The history of modern India has been narrated largely in terms of the nationalist movement, personalities and what has been seen as the ‘high’ polities of the state. Recent shifts in history writing have tried to bring in subordinated histories of regions and of groups. We are moving towards a wider understanding of politics, history and of the ordinary people who make history. This collection tries to push the emerging paradigm further by moving away from conventional notions of the history of the nation and indeed of the political. Six essays present original and pioneering forays in the study of cricket, oral history, gender studies, film, popular culture and Indian classical music. Whether looking at issues of caste on the seemingly level playing field of cricket in early 20th century India; or how a 19th century housewife comes to pen the first autobiography by an Indian woman; calendar art reflecting deeper notions of religion and community; or how an idea of ‘pure’ classical music faces the challenge of technology; these essays show how ideas of self, community and art are formed within a larger politics. Moreover, culture far from being a refuge from the political is also the space within which politics comes to be worked out.
Dilip M. Menon is currently the Mellon chair in India Studies and Professor of History at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is author of Caste, Nationalism and Communism in South Indian: Malabar 1900-48, Cambridge, University Press, Cambridge, 1994, and The Blindness of Insight: Essays on Caste in Modern India, Navayana, Pondicherry.
This Reader was conceived to meet the demands of the new B.A. concurrent Course in History at the University of Delhi designed for Honours students in social sciences and humanities who opt to do a concurrent course in History. However, it is also aimed at a general readership interested in the most recent research on issues of culture in modern India. One way of doing this reader would have been to put together the work of historians engaged in writing on issues of culture broadly defined. Given the fact that we are all interdisciplinary nowadays, it seemed to be an interesting enterprise to actually collate works done by sociologists, art historians and music theorists working within a historical paradigm. This means that the essays occasionally have a technical vocabulary particular to a discipline. However the quality of thinking and speculation in these essays is of such an order that we hope that general readers will be adventurous and strike out on their own. In the classroom this may allow a fruitful exchange between teachers of history engaging with students primarily specializing in literature, sociology and other disciplines.
As Convenor of the B.A. Concurrent course committee for the University, I had the opportunity of engaging with some of the best teachers and scholars in deciding on readings. Our meetings over a period of a few months were challenging and opened up many issues as also exposing us to cutting edge scholarship from all over the world in many disciplines. If we had had our way, students would be reading volumes of a few thousand pages each! In the interests of teaching and comprehension as well as the time constraints on teacher and students we opted for a minimal format of not more than 250 odd pages of readings. I would like to thank, in particular, Sunil Kumar, Shahid Amin, Upinder Singh and Meenakshi Khanna. In Tagore's words, 'you have made known to me things that were unknown'.
A special thank you to the several authors featured in this volume and their publishers who rallied around so that the volume could be brought out with minimum bother. Ram Guha, Amanda Weidman, Tanika Sarkar and Patricia Uberoi in particular did not mind my presuming on our friendship and making demands on their generosity.
The history of modern India been written largely as the history of the coming into being of the Indian nation. Over the conventional two hundred year time span from 1757 to 1947, India is seen as emerging from subjection to its tryst with destiny with other nations of the world at the stroke of midnight. Salman Rushdie's evocative phrase, midnight's children, captured the self perception of a generation who saw their lives and fortunes as twinned with the destiny of the young India. There was a sense of newness as also arousal; it was as if like the sleeping beauty at the kiss of the prince, the nation too had awoken to a sense of itself. Nehru's Autobiography as well as The Discovery of India spoke of nationalist politics as the unearthing of a sentiment and an actuality that was already there; hence the word discovery rather than invention. The nationalist movement had had to work hard in creating a sense of a territorial and cultural unity (large parts of India did not concur with the Congress understanding of national geography). Debates continued in the public sphere, even after Independence, as to how deep-rooted was the idea of India, rather than of region, ethnicity or religious affiliation. However, political exigencies and the necessity of governance meant that the 'unity' of India had to be presented as a self evident truth. One of the effects of this was that the history of 15 August 1947 came to be written about by a generation of historians as the glorious story of independence gained. Other possible narratives, particularly the tragic history of a nation partitioned, were sidelined. The fratricidal violence attending Partition seemed to fundamentally question the smooth narrative of non-violence, and the unity of both people and territory that nationalist ideology had generated. It is only 50 years after the fact that history writing has begun to engage with the trauma of what the Partition meant for the psyche of the young and its people.
