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Biography as History: Indian Perspectives

Biography as History: Indian Perspectives
Item Code: IHL260
Author: Vijaya Ramaswamy& Yogesh Sharma
Publisher: Oriental BlackSwan Private Limited
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 8125035214
Pages: 315
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.9 Inch X 5.5 Inch
From the Jacket

The lives of individuals in authority have traditionally been the subject matter of history. The essays in this book examine biographies and autobiographies of people from different social strata and seek to show how personal accounts of individual lives contribute to our understanding of the historical moment. This is done in both traditional and refreshingly new ways. Thus the essays look at the biographies of marginalized figures and of people in the middle other essays attempt to understand the biographies of cities institutions and organization while yet others undertake a deconstruction of hagiographical texts.

About the Author

Vijaya RamaswamyProfessor of history at the centre for historical studies Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the author of textiles and weavers in medieval south India (1985). The Revised version of this book under the title textiles and weavers in south India came out in 2006. She is also the author of divinity and deviance women in Virasaivism (1996) and walking Naked women society spirituality in south India (1997) a revised edition came out in 2007. She is the editor of researching Indian women (2003) while the Historical Dictionary of the Tamils was published in 2007.

Yogesh Sharma is associate professor of history at the centre for historical studies Jawaharlal Nehru University his area of specialization is the European presence in India in the seventeenth century. He has also worked on the maritime history of the European East India companies in the context of peninsular India.


Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography titled my Experiments with Truth remarks writing an autobiography is a practice peculiar to the west. I know of nobody in the East Having written one except amongst those who have come under western influence.

Is the art of writing autobiographies totally alien to the Indian cultural ethos? I would not agree self reflexive writing in the autobiographical mode has long been a part of Indian literary tradition.

One such writing that comes to mind is the autobiography of the fourteenth century Maharshtrian woman saint Bahina Bai Lyrical in form mystical in its presentation and highly spiritual in content it is a true representation of her life and struggles although it does not follow any formal stylistic mode as one would find in the western literary tradition. Bahina discusses her birth at Devgaon into a Brahmin family. Her father was Auhi Kulkarni the village accountant she writes that when she was five she was married to a thirty year old man. This was his second marriage. As befits a traditional wife Bahina does not take her husband’s name. The rest of Bahina’s life is her attempt top negotiates her uncontrollable passionate love for god with her sense of duty towards her husband. Her autobiography titled Atmanivedam while extolling patriarchy tells how she managed to subvert patriarchal norms including surrendering to her shudra guru, Tukaram. Considering her Brahmin birth Bahina’s public acknowledgement of Tukaram as her guru was a dual radicalism the unshackling of brahmanical controls and the shattering of patriarchal notions of the good wife who remains within the private space of the home.

Whether such self reflexive writings can be termed biographies is a debatable point A.R. Venkatachalapathy in this volume rejects the possibility of an indigenous tradition of autobiographical writing before the advent of the British. In his opinion writing that is intensely personal and experiential is no tantamount to biographical writing. Autobiography which narratives the self is therefore to be placed squarely in the historical context of colonialism since the urge to definite the Tamil self did not exist before that.

This debate over whether India has an indigenous tradition of autobiographical writing and whether self reflexive writing is tantamount to an autobiography constitutes one point of entry for this anthology of essays on the theme Biography as history. One should also look at a literary genre that I would like to term autobiographies in palimpsest. Even during the late colonial period when the anti-imperial struggle was gathering strength women who may be termed non elite were hesitant about writing their autobiographies since their live lay in the grey area between the public and the private domains. One such life was an indefatigable, biographer profiling the lives of Saivita Nayanar Women saints like Karaikkal Ammaiyar. Mangaiyarkkarasiyar and even the lives of unusual western women like Florence nightingale Harriet Beecher stow and the prison reformer Elizabeth fry. In expressing her admiration for these women who ploughed a lonely furrow she also spoke a great deal about her own desires frustrations and views on politics and society (especially issues concerning women and lower castes). My own essay here muffled Narratives the life and times of Neelabikai Ammaiyar looks at her writings as autobiography in palimpsest comparing and contrasting it with her brother Tirunavukkarasu’s biography of her life.

Banabhatta’s Harshacharita is however not the only text which constitutes India’s claim to an indigenous tradition of biography/autobiography. In this volume Kumkum Roy Takes up Sandhaykaranandin’s Ramacharitam for critical analysis. Her essay gives the lie to the oft-expressed and equally often endorsed view that Indians did not know the art of biography writing. Titled the artful biographer her essay endeavors to show how Sandhaykaranandin was not only skillful but also artful in this particular literary mode. His Ramacharitam assignable to circa eleventh to twelfth centuries CE consists of just two hundred verses. What is remarkable in his use of double entendre throughout the text. Every verse can be read in two ways as a biographical detail of the mythological hero Ram of the Ramayan and simtaneouly as the panegyrical biography of king Ramapala of the simultaneously as the panegyrical biography has multiple agendas eulogizing his patron Bengal. The biography has multiple agendas – eulogizing his patron Ramapala divinizing kingship staking imperial claims to new territories and using a didactic paradigm to disseminate brahmanical values to name only a few.

