Archaeologist Sushmita Sen Pramanik studies the early-historic phase of the Indus Valley civilisation, trying to fill gaps in Gujarat’s early trade history.
“You must go to MS (Maharaja Sayajirao) University! Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize in 2009, studied there,” Nandita had pinged me, the day I got on the train to Baroda. My plan was to stay for three days. I assumed this was enough time to drop into several departments at the university, one of the oldest in the country, plus some more. But I had arrived at the worst time. The university was on its long weekend off for Dusshera and Gandhi Jayanti. Walking around, my lab-roving eye met only with the guards informing me of holidays happily.
And so, I extended my trip and was back at MSU’s campus on Monday. As I entered, the Mughal-styled domes and arches of the arts faculty had a gravitational effect on me. The atmosphere was like a scene from a bubbly campus film – several groups of chatty friends catching up, laughter everywhere, a guitar being played somewhere and new lovers walking hand in hand.
Drawn in by the college culture, I arrived at the entrance of the history and archaeology department. The inviting walkway into the building was lined with ancient sculptures. I kept an eye out for scholars who identify as female. Maybe I’ll meet an archaeologist, I thought.
On the first floor, there she was in her study surrounded by terracotta figurines from an era long past, seated patiently as if keeping the appointment we never made.
Connecting the dots to unearth a civilisation
Sushmita Sen Pramanik specialises in teaching and researching the art and architecture from early-historic India. The work that she does is slowly closing the wide gaps in understanding the trade and culture of our ancestors before the Indus Valley Civilisation matured and the city of Harappa was in all its glory around 3rd century BC. Her research lens is focused on the coins, toys and pottery discovered during archaeological excavations in Gujarat. As we began our conversation about her life and work, she first set the context.
“Look, what we know about Mesopotamia and Egypt we can call history as there is a long continuity of the historical data right from the ancient times. It is no more proto-history; it falls into the history category where they have found the script, which has been deciphered. Everything is documented in a very complete way without any breaks.”
“Whereas, here – the Indus Valley Civilisation, the third of three early far-reaching civilisations of the ‘Old World’ – we don’t find the script, only a few (inscribed symbols) are found on the seals. So we have to depend on excavation materials like ruins, jewellery, pottery shards and toys alone.”
“To call something ‘history’, you have to corroborate the writings you find. If we cannot corroborate, that is called proto-history.” she said zeroing in on the scope of her own research.
“And lastly, pre-history is what we guess only from stones about who lived in those times and in what conditions.”
Pramanik is an archaeologist, not a historian. The incomplete script and deciphering it is not her concern. Instead, her work aids historians by making inferences from the material culture left behind in the ruins of settlements found in Gujarat in the period known to archaeologists as early-historic (from 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD).
Why study archaeology?
Why should we study these items, I asked naively pointing at the bucket of figurines that sat next to us. “Quite a lot of reasons, my god,” she responded. “We try to understand the culture, the society, the economy, the religion…the complete socio-cultural aspect of people living in these lands in the ancient times. We get clues about the trade that was happening – that tells about the economy, what, where and how the craftsmen worked, lived and marketed.”
All of these clues add up to the realisation of ‘civilisation’ and how it takes its course. Being too deep into the macrocosm we ourselves live inside, we might not have such a view without archaeology.
With the help of V. Gordon Childe’s writings, Sushmita described how a civilisation is born. “It takes place when you are able to have plenty. You have land situated in a place with lots of water that allows you to plough many areas. Then you have surpluses, with the surpluses you can have trade. As the trade happens you need to have some kind of authority to control the things that are being grown, brought in and sent out. As the trade grows, the economy grows and people have leisure time to develop crafts that can again be traded. As trade grows, insecurity grows, because now there are have many assets to protect – the grains and craft. So now the fortification comes up and the gates come up separating the people into different classes. With that you have architecture. Then well-defined trade routes connect the centre to the towns and villages. All these are part of a civilisation.”