Increasingly, a newer generation of historians has begun to ask questions about the silences, evasions and seemingly self-evident truths that are part of the writing of history. History is as much about what happened as it is about the selective narration of those events. As Shahid Amin puts it, the historian's concern has come to be about ‘how nationalist history is made and remade' and revealing 'the strategies-narrative or otherwise-which go into its making.’ The writing of the history of modern India is evidently as much about inclusions as exclusions. The primary criterion for inclusion was participation in the nationalist movement within the paradigm of a non-violent Gandhian politics (what Amin has memorably termed as the yogdaan perspective). Hence, political activity that resorted to violence and challenged the authority of the Congress ideology like the Mappila rebellion or Chauri Chaura in the 1920s, or the activities of Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army and the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in the 1940s were seen as anomalies. They were to be explained away, not merely accounted for in the paradigm of De di hamen aazadi bina khadg bina dhal/Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal (to borrow the words of a popular Hindi film song of the 1960s). Political opponents of the Congress's self representation as speaking for all Indians like Ambedkar, Jinnah and Savarkar with their different ideological positions could not find a place in the history text books except as failed opponents. More important, the history of regions like the north-east, southern India and over 500 Princely states where Congress activity had been minimal or indeed absent were excluded from mainstream historical memory as embodied in textbooks and pedagogy. We have to ask ourselves the fundamental question: can a narrow history of modern India written from the standpoint of nationalism alone stand in for a more complex narrative of multiple and dissenting histories within the nation? How can we begin to think about a history of modern India that is more inclusive of questions of difference? How do we engage seriously with dissenting strains in political conceptions in a way that transcends the textbook formula of unity in diversity?
Earlier nationalist narratives emphasized the creation of larger political unities: the idea of India and the Indian. The creation of a modern Indian citizen was counter-posed to what were seen as atavistic and non-modern identities of caste, religion and ethnicity. So for instance, movements and ideologies that raised issues of caste difference were presented as divisive in nature and detracting from the main task at hand. Whether it was the non-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu or Ambedkar's questioning of the Congress claim to represent all putative Hindus, the question of how some Indians were more equal than the others was deferred in the politics of creating a united India. While this may have been necessary as an anti-colonial political strategy, historical writing took on the presuppositions of nationalist activity uncritically. Following the imposition of the Emergency in 1975, and a growing sense of disillusionment with the nation-state, some historians tried to look beyond the activities and the self presentation of the Indian National Congress. For instance, in an early work the historian Gyanendra Pandey showed that there may have been a direct relation between the strength of Congress organization and curbs placed on popular political initiatives. The growth of nationalist activity meant a disciplining of other political activities that addressed local concerns in a more confrontational idiom. Pandey simultaneously questioned the equation of nationalism with the Congress and the idea that the Congress promoted all local political activity that was nationalist. The emergence in the 1980s of what came to be called Subaltern Studies created a body of work that tried to move away from a concentration on elite and organizational politics. It focused on movements by peasants, tribals and other subordinated or 'subaltern' groups and argued that these may have constituted a parallel national politics. While there may have been an attempt to challenge the conflation of Congress politics with all political activity in India, the understanding of what constituted politics remained rather limited. Subaltern Studies concentrated on challenges to the authority of the state, and interventions within a public sphere constituted by the state's activities whether of revenue collection or the legal framework.
