tree, nobody but nobody in the Institute had taught me the importance of Robert Adams’ Evolution of Urban Society. We did not think theoretically then.
Omar: That [theory] is kind of a hallmark of yours?
Shereen: That is JNU and the students wanted it. So then when I had to do some teaching at JNU I realized that this is lacking in my training. I cannot teach a list of facts one after the other, you can’t do that, you have to make sense of them, you have to give them a shape.
Omar: That is a hallmark of your writing. But what about Romila Thapar, was she your kind of mentor? Who were the other people at JNU?
Shereen: Yes, she was quite stimulating. Nobody, in fact not even Romila, none of them was interested in what happened in Mesopotamia. Once somebody, I think it was Romila herself, who wrote something comparing an Sanskrit text with the Sumerian King List, and we had an argument. It was not appreciated at all.
Omar: Tell me about how you got more into Indus studies? Was it at JNU?
Shereen: Yes, my Ph.D. and meeting people.
Omar: What was your Ph.D. on?
Shereen: It was about the trade between the Indus people and Mesopotamia. George Dales had come and I talked to him about it. He was my examiner for the thesis, he and B. K. Thapar. B.K. Thapar remained more of a mentor actually than Romila because he knew archaeology right until the time he died.
I will never forget talking as a teacher to B. K. on the phone from Bombay saying I fear we will have to cancel this viva [oral examination] that was coming up, because of the destruction of the Babri Masjid; and I think he was weeping at the other end saying I had never thought that Indian archeology would be reduced to this.
Omar: Tell me about the first Indus sites that you visited?
Shereen: I spent time at Lothal but nothing much came of the site.
Omar: Tell me a little bit how you got into Indus Studies? What’s happened to it? How has it changed? Where do you think it is headed?
Shereen: I think as B. K. Thapar very correctly wrote about my thesis – he was more critical – he said this is mostly known work, except for what comes from Mesopotamia, which is not known to the Indian side. Otherwise it is mostly known work, which was true. I thought that not only could it benefit from light from Mesopotamia, it was theoretically extremely naïve, because if anything was found here and it is made there it must be ‘trade’, as if it couldn’t be a marriage gift, or not a tribute, it couldn’t be a diplomatic mission, couldn’t be pastoralists moving around the place. That kind of thing was not there in Indus Studies [at the time].
Then [Gregory] Possehl started writing about pastoralists, but very vaguely. He never traced any pastoralist routes from here to here to say that this is a logical route for pastoralists to take in the summer because this water is found all along it and this is where they would go for water. He did not do that kind of study, but he brought pastoralists into the discussion.
Then it was a question of non-market economies, merchants weren’t there [just] for the profit.
Omar: What do you mean by non-market economies?
Shereen: Non-market means you are not accessing how much you will produce according to your prediction of how much you will sell and what price you will sell it for. Therefore, your future production will not be that [specific amount to meet the market]. Harappan people were making for the elite for export overseas. But the present Khambhat industry had truckloads bringing carnelian.
I got mistaken also about this, thinking that when everyone says that [in] the Rajpipla area it is the tribal people who are quarrying it, that there is something primordial about it. That was nonsense. When I went and watched the tribal people, I realized. that they are the cheapest paid labour. If at all they are paid, and that is the only reason for tribal people to be there.
The contractor would clean the core if he thought it would make a good stone, otherwise he discarded it on to a pile, and that is the way it went. Also you know Rajpipla was a forested area then, and when I started looking up and asked the people who had been in the little state of Rajpipla what is the history of settlement here, local people answered, it is a very recent history of settlement. The colonial government settled some people here and it is not primordial, we can tell you that much. So I realized all these things, and to speak of hereditary craft structures, you know, is a little off.
Omar: How was carnelian bead production a function of non-market factors?
Shereen: I was asking Michael Tharakan, an economist, just a few months ago to tell me what is a cottage industry? He said a cottage industry will be something that is managed by a family with its own resources, its own production decisions, and distributed to the people it finds will be interested in it. The raw material was not under the control of bead makers, neither probably were their bronze tools….
