Epic Nation (Reimagining the Mahabharata in the Age of the Empire)

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Item Code: IDL195
Author: Pamela Lothspeich
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 019569659X
Pages: 295 (16 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8" X 5.8"
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Mythological themes have influenced literature since time immemorial. But perhaps no epic has captured the imagination of writers as much as the Mahabharata. In the late colonial period, the reimagining of narratives from the epic provided an alternative to colonial constructions of Indian history.

Epic National shows how the reimagining of the Mahabharata at the height of British domination served as a form of protest and resistance to colonial rule, while also providing ideological support for the Indian nationalist movement. Pamela Lothspeich examines the much debated relationship between Hindu neo-classicism in Hindi literature and theatre, the rise of the Hindi movement, and the development of Hindu national identity in north India in the decades leading up to Independence.

Drawing from a wide range of literary genres including poems, plays, and narrative prose-from the popular to the elite-Lothspeich also discusses the sometimes ambiguous relationship between myth and history, the debates and controversies within the Hindi movement, as well as the complex issue of communalism in the construction of an idealized Hindu past.

With a comprehensive glossary of literary terms, an appendix citing Hindi literature based on the Mahabharata (1866-2008), and a debtailed bibliography, Epic Nation will prove indispensable for students and researchers of literature, history, and cultural studies, as well as appeal to general readers interested in Indian literature and culture.

Pamela Lothspeich is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The impetus to write this book came to me as a graduate student at Columbia University while working in a basement work room of Lehman Library. There, I found myself sorting, routing, and copy cataloguing South Asian books and journals-some of which were new arrivals and some of which were dusty, backlogged P.L. 480 books that had been lying around for decade. As I handled and processed the books, some with bright new covers and some with their distinctive canvas covers from decades past, I was struck by how many books seemed to be about the Mahabharata, with titles like Dron’s Autobiography, Grandfather Bhishma, and An Abhimanyu of Today Caught in a Cakravyuba. I was intrigued. Tentatively at first, and then obsessively, I searched WorldCat, the on-line National Bibliography of Indian Literature, the old catalogue of the India Office Library, The British Library catalogue, and most enlightening, Indian publishing gazettes from the early twentieth century. By the time I later searched the catalogues of major libraries in India, including the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan and the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, I was already convinced that there was a treasure trove of modern Hindi literature based on or inspired by the Mahabharata.

Skimming volumes of modern epic literature, I fairly quickly determined that adaptations of the Mahabharata were popular especially in the last decades of colonial rule, and that the works from the pre-independence era wee distinctive from, and in some cases aesthetically superior to, those from the post-independence era. And not surprisingly so. The subject matter was well suited to a form much appreciated and utilized in late colonial India, prabandh kavya or narrative poetry; it was also conducive to theatrical presentation, and indeed plays based on the epic proliferated in the first decades of the last century. As I considered all of the pre-independence Mahabharata-based literature, it seemed to make sense that narrative poetry and drama were the preferred forms; the Mahabharata, with its grand epic sweep, just did not seem at home in the plain prose of a novel. How could a grand story of a nation, its history, and its people be made to fit into a form fundamentally about the individual quest? It was not just the form of modern retellings of the epic that interested me; it was also the timing. The penchant for the Mahabharata in Gandhi’s India seemed intrinsically connected to the reality of the colonial occupation of India. Why was this so? That is the subject of much of this book.

Three years after my initial epiphany, I was working at another university library, that of the University of Chicago, while continuing to research and write my dissertation. I was sure I had a viable topic, and one which interested me immensely: an analysis of modern reworkings of the Mahabharata, as against the Sanskrit ‘original’, that is, the very much constructed critical edition! Well as it turned out, the Sanskrit Mahabharata or rather Mahabharatas seemed to fade more and more into the background as I pursued my topic. What modern authors did with the epic-refashioning it and making it their own-was what held my interest.