Part of the problem lay with the use of sources. Historical practice since the late 19th century had stressed the importance of state generated archives for writing the histories of nations. And indeed histories came to be about the biography of the states as they evolved over time. If an earlier colonial historiography had emphasized the various Charters and Acts and institutions of government that had come into being over the 19th and 20th century, nationalist historiography spoke about the winning of state power from the British, culminating in the transfer of power in 1947. There was no space for the people here except inasmuch as the state chose to define them or as they entered into conflict with the state under the leadership of nationalist stalwarts. One significant example of this is the characterization of nationalist activity in the period of the swadeshi movement as 'revolutionary terrorism'; a statist label which survives in our historical imagination. The subaltern studies enterprise sought to read the archival records 'against the grain', that is to say in opposition to the meaning that the records sought to convey. Descriptions of groups of people and activities as criminal or terrorist could well be seen as the state's interpretation of acts antagonistic to its existence, and the historian could argue that social justice or national freedom was at stake here. However, there are limits to the inversion of characterizations. While the state's criminal could well be the historian's social revolutionary, sometimes, to put it simply, a criminal was merely a criminal. In order to write the history of popular politics it was necessary to move beyond the state archives and search for newer sources.
Three essays within the subaltern collective constituted a departure in rethinking the question of sources as much as the nature of politics and the political imagination. Ranajit Guha in his essay titled ‘Chandra's death’ rescued from the archive the story of a lower caste widow named Chandra, who died in the course of a badly performed abortion. Her otherwise unremarkable life came to the attention of the state through the possibility that she may have been murdered. Guha made this incident the point of entry for an enquiry into the status of widows in traditional Bengali society as also patriarchy and the regulation of female sexuality. He explored in nuanced detail the politics of community, gender and the individual. It was not a story of nationalist heroism, of an extraordinary individual or indeed of an event that transformed notions of legality in the public sphere. It was rather an act of writing, that, to paraphrase the words of the English social historian E.P. Thompson, rescued the lives of the ordinary human being from the condescension of posterity. By looking at the domain of the private, Guha showed how even intimate spaces like the family were suffused with the working out of social power.
Sumit Sarkar in another cameo piece, ‘The Kalki avatar of Bikrampur', picked out of obscurity the events at the turn of the 20th century on a bizarre night in the life of a small town Bengali family. A domestic servant claiming to be the Kalki avatar turned the well regulated home upside down and subjected his employer and wife to ritual humiliation. Through this event, Sarkar looked at emerging definitions of family and household in colonial Bengal and the construction of the authority of the karta, or male head of the household, vis-a-vis domestics and women. The events of a night in a home were pieced together from archival sources, newspaper reports, police records and popular pamphlets. In the historian's hands they were woven into larger speculations on the significance of millenarian myths like the belief in the advent of Kalki avatar signifying the end of Kaliyug with the coming of the 20th century. A window was opened into conceptions of mythical time and history which coexisted alongside the secular time of colonial modernity. Here again ordinary lives were the focus of the study and the politics of hierarchy and the household were central to an understanding of the working of a wider social structure.
Finally, Shahid Amin's classic essay 'Gandhi as Mahatma’, tried to move away from the historical record of Gandhi the individual, to understand how he came to be venerated as a mahatma in the countryside of eastern U.P in the 1920s. Trawling through Hindi newspapers and archival records of the period, Amin studied in detail the circulation of rumours about the magical powers of Gandhi and the growing belief among peasants that to oppose Gandhi would invite his divine wrath on them. The name of Gandhi increasingly came to be invoked in local conflicts and resolving local hierarchies. In the famous instance of the burning of a police station at Chauri Chaura in 1922, which brought to a halt the non-cooperation movement, the crowd of people who engaged in the act saw Gandhi less as a prophet of non-violence and more as a divine figure who sanctioned violence against injustice. In all of these essays, the idea of both politics and political imagination had been expanded beyond the story of nationalism and of the politics of the state. These historians questioned the idea that events in the public realm were of greater consequence than the actions of individuals in the private sphere of community or family. Moreover, they tried to understand popular culture-whether the belief in the magical powers of Gandhi or widespread panic about the coming of the end of Kaliyug-on its own terms rather than by the demands of a modern rationality. There was a move out of the state archives in order to capture the intimate details of ordinary lives and their extraordinary manifestations. The meaning of the political was expanded far beyond organized political activity to the micro-politics of gender, home and community.
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