The street drainage system of Mohenjo-Daro, that is also very much state-backed. How I got on to that was once hearing a BBC Program on a slum outside Karachi at Orangi, where they said they were going to do a do-it-yourself sanitation project. They got into a mess because they could not get the slope of the drains right and for that, they had to go to engineers in Karachi who told them we will do that drawing board exercise for you, and then you can do it. Otherwise you will have backflow from your own drains. If it was [the nature of the sanitation system at Mohenjo-daro], we do not know: was it sullage, was it sewerage or was it just storm drain water as Michael Jansen said? We do not know.
Omar: Other [ancient Indus] industries that you think were state control or managed at city level?
Shereen: Look at the chert. Chert from one place Rohri Hills [in Sindh] - [on] your site [Harappa.com] by the way, was it Lakhan-jo-Daro, reported by Qasim Mallah [the archaeologist]. I looked it up – it is a large site. It came all the way to Shikarpur [an Indus site in Gujarat], and there are some 650 blades of Rohri chert in Shikarpur in the belly of the Gulf of Kutch. Why would this four-hectare site require stone blades?
It is Raymond Allchin who wrote – and I think he is correct – that these were state-controlled – not “state-controlled” this is not the term in his paper – but that these were harvesting tools. I think it was Bridget Allchin who said they replaced all other flaked stone tools because for the other purposes, copper was used. She found a lot in the drawers in the Mohenjo-Daro museum, hundreds of Rohri chert blades.
Omar: I think Rohri is one of the most mysterious sites. That is such an amazing place, I mean, even prehistoric human beings were using those flakes. In the development of South Asian Culture, it must have been a major source.
Shereen: Exactly. There is something very significant about that Rohri chert. I think it is especially the banded chert at Rohri, that has a certain unvarying mass. So it is the ideal raw material for weights because then if you make a 13 x 13 piece it will come out to with a predictable weight.
Omar: You visited Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro once?
Shereen: It happened in 1998 just before I was going to Shimla. I got to Lahore, the plane shaking violently. I almost stumbled out of that plane. I have never been so frightened in my life because they told me they could not make it [fly] at a height because they had to come down again. I stayed awake to take the night coach to Karachi. Then I sat around again and then I took the flight to Mohenjo-Daro and sat in a nice, safe propeller aircraft.
I felt very happy, I was going to see Sind from the air. The weather was clear. I saw a place when I asked the air hostess can this be Lake Manchar? She said I do not know, I’ll ask the pilot. He came out of the cockpit and said who is asking that question? He said where are you from? I said Mumbai, Delhi. Why you want to know?
I said I am an archaeologist; I am going to Mohenjo-Daro. So he said okay, strap yourself in, we’ll take off, once we are off I will tell the air hostess to bring you into the cockpit. So we did the landing in Mohenjo-Daro with yours truly traveling in the cockpit.
I have never seen such kindness as in Pakistan really. The best was when I got down there, and wondered, will there be someone to receive me? How do I get to the site? Then I saw two people who I knew at once were archeologists. Later they told me when I got to the door, they knew at once I was an archeologist. There is some affinity our surveys have to each other, the Archeological Survey of India and Pakistan Archeology, they do. That person, Ershad Ali Rid (Asstt. Curator at Mohenjo Daro – I thanked him in one article) taught me everything. I cannot think of anyone else who would patiently, for three days, teach me street by street practically, brick by brick.
Omar: In Mohenjo-Daro?
Omar: What struck you? What was so interesting about it and how do you feel seeing the site that you have probably read about for years?
Shereen: I like the way the Pakistanis have cemented over certain routes across the mound, which tells the visiting public where to walk. The whole thing is that Mohenjo-Daro is such a wonderful site because of the baked-brick architecture. You can’t do this kind of conservation with a mud-brick site. Look at the pathetic state of Lothal.
