Not just drum-and-trumpet

B. Surendra Rao
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An informative and analytical anthology that shows how rich Indian historiography has been

APPROACHES TO HISTORY — Essays in Indian Historiography. Edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya; Indian Council of Historical Research in association with Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar, Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 1095.
APPROACHES TO HISTORY — Essays in Indian Historiography. Edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya; Indian Council of Historical Research in association with Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar, Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 1095.

B. Surendra Rao

History is the knowledge of a retrievable human past. In one sense it is what the historian does, but in another, it is available to the historian and society as a collective of accumulated, debated, dialogued, refuted, amended, renewed knowledge to choose from and build on. Historiography unfolds this rich terrain that has gone under the historian's plough and the ideas and strategies that have gone into coaxing what is shown as a harvest of truth. Approaches to History puts together 10 critical essays of stock-taking and introspection on various aspects of Indian historical writings. They illumine several themes of interest and relevance which mainstream historiography had loftily overlooked.

Archana Prasad has shown how the historiography of tribal societies has moved out of the domain of ethnographers and anthropologists to be linked to development strategies of modernisation, capitalist domination, ecological questions and the conundrum of preserving the tribal identities while yet forcing or coaxing them to change. Himanshu Prabha Ray's “Writings on the Maritime History of Ancient India” confidently and felicitously takes us to the maritime space created or occupied in ancient India from time to time, its cartographical imaginings and realities, maritime trade and their changing partnerships and the various other seductions for negotiations and integrations. The essay lays out a rich fare of scholarship that has gone into tracing the influence of sea in the making of civilisations on land.


Another brilliant, analytical survey that adds substance and value to the anthology is Shereen Ratnagar's “Approaches to the Study of Ancient Technology”. Archaeologists have shown that civilisations are created, among other things, by tool-making and tool-wielding humans. The essay brings out the invention, spread, adoption and adaptation of technologies that helped the humans to deal with various materials and metals and their bearing on transportation and long-distance trade, urbanism, social change and the emergence of the state, without slipping into any deterministic sequence or logic.

Sashi Bhushan Upadhyay has made a historiographic survey of Indian Labour history, identifying the various trends that marked its study in the colonial period, the Marxist-nationalist post-Independence phase, and the shifts in thinking that were seen subsequently that brought into the ambit of study such areas as agrarian labour, un-free labour, informal labour, women labour, emigrant labour and so on.

Kaushik Roy's essay on the “Writings on Indian Military History”, a theme not quite fashionable, and even ‘politically incorrect', but is both extensive in scope and insightful in intent, bringing together studies that described battles, strategies, technologies of offence and defence, their impact on society, state-building, culture, ecology and so on. Roy's comment that the New Military History approach has demilitarised military history is interesting, though.

John C.B. Webster's essay, “Christian History as Indian Social History” highlights the impact of various assumptions and ideologies from modernisation theories to post-modernism. However, he thinks that a ‘conflict model' is a realistic and illuminating approach to study Indian social history.

Entrenched patriarchy

The problem of gender in the writing of south Indian history is competently addressed by Vijaya Ramaswamy. She touches upon entrenched patriarchy in society as well as writings on it, and issues like marriage, notions of chastity, the declining status of temple women to dancing girls, women as property-holders, and their role in economy and politics or in the domain of religion. Sajal Nag's insightful piece on the ‘Contradictory Trends in Historical Research in North-East India' shows how the Assamese had moved out of the stage of Buranjis to modern historical awareness and methods, and yet had to accommodate the contradiction of contesting exclusion and resisting inclusion.

J.S. Grewal's essay makes a magisterial survey of Sikh religion, history and literature from the pre-1849 period to the present. Yagati Chinna Rao's essay ably surveys the trends in writing Dalit history in India and rightly raises the vexed question of its apparent neglect.

Approaches to History is a superb anthology, for the choice of the themes as well as for the scholarly ways of addressing the scholarship there. All essays in the book are informative and analytical, none polemical, and some truly brilliant. They show how rich and adventurous Indian historiography has been, and may hopefully nudge the mulish no-changers to see that there is more to history than just drum-and-trumpet. We need more such nudges.



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