The medieval period in north India witnessed the arrival of a tradition of writing biographies in Persian. This was part of a larger tradition in the Islamic world. The tradition of biography writing began in medieval Islam when the collectors of Hadith (traditions of the Prophet) had to verify their sources. Thus biographies of the muhaddith (conveyers of prophetic traditions) were compiled. Later the scope of this tradition of biography writing was expanded to include biographies of religious divines and of the Prophet Mohammed. These biographies were known as tazkitra the biography writing tradition in Persian was derived from this Arabic tradition. The first Indian work of biography writing was the siyar-ul-awaliya (fourteenth century). This contained biographies of saints. In this initial phase the tradition of biography writing was applied to saints.

Writing of biographies was definitely a part of Mughal literary traditions. A biographical history was attempted by Zia-ud-din Barani in his Taarikh-i-firoz Shahi which is a hagiographical account of the personality traits and achievements of Firoz Shah Tughlaq.

It must of course be kept in mind that Barani was a disgraced courtier whose complicity in the plots to dethrone Firoze Shah had landed him in jail. His hagiographical history of the reign was essentially an attempt to ingratiate himself with the kind and find his way back to the royal court. Another text of the sultanate period which deserves special notice is Minhaj-us-Siraj’s Tabawat-i-Nasiri. Apart from providing a historical account of the reigns of the kings of the slave dynasty upto Razia the work also provides brief biographical sketches of many rulers and notables. There are a number of well known biographies and autobiographers of Mughal emperors. There is Gulbadan Begum’s Humayun Nama Among autobiographies their is the babut Nama originally written in Chaghtai Turkish. This was later translated into Persian by Abdur-ur-Rahim Khan-i-khanan. There is also the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri the memoirs of Jahangir.

Abul Fazl’s Akbar Nama falls into a distinct category since his historical account begins with Adam in the true fashion of Islamic epistemological traditions but suddenly comes down to Akbar at which point it becomes quasi-biographical. The text also provides dense historical descriptions of the reign of Akbar. The Akbar Nama should be read in conjunction with Abul Fazl’s other historical treatise the Ain-i-Akbari. The major criticism against Abul Fazl has been his indiscriminate praise of Akbar which made both his biography as well as his history suspect in the eyes of latter-day academia in contrast Badayuni bristles with hostile criticism in his Muntakab-ul-Tawarikh. This three volume work is in the best traditions of medieval biographical histories. The first volume narrates the history upto the reign of akbar while the second volume focuses exclusively on Akbar’s reign providing a strong critique of his policies so admiringly detailed by Abul Fazl. The last volume contains a series of biographies including the lives of prominent ulema nobles and even important professionals including some physicians. Despite their being colored by Badayuni’s personal prejudices and predilections these are unquestionably in the biographical mode. The work has been ascribed to the seventeenth century.


Acknowledgements ix
One Introduction
Vijaya Ramaswamy
Section I: Biographical Traditions
TwoThe Artful Biographer: Samdhaykaranandin’s
Kumkum Roy
ThreeMaking a Modern Self in colonial
Tamil Nadu
A.R. Venkatachalapathy
Four Writing the life of the Guru: Chattampi
Swamikal, Sree Narayana guru and modes
of biographical construction
Udaya Kumar
Five Between History and Hagiography
Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna
Amya P.Sen
Section II: Biography from the Margins
Six Presenting the self: Norms and emotions in Ardhakathanaka
Farhat Hasan
Seven Muffled Narratives: The life and times of
Neelambikai Ammaiyar
Vijaya Ramaswamy
Eight Recovery Recontextualisation and
Performances questions on the Margin
Rimli Bhattacharya
Neelambikai Ammaiyar
Vijaya Ramaswamy
Section III: European Memoirs in Indian Settings
Nine A Merchant Adventurer in Portuguese Asia
Filipe De Brito (1580-1615)
Radhika Chaddha
TenA Chronicle of the times the memoirs of
Francois Martin (1665-1696)
Yogesh Sharma
Eleven Memoir sur I’Inde The Memoirs of Piveron
de Moriat (1745-1813)
Jean Marie Lafont
Section IV: Writings Biographies Remisniscences and Reflections
Twelve The Historian as biographer
B.R. Nanda
Thirteen Its time to put Down Memories
S. Muthaiah
FourteenWomen Narrating Women
Aparna Basu
Contributors 274
Bibliography 277
Index 291
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