You can do it of course with Dholavira because of its stone kind of wrapping of mud-brick walls, you can do it to some extent, and they are doing it. But then things happen there at Dholavira – the lorry comes right up into the citadel mound, why are they doing that now? I do not know. There is no one on-site who is keeping a check on procedures .
Omar: What you think about the Great Bath [at Mohenjo-daro] and what it’s function was?
Shereen: I have written that I think it was [part of] a royal investiture ritual. If someone went down the bath, [they] were ritually in some way treated and came out at the opposite end. It’s a royal ritual. It is not at all the counterpart of the South Indian temple. We can’t say these mad things about temple tanks being the earliest. Like they say you know Bharatanatyam [dance] has its history in the Harappan period because there is a dancing girl. Have you looked at the dancing girl, and is she really dancing?
Omar: You do not think the dancing girl is dancing?
Shereen: Of course not. It was [Ernest J. H.] Mackay’s idea that in his generation, the Edwardians, they thought that women of loose virtue were there to dance, to entertain the British troops, as nautch girls. He must have been to one of those shows. I looked at – luckily I found the – field register for HR area [of Mohenjo-daro]. I found it there. That day that they've excavated her, they called her a dancing girl.
Omar: But isn't the pose that she has a bit similar to dancing girls?
Shereen: Of course not, she's just standing with one hand on the hip and one hand down near the knee.
Omar: Yes, but I have postcards from a hundred years ago . . ..
Shereen: Yeah there's the girl in the red. I showed that in some of my lectures. People burst out laughing at this and now we know why they called her a dancing girl. Of course not.
Omar: Tell me more about the Great Bath. Why do you think it was royal?
Shereen: You see there are only a restricted range of steps going down into the water tank and they come out straight. Then there's a fenestrated courtyard, it's almost as if priests or some people – it's on three sides while walking: you could see them, you couldn't see them, you could see them, you couldn't see them right [from the water]. It's some heavy ritual that is involved.
The other fenestrated courtyard is in a building not very far away, which could have been the residence of the ruler which again, the British called the “College of Priests.” Now, Indian students don't understand that, and year after year, they write in their exams, “they had colleges in those days” I say no, it's like term was used in the sense of the College of Cardinals, it’s like the College of Bishops, it's a group. They thought this was a priest-ruled society, that's how it came and that is where there is a fenestrated courtyard also. It's very interesting, it's a long building!
Omar: What about the “Priest King”?
Shereen: He's very, very carefully done, so meticulously done. The steatite carver must have been scared that if he doesn't portray his ruler like this, he may be punished. Every trefoil in the shawl is absolutely accurately placed and in that there is a drilled hole.
Omar: Do you think it depicts a real person?
Shereen: I think it depicts someone who the carver thought a king should look like, so there'd be some amount of representation. People wouldn't show Shereen Ratnagar in just about any kind of very casual dress. They would show her in a sari, with spectacles and a pen and all because she's supposed to be a teacher. So far we don't have a self-presentation the way the Egyptians had.
Omar: So how is it that you have so few stone sculptures of such high quality?
Shereen: They aren't, Omar, they aren't very high quality. Look at the poor headless fellow, his arms are so thin. Somebody's forgotten. I mean somebody's overlooked his arms.
Omar: But the “Priest King” is [of high quality].
Shereen: There was one, the full kind of which is very much eroded, which may have been a very good one. Then the other statue may have been very early historic for all you know, and so small. I wonder if the priest king – it's very small, there's something monumental about him even then. So that's, I think I don't know who taught us that in class, maybe it was Sankalia, but something doesn't have to be huge in order to be monumental.
Omar: You can say that about the seals in a way?
Shereen: Yes. The massive animals on 1 inch x I inch seals.
Omar: What do you think about the seals, how they were used, and has how you're thinking about them changed in any way?
Shereen: I don't think I can say anything profound or improving on anyone else, but I have worried about this intaglio, for years. If you were literate, how did you write something in intaglio which was mirror writing. How did you do that? Then someone said, don't be stupid. You write it on clay, you scoop it out, you make a mold, and you got a positive mold. So the same thing you do in reverse. You have a positive mold of what you want to write. Then you make a negative mold of it and holding that, you carve up the seal.
