Where the past meets the present

September 15, 2009 09:06 am | Updated 09:06 am IST

Thomas Trautmann has contributed to Indian studies at various levels. His analysis of the Arthasastra was a decisive intervention in the controversy regarding the date and authorship of the text; his position in the Aryan debate made it difficult for those who use the theory for purposes other than academic; you cannot flog the dead horse any more. His work in anthropology, such as in the study of Dravidian kinship, has been of lasting value. Brought together in this collection are essays he wrote over a few decades in the disciplines of anthropology, history, and historiography. As such, they represent the results of an active mind at work in different but closely related fields. As Trautmann himself says, the book got written without the author being conscious of it.

Hard work

The 12 essays in the collection pertain broadly to the question of how the past is still with us not only as wounds refusing to heal and ghosts refusing to be exorcised but as a very positive presence. It is here that the past would meet the present; history would meet anthropology. The essays examine the way in which India was constituted in the Orientalist discourse, assigning it an authentic place within the schemes of chronology, ethnology, cartography, and linguistics. These items, included in the broad rubric of “Indology,” are now autonomous social science disciplines and this graduation has been achieved by the hard labour of several generations of scholars. It is unfair to brush these labours aside as part of colonial axe-grinding although the interest of the master in controlling the subject need not be obscured.

The perceptive analyses question the received notions of the “Aryan,” Dravidian,” “colonial,” “orientalist,” and so on and show how European scholarship was trying to make sense of, and come to terms with, Indian realities within the framework which the 18th-19th century was familiar with. In the 18th century, when prehistory had not been known and the western intellect was struggling under the burden of biblical chronology, either the world outside Christendom had to be fitted within the scheme or the scheme itself had to be thrown overboard. Sir William Jones was trying to vindicate the “short chronology” of the Bible, with creation located some four millennia before Christ, in opposition to the Enlightenment tirade against the Bible and what it represented. Thus, an ethnology deriving the peoples of the world from the children of Noah, a philology starting with the tower of Babel and a cartography derived from Ptolemaic notions tried to fit the new information into its mould — however hard that was.

Dravidian languages

Another point Trautmann makes relates to the Dravidian family of languages, a point that did not quite fit into the scheme of the Calcutta Orientalists. Trautmann had earlier introduced us to the brilliant career of F.W. Ellis and shows in these essays how the notion of the Dravidian arrived through lexicographic efforts in Telugu by the scholars of colonial Madras. The question is not quite about the purpose of it all — it is important that such knowledge was produced and that India was no longer a land of mysteries.

The two essays in anthropology, on the patterns of marriage and kinship among the Dravidian speakers, have scope going beyond the narrow boundaries of that discipline. They have a bearing on the broader patterns of society in its evolutionary context. Evolutionism and structuralism, argues Trautmann, work in opposite directions. While the former gives history a directionality, the latter would look upon history as a series of accidents. And he is for proper historicist explanations.


The article on the ‘Missionary and the Orientalist’ tries to show how the Orientalist projects before and after the 1770s were different, thereby bringing out the relation between the one and colonial power. This is not to hold a brief for Edward Said; on the contrary, Trautmann is very critical of the Saidian assumptions. The essay on A.L. Basham’s The Wonder that Was India is a fitting tribute to the great teacher who was responsible for rearing a number of scholars who studied India in manner different from what was in practice under colonialist and nationalist assumptions. The last two essays constituting the section “Structures of Rule” — empirically rich and logically sound though they are — are the odd ones out. Beautifully produced and moderately priced, the book could have done without the few printing mistakes that have crept in.

THE CLASH OF CHRONOLOGIES — Ancient India in the Modern World: Thomas R.Trautmann; Yoda Press, 268 A/C, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 395.

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