Gujarat’s crafts weighed in
These parts of a civilisation are well attested by the excavations of the proto-history that Pramanik studies. For example, in almost all early civilisation ruins there is an acropolis, always situated on top of a high hill, a place with big rooms and many wells meant for the ones who control the city. In the case of early-historic civilisation of the Indus Valley, “the acropolis could be the residence of the royals or the head-priest – we are not sure which one.”
And then there is a lower city for all the common people, “the aera gera khera (tom, dick and harry) including the craftspeople.” In Dholavira, in Kachchh, Gujarat one of the five biggest Harappan cities, we also find a middle level, which archaeologist call ‘the belly’.“The middle belly houses the most important officers, the people who are in between the ruler and the commoners…the people who can influence the leadership.” There are gated walls separating the rulers from the officers and another gated wall separating the officers from the commoners. This could be the first recorded instance of the middle class.
“We have the port of Lothal (Gujarat), Kalibangan (Rajasthan), Banawali (Haryana), Rakhigarhi (Haryana), there are so many sites, and everything has a lower city and acropolis. But the belly is found only in Dholavira.”
Dholavira is an important city for another reason. It falls on the trade route between Mohenjo-daro (Pakistan) and many smaller towns, villages in ancient Gujarat like the coastal settlements of Nageshwar and Bhagatrav, “where people liked making and wearing shell bangles.” The diversity of craft found just at Gujarat’s archaeological sites suggest the area had a lot to offer and with that, it probably had an important role to play in the trade. Some fishing villages traded in conch shells, others specialised in beads that are found in abundance in some sites indicating they were being traded from here. The carnelian stones that are found in good numbers in south-east Asia were traded from Khambhat. “The civilisation was probably depending heavily on these villages.”
Taking on a mega-project
Sushmita’s PhD research was based on the trade reach of towns and villages in early-historic Gujarat. Recently, she updated the work and re-published it as a book named Ridge of Splendour – Trade and Commerce in Gujarat.
Today, the state takes pride in being culturally a merchant state; Pramanik’s book suggests that the origins of this culture might have taken roots from a time much before what the written records suggest. “The book talks about the Indian ocean trade involving merchants from Gujarat based on evidence in epigraphy (the study of ancient inscriptions) and numismatics (the study of ancient coins).” Both these archaeological modules, Pramanik now teaches her graduate students.
In her book, Pramanik suggests that the ancient Gujarati’s were probably the first sea-faring Indians.
In 2015, she received funding from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to pursue a project on terracotta toys and figurines from early-historic Gujarat.
For this work, she is combing all the museums and cellars of the Archeological Survey in Gujarat. This “second-digging” as she likes to call it, is time-consuming and tiring. “Because there are so many objects in the museums and cellars it’s hard to find what you need. These objects were kept there around 1965 before I was born and never touched again. So I have to visit every facility in Gujarat and dig them out for the second time for my research.”
After this, possibly an excavation will be needed if she doesn’t find enough figurines – the human statuettes. “These are quite rare, unlike beads and animal figures that are aplenty.”
What she is really after is the technique with which these figurines were made. “Their legs were made separately and then they were kind of luted (joined) together. This technique hasn’t been discovered before in this region.” Further, some figurines are hollow and some are solid. “Hollow ones are known to be from Ganga valley region, they haven’t been seen here before.”
It is a vast ethnoarchaeological study to understand how the potters would have worked during that time, also comparing it to the practices in Harappan times – late Harappa compared the early-historic time that Pramanik studies– there is another aspect of the research for which she is looking forward to working with contemporary potters in Gujarat.
A lot of travelling is ahead of her. “Yes. I have to go all over Gujarat to cover all the important excavated sites in Junagarh, Amreli, Kachchh, Bhavnagar….which are the important ancient sites.” She enjoys this work thoroughly but she admits she could do with some assistance.