This one little statement that Mackay made, which I think I should think about more. He said there were so many hundreds of unicorn seals in Mohenjo-Daro itself. How did anyone make out whose seal is which? It's the writing, so there may have been many literate people, many more than we think, in spite of the fact that they are logographic signs identifying the owners.
Omar: What do you think about that “unicorn”? Was it a real object, a mythical object?
Shereen: It was a mythical animal and because it had spread everywhere, except at Shortughai [an Indus site in Afghanistan]. Maybe one day he'll turn up in Central Asia, but it tells me that he was the sacred emblem of the rulers. That's why he's everywhere and even the late Mahadevan had found he [the unicorn] was what about 66%, I can't remember the figure, of the total [seals].
There are other mysteries also. What about the tiger? Why is he shown with his head looking back? Why is he shown as a tiger woman at Kalibangan, tiger woman at Noshero [with a] striped skirt. There are no tiger bones at any excavated Harappan site that I could find reported by P.K.Thomas. Therefore they may not have gone on on shikars . They didn't have heroes holding up two tigers, so is this really a traveling Mesopotamian epic?
Omar: They could be.
Shereen: They could be. At one stage, you couldn't say that: people got so offended that anything could come from anywhere. Dilip Chakrabarti has actually written that to ascribe something as an influence from somewhere else is to demean our culture. It’s not. It's the openness of our culture, how broad minded people were.
Omar: That’s true. Tell me about your most recent book [The Magic in the Image: Women in Clay at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa]. What are you trying to show there?
Shereen: They had to do with an urban social context. There are two or three at Chanhu-Daro, one at Banawali, one mis-fired specimen at Dholavira….. There are [only] three [outside of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa] and they are very clumsy.
I read Wheeler’s book again after many, many years, and noted that he says they aren't works of art. Then I started having them photographed. I was very lucky. Mr. Grover in the National Museum and his students were so open. I really enjoyed myself working with these young people over there – not so much in the National Museum, because we were a little over-awed . I took a young photographer, but we were told to go there on a Sunday and Mr. Grover opened each case in turn, and we were over-awed. We were not allowed to go to the basement to see.
But once I went to the Archeological Survey to Purana Qila, greenery, the two young photographers with me - and they said we don't want to stop, you can tell us to come every day, we'll do this work for you. The officer opened out the drawers for us. After three or four days, when we had done all this work and photographed it and I had made my notes and all, I found I actually hadn't done a good job. There are some photographs missing. So I went to this officer and said – I won't name any of them – what about the next lot? and he made such a face and he said you want yet more? They will show the same old crap. I can take it out for you, but you won't get anything significant out of that.
Then I thought about it and said it's true. It's almost like pottery. In one of the ICANEs, this international meeting of ancient Near East Archeology, a Turkish professor said we have to think about collecting plant material and animal bones. He said now specialists are coming to where we have collected the material from this site or that site and it's all turning out to be so repetitive, do you really want me to come back and look at every one of these dog femur bones?
This is something I think archeology must consider seriously.
Omar: So tell me what you think about these figurines?
Shereen: I realized that the hairstyles were different, the jewelry was different, the waistband was different. Although the torso was bare, but the hip was always covered. Why? Was it a woman herself or her next-door neighbor who didn't want her self to be totally exposed? Was she exposed only for a shamanic ritual?
You know, shamanism gets very little attention in Indian Studies. I don't know why, there are shamans everywhere. I normally show a l slide of one of the shamans I met in Gujarat; just to show people he is a real person. You know I don't get intimidated, he's a lovely person, so it was that.
There would have been rituals. Then I jumped and I realized that there are dozens and dozens of these little fellows with their knees drawn up, nude, in no distinctive dress of headgear—their arms around their knees. No nothing on the head, nothing around the neck, nothing to identify them individually, [the] complete opposite of these women. Many of them the same standard size, very small, not like a 22-centimeter torso [of the women]. So there was an underclass at Mohenjo-daro.
