Theft of Time: Notes on Spolia and the Writing of Indian History

This talk focuses on the idea of spolia, which has a long and illustrious genealogy in political discourse, beginning with the display of objects seized and monuments destroyed or assimilated into new structures as emblematic of military conquest, but in a more expansive sense, as a practice fundamental to the establishment of new regimes―not only a visceral exercise of power, but also as symbolic appropriation of the strength of one’s enemies and predecessors. It looks at how the theme of spoliation has dominated the contours of both colonial and nationalist Indian history writing, and how it has been associated with the insignia of sovereignty in India; not just the desecration of religious monuments, but also the historic acknowledgement and temporal reckoning of the transience of past kingdoms, empires and epochs.

Sudipta Sen is Professor of History and Director, Middle East/South Asia Studies Program at the University of California, Davis, with research interests in late Mughal and British India, and the history of the environment. His recent publications include Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), which offers an interdisciplinary study of the Ganges beginning in pre-history and ending in contemporary environmental debates, exploring the ecological, mytho-religious, and socio-political crosscurrents of India’s sacred river. His previous publications include Empire of Free Trade: The English East India Company and the Making of the Colonial Marketplace (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) and Distant Sovereignty: National Imperialism and the Origins of British India (London: Routledge, 2002). Sen has previously taught at Beloit College, University of California, Berkeley, and Syracuse University. A former Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sen won the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Award for his contribution to research and teaching at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. He is currently working on a book-length manuscript entitled Lawless Subjects: Crime, Punishment and Justice in Early British India, 1770-1830.

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