The ‘ Maratha period’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when an independent Maratha state successfully resisted the Mughals, is a defining era in Indian history. Prachi Deshpande examines the invocation of this period in various political projects, including anticolonial Hindu nationalism and the non-Brahman movement, as well as popular debates throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries over the meanings of tradition, culture, colonialism, and modernity.
Deploying a rich body of literary and cultural sources, Deshpande highlights shifts in history writing in early modern western India, as well as the deep connection between historical and literary narratives. She also shows how ‘historical memory’ provided a space for Indians to negotiate among their national, religious, and regional identities, pointing out history’s pervasive potential for shaping politics within thoroughly divers societies.
A study of quite extraordinary penetration and breadth, Creative Pasts mines Maratha history and Mrathi sources as never before to analyse historiography, popular memory, and the socio-literary impact of colonialism on regional societies and cultures. Expanding from this base, the book succeeds also in showing how many significant patterns of modernity in India are produced by the interplay of culture activities, power structure, and political rhetoric.
Prachi Deshpande is Associate Professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Culcutta.
One of the most striking features of the western Indian region of Maharashtra is the pervasive presence of the past.
A particular period, known as "Maratha history," is physically inscribed into modern cities and towns. Maratha history began in the seventeenth century, when an independent Maratha state was established by the military hero Shivaji Bhosale,
and lasted until the establishment of British rule in 1818. Development
plans, public parks, squares, markets, warehouses, schools, universities,
and neighborhoods are named after historical figures from this period. For
well over a century, these figures and their exploits have informed a range
of expressive forms--plays, novels, poems, songs, festivals, and everyday
sayings. Regional politicians have routinely employed Maratha historical metaphors in political rhetoric; Shivaji was celebrated all over India as
the archetypal symbol of independence during the anticolonial movement
against the British and continues to be the prime symbol of Hindu nationalism. Several decades ago, the noted historian Tryambak S. Shejwalkar despaired that "history [had] gripped Maharashtra like the devil."! Another
prominent Marathi historian, Y. D. Phadke, also gloomily concluded that
the ordinary Marathi speaker, although physically resident in the twentieth
century, mentally inhabited the Maratha period with considerable enjoy-
ment.' In recent years, the powerful Hindu nationalist party of the region,
the shiv Sena (literally, Shivaji's Army), has renamed several major land-
marks across Maharashtra's capital city of Bombay (itself renamed Mumbai) after Shivaji and other figures, an activity that other political parties
such as the Congress have enthusiastically s1!pported. Protests against interpretations of Shivaji and other figures perceived to be insulting or derogatory have periodically erupted in the region. The latest to gain much
press coverage was in 2004, when a group of over two hundred men belonging to the organization Sambhaji Brigade attacked the Bhandarkar
Oriental Research Institute in Pune. Their anger was directed at James W.
Laine, a U.S.-based academic who had penned "insulting" references to
Shivaji in his recent book, and at the institute ostensibly because Laine had
done research there and thanked its staff in his acknowledgments. Regional
political parties jostled for space and credit in the chorus of protests and
calls for banning the book.'
Understanding how and why "Maratha history" has come to play such a
prominent role in modern Maharashtra is the central concern of this book.
The invocation of Shivaji and his .enduring popularity as a site of political
conflict have received a lot of scholarly attention.' The political appropriations of the Shivaji symbol, however, cannot be seen in isolation of the complex processes through which historiography and collective commemoration
emerged as distinct practices in western India. This study focuses on the
wider historiographic context in order to understand the current prominence
of the past in political and cultural spaces. Beginning with a consideration
of historiography under the Maratha state itself, it goes on to examine shifts
in these practices as a form of modern historical consciousness and method
took shape through the encounter with British colonialism. Focusing on the
production of historical narratives in a variety of genres, public spaces, and
institutional contexts, the book explores the construction of an enduring,
shared historical memory of the Maratha past. Traversing a long, chronological period from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, it considers the changing social and political contexts that produced these representations; their diverse implications for the people who witnessed, celebrated,
and participated in them; and the ways the representations enabled them-
and enable us—to think through the changing meanings and dimensions of
categories and identity markers such as "Maratha," "Hindu," and "Indian."
One of my principal arguments is that Maratha historical memory has been
crucial not only to the creation of a modern regional Marathi identity in western India but also to the successful articulation of that identity within
wider Hindu and Indian national imaginations.
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