Foreword: My meeting with eminent Historian Dr. R. Nagaswamy was the starting point for the love of History in my life. While working in Adyar Times, a neighbourhood newspaper in Chennai, a friend suggested that an interview with him might be interesting. To be honest, it was the first time I heard about his name. I did a quick google search and found out some basic information on him. Most of them were on his success in London, where he won back home a smuggled bronze Nataraja statue. I have covered the incident elaborately in the article below. The information on him was not enough, but I knew that I was about to meet an encyclopedia in Indian History. He answered my phone call without any pretense and readily agreed to a meeting. When I entered his modest apartment in Chennai, he greeted me with a smile and asked me to sit down. His house had nothing much to show other than books stacked in every corner. The furniture was minimal and mismatched. One item that did attract me was a Nataraja idol on a pedestal in his living room. I started with a disclaimer that I was a novice in History and he should bear with my ignorant questions. He smiled benevolently and there began my love for History. He was patient and guided me through the interview starting from the basics. It took me two meetings to cover the interview and this work is very close to my heart. I consider myself Ekalaiva and he is my Dronacharya when it comes to History. I went on to complete my Masters in History after meeting him. He didn’t quite ask my finger, instead encouraged me to write on lesser-known temples in Tamil Nadu. I dedicate the monuments page in my blog to this stalwart.
Dr. R. Nagaswamy, Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu (Retd.) is a veteran in Art, Archaeology, Epigraphy, Numismatics, and Iconography. He is a treasure-trove of scientific data pertaining to ancient Indian history, South Indian bronzes, temple rituals, philosophy, ancient law, and society.
In his conversation with me, he shares his significant contribution to the study of history in Tamil Nadu. A recipient of the Kalaimamani award, he was also honoured by The Indian Council of Historical Research with the ICHR- Gurukul Fellowship Award in March 2017 for his untiring contribution in the field.
Tell us about your contribution as the Director of Archaeology…
After obtaining my Doctorate in Indian Arts, I joined Madras Museum as a curator. I became the first Director of Archaeology of the State in 1966 and served till 1988. During this period, I was able to create interest in history among the students in the school, college, and university levels. I did this by instructing the schools in the State to take their students on field trips to nearby historical monuments and educate them about it. I used to take around 40 teachers across the State annually to various monuments and taught them history on the site. Many pocket guides on historical sites have been brought out by me, based on my research. My focus was to emphasize History and not its associated myths.
Can you throw us some light on the important excavations you were involved in?
Some major excavations during my tenure were the discovery and protection of first-century Chera inscriptions in the ancient site of Pugalur, the remains of the palace of Rajendra Chola I in Gangai Konda Chozha Puram, a portion of Veerapandiya Kattabomman’s palace in Panchalamkurichi, identifying Karur as the capital of Cheras, about 200 hero-stones (nadugals) ranging from 3rd century to 18th century AD in the Chengam area, and sighting of the birth house of Bharathiyar in Ettayapuram.
Your achievements …
I piloted the first-ever sound and light programme in 1982, in the Thirumalai Nayakar palace at Madurai in TN. One breakthrough was conducting the underwater archaeological survey in the Coramandel coastline from Poompuhar to Nagapattinam in collaboration with the Oceanographic Survey of India. I was instrumental in instituting several museums and district archaeological departments.
You have a role in establishing the Chidambaram Natyanjali festival. Can you share some insights on that?
It was a regular ritual for dancers to perform in temples till the 19th century. However, under colonial rule, dancers were looked down and were prohibited from dancing inside the temples. I wanted to change this opinion in the mindset of people. Hence, along with Kapila Vatsyayana we established the Chidambaram Natyanjali festival in 1981.
Can you explain briefly about the famous London Natraja case?
The Scotland Yard seized a smuggled Natraja idol in 1982 and experts from Tamil Nadu identified it as the one stolen from the village of Pathur. Indian Government filed a case for possession of the idol. I was one of the key Expert Witnesses in the case. I answered various scientific, religious, and historical questions regarding the 11th century Chola idol, eventually convinced the judge, and won the statue back. However, it is not possible in many cases because pieces of evidence are very important to get the objects of historical significance back from other countries.
What do you think about the current History syllabus in India?
I think the local History should be given more importance. How many of us know about a nearby battlefield in Vellore, where the famous battle of Thakkolam between the Cholas and the Rashtrakutas happened? Who knows about the election process for Panchayat heads found on the 1000- year-old inscription in Uttaramerur? Things like that could be brought in to syllabus so that more students would benefit from local knowledge.
In my opinion, the syllabus should help spread the knowledge of archaeology in the scientific line, rather than glorifying any individual. There are thousands of inscriptions across Tamil Nadu alone that are yet to be deciphered. The Government should encourage the study of Epigraphy and also strive towards increasing the historical temper among the younger generation.