Being a “Them” in Indian Archaeology

I often get emails from young students asking if they should do their Masters or PhD’s in Archaeology abroad. I ask them one thing, and this is something you should really consider. I ask them what do they plan to do after their courses. I ask them to reflect hard on this, because this can be a make or break decision.

If they want to study abroad and would rather stay in archaeology/anthropology academia abroad, then it is a wise decision to invest the money, time and emotions to take the step of studying abroad. But if they think they want to work in archaeology in India after they graduate from abroad, then they need to reconsider their decision. The thing is, here, in Indian Archaeology, the moment you come back from finishing your course abroad, you are instantly perceived as a threat to the establishment. There is a strong sense of us vs them, and you are the “them” here. As a result, your options for getting proper employment in universities and with the ASI are very limited. So even though you probably have a better archaeology education than most of your peers (and I mean this, because archaeology syllabi in most Indian colleges and universities teaching the discipline is pretty archaic, still). The jobs opportunities are shrinking day by day, and it has all come down to who you know. And since you are already “them”, you won’t ever become “us” enough to get a few jobs that are available.

Let me give an example from my own experience. When I returned from England after my MA in Archaeology in 2010, there were very few jobs available. My dad had just retired from his very low paying job, and my family was in terrible financial shape. It is then that, two large museums, one in Calcutta and another elsewhere, put out a call for applications, and the eligibility criteria matched mine. I applied, and then waited for months to get a call for an interview. Suddenly, one day, I found out that someone in the “us” camp had gotten the job at the Calcutta one, and there were no interviews were ever done for it. I was a better candidate than the person who got the job, but then the successful candidate knew the right people and was an integral part of “us”. The next job, I did get an interview call 8 months after applying, but when I arrived at the appointed date and time, I was told that I won’t be interviewed since a candidate was already selected and the post wasn filled. Turned out, this person an was another integral member of the “us” camp.

So when I started applying for my PhD abroad, I wanted my post-PhD pathway to be clear in my head. I had decided that I won’t work in conventional archaeology in India after my PhD. I didn’t know what I would exactly do- but I knew that I wanted to do something revolutionary with my skills. Something that will have a strong element of outreach and entrepreneurship. I am glad that I have been able to do this.
So the takeway from this: it is my humble advice that if you are really passionate about archaeology and want to go abroad for your higher education, do think about what you want to do with the skill sets and the education you get. You can either stay abroad in academia, or think out of the box and do things in India by yourself to make the past more accessible. But remember this, you will never be an “us”, and don’t waste your time trying to be one. “Them” is just fine, and you should be proud of it and do great things outside the conventional shackles of Indian archaeology. “Us” is a comfort zone, and “them” is scary. But “them” leads to beautiful things, innovations, research and creates jobs that moves the discipline forward.

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Tathagata Neogi

Dr Tathagata Neogi is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Leader of Immersive Trails, a purpose-driven company based out of Kolkata, India that converts ethical, in-depth research into immersive experiences. Tathagata is a vocal advocate of empathic, ethical, community focused business practices.

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