Was there history writing in India befor the British arrived? The stock answer is 'no'. Other than the Rajatarangini of Kalhana, no ancient text adequately resembles a historical narrative. The itihasa purana tradition is largely indistinguishable from mythology. The vamsavali and critra traditions do not really distinguish between the legendary and the historical. Yet these genres did percolate into India's regional languages, being later complemented by Persian Cour chronicles.
Looking closely at vernacular context and traditions of historical roduction, this book questions the assumption that there was no history writing in India before colonialism. It suggests that appropriate techniques of reading reveal distinctly indigenous historical narratives History in Assam, Bengal, the North East, Kerala, the Andhra Tamil region, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh are examined here with fresh archival material and new insights.
Raziuddin Aquil is the author of Sufism, culture and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval North India (2007) Partha Chatterjee's many books include. The Nation and Its Fragments (1993), and A Princely Impostor? (2002)
We at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), have been trying for some time to take stock of the place of history-both as an academic discipline and as a mode of public representation of the past-in contemporary India. An earlier volume on this theme, based on presentations at a conference held in 1999, was edited by Partha Chatterjee and Anjan Ghosh and published under the title History and the Present (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002). The present volume continues that project, this time by specifically exploring the status of vernacular histories in relation to academic histories written, almost exclusively in the English language, by professional historians of India.
Most of the essays in this volume were discussed at a conference held at the CSSSC in December 2004. We are immensely grateful to the Ford Foundation, which provided financial support for the conference and for preparing the manuscript of this volume under their grant to the CSSSC project on 'Writing New Cultural Histories'. The conference is still remembered for the astonishing range and intensity ofinformed discussion on so many regions, periods, and genres of history writing in India. We were fortunate to have had as participants, among others, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, Kunal Chakrabarti, Avinash Kumar, Shail Mayaram, Gyanendra Pandey, Rajat Kanra Ray, Tapan Raychaudhuri, Padmanabh Samarendra, Samita Sen, Jayanta Sengupta, Lakshmi Subramanian, and A.R. Venkatachalapathy. Among our CSSSC colleagues, we are especially grateful to Gautam Bhadra, Anjan Ghosh, and Tapati Guha Thakurta for their help in putting together this volume. Our special thanks also to Prabir Basu of the CSSSC and Susanta Ghosh of the ICSSR Eastern Regional Centre for providing logistical support.
As we were putting together this volume, news arrived in December 2006 of the brutal murder in Patna of Papiya Ghosh, historian, social analyst, and dedicated teacher. Several of the contributors to this volume had been associated with her work in various capacities, and some indeed were her close friends. Given Papiyas lifelong commitment to the encouragement of historical scholarship in institutions far removed from the centres of metropolitan privilege, we dedicate this volume to her memory.
When was Vernacular History?
Let us begin with an old and somewhat banal question and see if we have any new answers: it may enable us to situate the subject of vernacular histories in a new perspective. The question is: was there history writing in India before the British colonial intervention?
The old answer to this question, carried over from British colonial times, is 'no'. Other than the much cited but little read RajataranginiKalhana's twelfth-century chronicle of Kashmir kings-there is no text in Sanskrit that resembles what we take to be a historical narrative. What is called itihasa, of which the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the great texts, is largely indistinguishable from mythology because, even if it contains a kernel of narratives about historical events and characters, the conventions of reading those texts do not allow us to tell the historical from the mythological. Indeed, in the Sanskrit literary tradition, the itihasa is virtually indistinguishable from the purana which is the usual name given to the large body of mythological literature. The other genre for recording the past in Sanskrit is the vamsavali, which is the collective name for genealogical chronicles of ruling dynasties and families of distinction. Closely related to the vamsavali is another genre called caritra, which consists of hagiographical life histories of kings or saintly religious figures. These, even when they speak of relatively recent periods, cross over unselfconsciously between mythic and historical time, make no appeal to rules of evidence or procedures of verification of sources, do not care to distinguish between the legendary and the historical, and do not feel bound by the requirements of rational causation. These gentes of narrating the past did percolate, over the past thousand years or so, into the various regional languages of India. But, unlike the genres of Greek, Latin, and Chinese literature, they did not offer a 'classical' tradition of what could be properly called historiography.
The methods of proper historical writing came to India, according to this old answer to the question, in the form of the court chronicles of the Islamic rulers of the country. From the days of the Delhi Sultanate, these were written in Persian and followed the conventions of history writing established in the Turko-Afghan and Iranian political traditions. The writing practices of their authors, acknowledging a common classical source in the Greek tradition and sharing a more recent history of political encounters during the Crusades, were much closer to European conventions of history writing. But these Persian histories of India, even though they comprised the overwhelming part of the history of India as told by its own historians', were-or so it was argued-a foreign implant, made necessary by the political technologies of foreign conquerors and framed by the ethical principles of an Islamic, i.e. 'foreign', political tradition. These Persian chronicles remained confined to the military and administrative activities of sultans and their officials, and did not strike roots in the indigenous, local, and vernacular traditions of retelling the past.