Then what creates the underclass? I’m fortunate enough to have read about slave girls and women in ration tablets in Mesopotamia, and seeing the Ebla palace grinding hall, with its enormous number of mortars. Women must have ground and ground and ground grain. So there were a lot of dead jobs also to be done, a lot of oppression where the state exists. Now Egyptologists are saying that Egyptians treated their enemies very badly. Mesopotamians certainly portray their prisoners at battle all bound up and nude and deprived of anything. So why couldn't these also be [so depicted by Indus people]? How can the Harappan Civilization be so bland?
Are we denying it any character or any punch and then, who would be the first, not a minority, the first section of society to pay the price? It would be the women. If the man had gone off to look for chert or was sent off to look for copper, or he had gone off on a boat to earn, and you didn't know whether he was coming back or he was not coming back. You were running the household yourself. You are doing the household duties as well as the duties incumbent on your lineage or your family, to work on state projects like making bricks. So you were really pained and then maybe there were some rituals. Women shamans maybe took over.
One of my friends from JNU told me about this: don't forget to look up the Industrial Revolution, There's a lot of this hocus-pocus going on in rituals in the cities of the Industrial Revolution because people really didn't know where they were coming from, what was going on. They were just trod on as overworked labor, and willingly joined these little cult groups here and cult groups there.
Then I asked my colleague Kunal Chakravarty, what is a cult? How is it different from a religion, so that the book goes into that a little bit. That helped me to clear out that maybe there was an urban cult. You know even the copper tablets, the talismanic tablets so-called, are only in Mohenjo-Daro. These figurines too are found mainly in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro so that's why the title The Magic in the Image. People said, everyone from MacKay onwards, everyone said that these figurines were very well baked. I started off believing they were very well baked.
Then I went to Anupam Sah at the Museum here in Bombay and asked him: do we really know that these things [are well-baked]? I'm not writing you an application in triplicate saying please allow me to smash one of these to see whether the core is oxidized or not. So how do I make out? He said you won't be able to make out. He gave me a very good tutorial on the terracottas.
When I went to the Indian Museum [in Kolkata], I was told almost the same thing: we don't know. You examine something to see if the core looks well smashed because there's a broken limb or a broken waist and you can see it's oxidized. what then my friend Paulomi Abhyankar, told me sitting on that balcony there at the CCI. She said: what if after they finished with this hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo – I don't think she used such mean words – and they had to ritually throw it into the [fire] hearth? Then the part which broke would be baked through, and the rest of the figurine would be baked but is it really of terracotta, which means it is a baked product. It may not be. We see so many unbaked figurines at Pirak for example. So now let somebody else prove me wrong or right or a third thing . I had to finish this [book] in two years. Let somebody else critique it.
Omar: So you thought it in the cities they had their own kind of cults? Do we have such evidence in Mesopotamia or Egypt?
Shereen: Yes, in Mesopotamia we do, in the Old Babylonian period there are these little cult plaques, depicting goddesses. They left them near the door, you left them here.
Omar: What's next? What do you want to talk about in your next book or project?
Shereen: First of all, I started telling myself one has to rationally think out why archaeological finds are treated as treasure. I'm going back to the colonial roots of that. Colonial roots also because somehow the misconception is now there among Indian students that everything was great in the time of [Sir Alexander] Cunningham and [Sir John] Marshall and people are now stealing our antiquities.
I tell them to open [Upinder] Singh’s book on Cunningham [The Discovery of Ancient India], in which she gives an account of how the Indian Museum wrote to Cunningham and asked him if you are doing so much fieldwork, why isn't a proportionate amount of antiquities coming in [staying in India]?
After he died some of his things – he was a collector, some of his stuff went to the British Museum. The excavator of Ur, Leonard Woolley, was also tempted by the splendid finds of that site.
Omar: So tell me about the colonial roots in Indian archeology and how they persist. What do you think about that?