“UGC did not give me any research fellow. They said you can do it on your own. The professors who interviewed me were historians and they did not know about the quantum of work required. Historians really need to understand the archaeologists,” she pleaded.“This is the difficult part for me right now in research. I am taking the help of my regular graduate students but they don’t come regularly, obviously because they are not being paid.”
Similar work has been done before but none that focuses on terracotta figurines nor that looks at early historic Gujarat specifically.
Personal highs and lows
As a young girl, Sushmita was glued to historical adventure novels. Her favourite was Robin Cook’s Sphinx about the curious happenings in the life of an Egyptologist. Her fascination with such stories, she said, could be the reason why she enjoyed her degree in archaeology from the first day. Though she had not planned for it and was “forced” into it.
“Why I was forced is very interesting. In Madras, I did 11th, 12th in commerce at Women’s Christian College. I got 65% or something like that, not bad for a commerce student I would say. But you won’t get commerce B.Com. This was the conversation: first, they asked general category or OBC? I said general. 98%? No. Get lost.”
From the south, she came to Baroda for a bachelor’s degree on a recommendation by alumni of WCC and MSU and stayed on do a PhD. She also was lucky enough to get a temporary lectureship at the university. Once her job was secured, she never left. “I got married only after everything was done, I had gotten a permanent job and I was 34. Bengalis are usually not in a hurry to get married,” she said grinning with pride.
It was smooth sailing after the wedding. Her husband set up a business in Delhi and the couple was together whenever he visited Baroda. She gave birth to her son in a few years and an ayah, a full-time caregiver, helped her raise him. Pramanik could also pursue her research further.
After a few years of productive life, Pramanik and her family hit rocky shores emotionally. “In business, there are ups and downs. My husband was facing some difficulties with it. And at the same time, the ayah left for good.” It proved very tough for Pramanik to handle her family that was going through many changes and her research at the same time. “For 3 to 4 years I was very low in depression. I did not write any paper, I did not feel like doing anything. I was just teaching and nothing else. Then my husband sold everything and moved to Baroda.”
“I was alone with my son and had to take care of him and secondly my husband had lost his business, left everything and came here. I was always worried about what will society say? Very frankly, I will tell you, that is what I was thinking about. I never thought he is going through depression himself; I never gave sympathy to him. It was all I, me and myself. And that is what I realised for myself later. From the day I realised this, my positive attitude started.”
In 2008, Sushmita was able to gather herself and her research took off again. “My promotion was due and there was an opportunity to write and present a paper at a conference in Thailand about connections of trade between Gujarat and Soth East Asia in early-historic period”
Now her son is almost 15 years old. Her husband took up a job soon after. The family is now “good and well settled” having bought a new house in Baroda recently.
On Indian archaeology
From Pramanik’s point of view, Indian archaeology is flourishing. “There are many studies that lots of researchers are doing,” But the fixation on the central Harappa city is a sour point for her.
“I don’t know why people are so interested only in the Harappan culture. In pre-Harappan or early historic studies, there are very few people. There is some good early-historic research happening in Calcutta University, and also in Deccan College. It is coming up slowly, but too many people are into the late-Harappan culture.”
In the Indian archaeologist community, there are quite a few women but “of course most are men”. The requirement of archaeologists to venture out in the field, far away from present-day civilisations, might be deterring women to do this kind of research, Pramanik noted.
“This is one of the reasons why I opted out of late-Harappan history because you have to go to the field quite a lot for it. Right now, my son is in 9th – I cannot go on many excavations.”
“For fieldwork, women have to take somebody along with them. There is some amount of lab-work required in this area of research, to test the samples, date them, make thin films of the samples and study the composition. Some also study the osteology – the human or animal bones found at archaeological sites.”
“Most women are doing this kind of lab-based archaeology. There are women doing excavations too but if you do a comparison, men are more into the field, women are more into the lab. But there are women who have sacrificed family life and gone to the field.”
This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are travelling across India to meet unsung women scientists.