Does more recent scholarship suggest any new answers to this old question? First, the characterization of Indo-Persian historiography as 'foreign' and disconnected with later practices of history writing in the regional languages of India has been thoroughly criticized and rejected. Persian histories of India did undoubtedly derive their conventions from Arabic, Persian, and Turkish histories, and thus brought into India many historiographical practices hitherto unknown in the country. But, in writing their Indian histories, IndoPersian chroniclers developed their own body of practices, giving birth to a tradition of their own. A major consideration here, as Muzaffar Alam has argued, was the twofold narratological requirement of upholding the normative authority of Islamic principles of government while, at the same time, theorizing a ruling order in which the bulk of the subjects of the sultan were non-Muslim. This necessarily meant that 'theory, orthodoxy and fundamentalist positions' had to be questioned, and political doctrines inherited from the dogmatic traditions of Islam modified.' The result was a body of historical writing and scholarship which, though written in Persian, was distinctly Indian in its practices and sensibilities. It had its own canonical texts that, by the seventeenth century, were part of the required reading of all princes, bureaucrats, and persons of refined courtly culture in northern as well as southern India.
C.A. Bayly has located the practices of Indo-Muslim history writing in the eighteenth century within what he calls 'an Indian ecumene', characterized by a distinct information order and an indigenous public sphere. He identifies a series of people, from official letter-writers and spies to scholar-bureaucrats, who participated in this information order and processed the material that went into the production of numerous Indo-Persian histories written in the eighteenth century. Baylyalso notes the emergence of certain distinctly 'modern' concerns in these histories, which appear to come from entirely indigenous sources and not from the promptings of a colonial education. Thus, a historian like Ali Ibrahim Khan, who wrote about political events between 1757 and 1780, was, Bayly says, 'an unacknowledged founder of a consciously modern Indian history'.2 Bayly's work has been influential in demolishing prejudices against the existence of history in pre-colonial India. However, notions such as 'ecurnene' and 'information order' lack theoretical clariry and analytic power, while the attribution of a Habermasian public sphere to the literary world of eighteenth-century northern India is too quick. Given the absence of meaningful conceptual distinctions, Bayly's slide from the pre-colonial to the era of colonial modernity in the nineteenth century seems far too smooth and unproblematic. The elision is fatal for our understanding of the domain of the vernacular under conditions of colonial and post colonial modernity.
Pursuing the question of the emergence of new literary forms in India in the period of early modernity, V. Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have also explored the field of history writing.' They question the facile but common assumption that there was no history writing in India before the colonial encounter. They suggest that by employing more careful and appropriate techniques of reading, we would be able to identify distinctly historical narrativesfactual, bound by secular causal explanations, informed by an awareness of the credibility of sources, and largely having to do with the life of the state. Such narratives, they argue, are embedded within non-his toricalliterary genres, such as poems, ballads, and works within the larger itihasa-purana tradition, but are marked by discursive signs that cause them to be recognized as historical narratives by the community of readers or listeners. They also argue that, from the sixteenth century in southern India, a distinct group of literati, whom they broadly label the karanam, produced these distinctly new historical narratives in the languages of southern India as well as in Sanskrit and Persian. If history is to be identified as a particularly receptive vehicle of the modern, then the Rao-Shulman-Subrahmanyam argument is that it had already appeared, at least quite certainly in the southern Indian languages, well before British rule was established.
Elsewhere, in northern India, the 'men of the pen', known as munshis, produced (as noted by Bayly as well) a form of history that, even when written in Persian, was decidedly vernacular rather than classical in style and sensibility, and which would trickle later in the nineteenth century into various written forms of Hindustani, including Rajasthani. Further, in the Maratha territories of western India, a distinct genre called thebakhar emerged, which recorded the history of a lineage, or of a family of property or political distinction, or of a significant event. Extensively described and analysed by Prachi Deshpande, these Marathi prose texts are indubitably historical in their aspirations to factuality, secular causation, and political rationality.' Rao-Shulman-Subrahmanyam close their book with the remarkable example of the Dupati kaifiyatu, a Telugu text by an anonymous learanam author of the early nineteenth century. It is a text that appears to pass every test of modern historical writing, and yet it was produced within a tradition outside the disciplinary grid of colonial education.
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