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Virendra Nath Misra

17th August 1935 – 31st October 2015

Appreciation by
Shanti Pappu
Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, 28, I Main Road, C.I.T.Colony, Mylapore, Chennai, India
Email: pappu.shanti@gmail.com

Virendra Nath Misra

V.N. Misra was legendary in Indian archaeology, in particular in the development of prehistoric research. Although H.D. Sankalia is regarded as the 'Father of Indian Archaeology', it was his student, V.N. Misra, who dominated post-Independence prehistoric archaeology in India, raising it to an international level. Coming from a simple village background, he excelled in his early education, specialising in history and Sanskrit. He later acquired a Master's Degree in Anthropology from Lucknow University, studying under eminent scholars of the time. He began his PhD on the prehistory of Rajasthan in western India under H.D. Sankalia at the Deccan College in 1961. From then until his retirement as director of the same institute, he bridged the gap between traditional approaches and rising new perspectives in this dynamic phase of Indian archaeology. Misra was primarily responsible for guiding Indian prehistory for several decades, beginning with what he termed a 'formative phase' in the 1960s. In an influential paper in 1962, he set the trend for later studies, strongly arguing for the use of European terminologies in Indian prehistory. At the same time, he acknowledged the need to recognise regional variability, and did not hesitate to challenge the presence of cultural phases that he believed lacked field evidence (e.g. a pre-Soan phase in the Siwaliks, or a pre-Acheulian phase in the Narmada valley).

His lifelong interest lay in the Mesolithic, and his extensive excavations at the rich stratified sites of Bagor and Tilwara in Rajasthan generated new data, leading to discussions on the evolution and continuity of microlithic technology in India, on transitions to domestication and on the role of environmental factors in influencing local adaptation. These ideas continued in his later research on Mesolithic levels at the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. His reviews of the Mesolithic reflect thoughts on the impact of changing ecological factors and climatic amelioration in the early Holocene, as new technologies influenced changes in site distribution and size, in addition to a dramatic increase in population. He visited, and was influenced by, excavations at rock shelters in France. On returning to India, he initiated excavations at the rock shelter complex of Bhimbetka in central India in 1973. These excavations, particularly at the shelter IIIF-23, revealed a continuous sequence from the Late Acheulian to the Mesolithic. It was here, that Misra formalised his concept of evolutionary stages within the Acheulian, thereby enabling comparative studies across India of cultural continuity from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Along with his students, he used statistics to analyse assemblages. Misra drew extensively on the rock art of this region to reconstruct aspects of the use and hafting of microliths and other aspects of prehistoric life. This work established the background that eventually led to the recognition of Bhimbetka as a World Heritage Site.

In 19771985, he returned to his first love—the deserts of Rajasthan—with a major interdisciplinary project to investigate prehistoric occupation and climate change in this region. This project constituted a benchmark in Indian prehistory. Extensive surveys were supplemented by excavations and test trenches in and around Didwana in the Nagaur district, with the now famous discoveries of Acheulian artefacts in the Jayal gravel ridges, the excavation of a 20m step trench in the 16R dune and trenches in the playa lake deposits at Singi Talav. At 16R, excavations yielded excellent data on palaeoclimatic changes over the Pleistocene, situated within a geochronological framework, along with evidence of Palaeolithic occupation at several levels. Singi Talav also revealed rich Acheulian horizons, with the rare presence of quartz crystals, perhaps indicative of an aesthetic sensibility. These studies marked many 'firsts' in Indian prehistory: Acheulian occupation of the Thar desert; stratified evidence of Palaeolithic artefacts in dune sands; geochronological and palaeoenvironmental controls over thick sequences of deposits; and the first recognition in South Asia of early hominin adaptations to changing environments in such landscapes. From 19881989, Misra excavated the Middle Palaeolithic site of Samnapur in the Narmada Valley. He combined this work with a study of local hunter-gatherer communities, enabling students to experience exciting archaeological and ethnoarchaeological field trips in this beautiful jungle environment.

Misra was equally proficient in protohistoric archaeology, publishing on copper hoards and Painted Grey Ware Cultures, as well as on aspects of the Harappan civilisation. Towards the end of his career, in 1989, he returned to the Chalcolithic, with excavations alongside colleagues at the site of Balathal in Rajasthan, an Ahar culture site with Early Historic levels. Here, the discovery of a fortified enclosure with enigmatic burnt deposits of cow dung, ceramics, structures, artefacts and faunal remains, enabled reconstruction of a Chalcolithic way of life dating between 37001800 BC, stimulating discussions on the relationship with the Harappans and other Chalcolithic cultures in India.

Altogether, his work included intensive fieldwork, meticulous observations enhanced by an eidetic memory, a sense of global issues in prehistory and a superb grasp of lithic typology from India and collections that he had observed abroad (as part of his Homi Bhabha, Fulbright and Leverhulme Fellowships), and also an early appreciation of the need for large interdisciplinary collaborative projects. His approach to theory was implicit, with a strong ecological focus that drew on his observations of tribal and village life in India, and little patience for what he believed was excessive theorisation. His anthropological background, ethnoarchaeological research with colleagues (e.g. on the Van Vagris, Pardhis, tribes and castes of the Ganga plains, amongst others), along with data generated from prehistoric burials in India, led to a firm belief in the deep prehistoric roots of modern Indian tribes, and a cultural continuity influenced by ecological factors and historical processes. His vast knowledge on these subjects brought life to his lectures, both in the college and in the field.

He published more than 120 research papers, five books and other edited volumes, numerous popular articles in English, Hindi and Marathi, and guided around 25 PhD students who worked on diverse aspects of South Asian archaeology. He is credited with being the face of Indian prehistory on a global scale, not only through his research, but also through personal friendships with leading scholars. F.R. and B. Allchin, J.D. Clark, F. Bordes, H. de Lumley, L.S. Leshnik, P. Bellwood, A.T. Clason, S. Deraniyagala, J. Golson, D. Mulvaney, G. Possehl, Rhys Jones, R.J. Wasson, K.A.R. Kennedy and J. Lukacs are a few names amongst many. Misra was also a key figure in the Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies and, barring some interludes, worked as editor of its journal, Man and Environment, from its inception until his demise. As director of Deccan College, he was responsible for generating funds through the Ford Foundation, finalising the process of establishing it as a Deemed University and enhancing the library and research facilities.

Despite his workload, Misra was approachable and much loved by his students. He was well known for his personal charm and he had a unique ability, in the often polarised Indian academic world, to maintain boundaries between his research and personal friendships with people across great ideological divides. He was supremely self-confident, and yet had childlike simplicity and humility, with an immense curiosity spanning diverse disciplines. In spite of great personal tragedies and health problems in his last years, he lived life to the full and worked until the end, carrying his books into the hospital. His passing marks the end of an era in Indian archaeology.