Along the way, well-wishers questioned-and justifiably so!- my admittedly ambitious and, in retrospect, rather naïve plans. I paraphrase: How can you possibly find a focus among so many authors and works? Who will care about such an uninspiring topic with a foregone conclusion? Isn’t there something inherently Orientalist about this topic? In response to the last question-perhaps so, at least if we take seriously Edward Said’s claim that, ‘Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient-and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologists, historian, or philologist-either in its specific, or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism. But then there is the matter of the study’s neoclassical orientation. But I will leave it to the reader to determine if I have adequately overcome these charges or not.

This boo is essentially my revised and expanded dissertation. Since January 2003, when I defended my dissertation, a number of important monographs and articles on Hindi literature and Indian drama have come out. I am pleased that others have, in the meantime, also written on some of the same subjects in my dissertation, some of which were, regrettably, long overlooked in English scholarship-subjects like the Parsi Theater and its leading playwrights, the journal Sarasvati, and the poet Maithilisharan Gupt. Kathryn Hansen’s work on the Parsi theatre was especially helpful to me.

There are many people who helped me bring what began as an idea in a basement library to fruition as a book. To Frances Pritchett, my dissertation sponsor, and others then at Columbia University and Barnard College, including Susham Bedi, John Stratton Hawley, Rachel McDermott, Gary Tubb, and Theodore Riccardi, offer my heartfelt thanks an appreciation for their support and guidance. I would also like to thank Kathryn Hansen, Valerie Ritter, Sandria Freitag, David Gilmartin, Robert Phillips, Shaheen Parveen, Vineet Bansal, Basuli Deb, and the anonymous reviewer of my manuscript. I am also indebted to the South Asian librarians David Magier, Bindu Bhatt, James Nye, and Avinash Maheshwary. And thanks are also due to the ever-helpful staff at the interlibrary loan department at the University of Chicago. In India I gained from conversations with Namvar Singh Harish Trivedi, Narendra Kohli, Urmilasharan Gupta, Kashinath Sharma, and Sharda Bhargava; I am grateful to them. I would also like to thank the staff at the following institutions in India for generously offering assistance and granting me access to their collections: the Nehru Memorial Library, the Nagaripracharini Sabha, and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan; and in London, the British Library.

Finally, thank you to my family, more wonderful than I could ever have imagined. I began my dissertation when my first daughter was a baby, and I am seeing it evolve into a book while my third daughter is yet a baby. My eldest, who once used to nap on the long tables in the Nagari Pracharini Sabha amidst somber-faced scholars, and on a gunny sack in a back room next to a man who looked as old as the NP’S itself seated on the floor re-gluing the binding of precious old books, now nightly begs me for ‘just one more story from that epic, please Mommy!’ My family has grown and developed alongside this dissertation, and now book. Over the years my husband and three daughters have all made sacrifices for me so that I could complete this project. And I have sacrificed much precious time with the in order to complete it. In the end, I hope that they-and also I-can forgive me for it. They are ever my true joy.

Notes on Transliteration

I have, for the most part, followed the standard transliteration system employed in The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary, edited by R.S. McGregor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), for words in Hindi and other Indian languages. However, nasalized vowels are represented by m not m. I have only dropped medial and terminal ‘a’s when they are conventionally dropped in the pronunciation of modern standard Hindi (for example, rastrabhasa, rajdhani, rajya). Although I have employed the same transliteration system for Sanskrit words, I have retained all medial and terminal ‘a’s. for words which occur in both Hindi and Sanskrit, I have followed the conventions of Hindi transliteration for example, ank, ras). Finally, I have omitted diacritic marks on the names of all people and places, instead opting for conventional English spellings (for example, Kalidasa, Tulsidas, Maithilisharan Gupt, Kurukshetra, and Delhi).


List of Figuresviii
Note on Transliterationxiii
List of Abbreviationsxiv
2Epic Time and India’s Pasts27
3A Genealogy of Pauranik Literature48
4Retelling the Mahabharata: Early Interventions69
5The Khari Boli Campaign and a Renaissance of Hindu Myth96
6The Edifying Waves of Jayadrath-vadh106
7Vir Abhimanyu and the Fabulous Parsi Theatre138
8Kuru-van-daban or Venisamhara ‘Remodelled’163
9The Apotheosis of a Queen in Devi Draupadi190
Glossary of Literary Terms235
Appendix: Hindi literature based on the Mahabharata (1866-2008)240
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