Shereen: It is so depressing. Look at that Director-General of Archaeology [Sir John Marshall] who wasn't even present at Mohenjo-Daro but his name appears on the cover [of the book Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization]. The name of the individual excavators of individual mounds appears only in the Table of Contents. When you open the text itself, their names are not there, so you are liable to think that Marshall wrote everything, He didn’t.
Michael Jansen says and you can see it, you can open a field register and see the list of objects found in a house, although he changed the numbers of the houses. You can go back to the report and see that hardly 30% of the finds are published. So where are the rest?
We have to do some critical thinking about where are the rest, in which godown, instead of making fun of ourselves, Indians and Pakistanis, by telling them at some exhibition in America that they fought so hard that they were actually pulling one from the other. Were you there? Were those American great scholars there that they noticed this? Having tug-of-wars over the antiquities. It’s so bad that they've convinced people in Kolkata about this story. That’s the kind of thing I want to address. I want the young people to know from where the fabrication comes.
Even simple things. I did a course on archaeology in Xavier's College [in Mumbai] and in the first lecture I showed [the ancient Egyptian Queen] Nefertiti. I traced the background of how the Germans transferred it from one museum to the second to the third but didn't ever let it go back to Egypt. You know this is a form of colonialism, a form of appropriation. And it hasn’t stopped. I think Roger Matthews or somebody has written about it. “I’m there, so I can arrange for you to do this qualifying course in the West. I become your patron,” then this fellow starts answering the Indians or the Pakistanis seminar questions instead of letting his client struggle to answer. It is not nice and when he sees the obsequiousness that arises when this has gone on and doesn't he think he must stop?
Omar: Tell me about Indus writing? What your thoughts are about it? Where do you think we are? Do we have a chance of ever cracking the script?
Shereen: I do not think we have but I think the late Iravatham Mahadevan has put the whole thing squarely in a good framework for us to explore. So are the databases assisting us, there have been more seals and more inscriptions that come up but I do not think we can go very far now unless there is a bilingual.
Omar: But Mahadevan, even Parpola, seem to think that there is a Dravidian substrate to the language. Does that seem reasonable to you or not?
Shereen: Yes, except that I will never forgive Parpola for not referring, except in a half-sentence to Mahadevan’s work. Shocking lack of manners. This again is a sign of appropriation.
Imagine, he [Mahadevan] was in the IAS [Indian Administrative Service, an elite civil service]. He managed sick companies that were in the public sector for some time, he managed silk saris for some time. He was a polymath IAS [officer], the real kind of polymath and at the same time at one stage he took a Jawaharlal Nehru Trust fellowship and worked on the script.
Omar: That’s impressive. I am sorry he has gone.
Shereen: I am too.
Omar: Anything more on the script, do you think we will find a bilingual? That’s the question.
Shereen: [Nods, I don’t think so.] The nearest we have got to a bilingual of course is the Akkadian seal of an interpreter of Meluhha. He would have been bilingual. Will we ever find something written in cuneiform which does not make sense in Akkadian, but instead is a foreign language?
There again I am finding it very difficult to get across to general students and archeology students is the enormous implications of that [Akkadian] seal that lies in Mesopotamia. They [the Mesopotamians] have valued something so much that they appointed a state person [as an Indus interpreter]. He had a seal, that means he was a state person to be the official interpreter. Therefore, he would not say any gibberish, give no error. No Tom, Dick, and Harry could come and deceive you, it had to go through him. So what kind of information was he giving about goods, about elephants, about buffalos? If you read the praise inscription of Shulgi – and I will read it all out in my next course of lectures to the students – he says when I was taking the citadel at Elam, I could understand what their ambassador came to me and said. He said then I can understand the language of the people of the Black Mountains. Meluhha is the land of Black Mountains. So Shulgi took pride in not only writing and reading, in understanding, being cosmopolitan. The Curse of Akkad, the Mesopotamia poem, is about that.
Now, I am sorry to say – it is a bee in my bonnet – in my next course of lectures here, I want to emphasize this a lot more, that if students want to read only about India and only India, or Kerala and only Kerala, then they are missing out on a lot.