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Updated: December 1, 2009 12:41 IST

MSO: a distinct intellectual output

RAJAN GURUKKAL
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The book is an anthology on Madras School of Orientalism (MSO), an expression the editor uses to designate the historical, cultural, and linguistic scholarship that accrued in the early 19th century Madras through the archival initiatives by Colin Mackenzie and the academic interaction between a scholarly team of Indian teachers and a body of civil servants led by F.W. Ellis around the College of Fort St. George. The author delineates the MSO as a distinct intellectual out put, which embodied modernity that “cast the record of the past into new moulds and prepared it for a new future.”

Biographical account

The anthology has 12 essays grouped under four heads: projects; Indian intellectuals; language in south India; and objects of study. Of the first three essays under ‘projects’, two are on Colin Mackenzie — one by Nicholas Dirks and the other by Jennifer Howes. The third is by Sylvia Vatuk on ‘Islamic learning at the College.’ Dirks provides an excellent, even if brief, intellectual biographical account of the Mackenzie archive. For her part, Howes gives an intimate reading of Mackenzie’s explorations of Mahabalipuram and adjacent villages, drawing, incidentally, on the relationship between Mackenzie and Ellis. Vatuk’s essay is outstanding for its analysis of the largely self-contained Islamic scholarship centred on the court of the Nawab of Arcot that supplied Persian, Urdu, and Hindi teachers to the College in the British Madras as a participant in the MSO process.

The second section, on “Indian intellectuals,” consists of four essays. The first by A.R. Venkatachalapathy on the Tamil headmasters at the College of Fort St. George is significant for the convincing argument that the practice of hiring Pandaram and Vellala headmasters by the College was a deliberate attempt to make brahminical texts of Hindu law accessible to non-brahmin pleaders.

The next is by R.S. Mantena on the intellectual life in early colonial Madras. The third, by Lisa Mitchell, is on “enquiries, points, and poets in the construction of knowledge and power in early 19th century southern India.” And the last is by P.B. Wagoner on the “Mackenzie collection and later Telugu literary historiography.” Like Wagoner, Mantena has made a good assessment of the contributions of the Kavali brothers — Mackenzie’s leading assistants as history gatherers — to the intellectual life of British Madras. Wagoner develops on the Mackenzie collection— “often viewed as if it were a natural outgrowth of the survey of Mysore Wars by the military engineer and surveyor Colin Mackenzie” — as “a large, complex, and now scattered archive of texts relating to the history of South India, divided mainly between London and Chennai.”

Tamil philology

The third section comprises two essays dealing with the substance of the knowledge produced — of the south Indian languages at the outset, and then of other objects of study such as law, religion, and land. The first one by B. Raman dealing with Tamil Munshis and Kacceri (cutcheri) Tamil under the Company’s Document Raj in early 19th century Madras; and the other is by S. Ebeling, looking at the College of Fort St. George and the transformation of Tamil philology during the 19th century. Raman argues that the Document Raj turned into a rupture with the traditional mode of accounting and record-keeping. Ebeling’s essay seeks to determine the nature of the extensive changes that came about in Tamil philology in the wake of the introduction of printing technology and allied instituted practices.

The last section has three essays: one by L.C. Orr on “Orientalists, Missionaries, and Jains”; another by D.R. Davis Jr on the “MSO and Hindu Law”; and the third by T.R. Trautmann, editor of this volume, on the “Riot over Ryotwari.” Orr shows how the MSO entertained new ways of looking at the history of religion in south India, in the light of Tamil classics and Jainism. Davis recounts ‘the tale of two cities,’ Calcutta and Madras, showing the former paradigmatically dissolving into the latter.

In his brilliant essay, Trautmann discusses the massive but unsuccessful struggle against the imposition of Munro’s Ryotwari system of direct tax on the individual farmer. As the editor himself says — justifiably so — what the book “at the most basic level” demonstrates is that “the MSO contributed greatly to the formation of an improved knowledge of South Indian history, language and literature, law, and religion, extending the body of new knowledge that emanated from Calcutta, as it concerned the South.” One wonders how Edward Said and anthropologists of “the crisis of representation” would have reacted to this work.

THE MADRAS SCHOOL OF ORIENTALISM: Edited by Thomas R. Trautmann; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 875.

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