‘Modern South India — A History from the 17th Century to Our Times’ review: A historical tour de force

This sweeping narrative of four powerful cultures, Kannada, Malayali, Tamil and Telugu, explores the ties that bind diverse peoples

December 08, 2018 07:30 pm | Updated December 09, 2018 06:24 pm IST

As Rajmohan Gandhi observes in the Introduction of his latest book, south Indian history is largely the story of “four powerful cultures — Kannada, Malayali, Tamil and Telugu... and yet more than that, for Kodagu, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya and Tulu cultures have also influenced it.” That’s not all. He adds that “older and possibly more indigenous cultures often seen as ‘tribal’, as well as cultures originating in other parts of India and the world” have shaped it.

Such a layered complexity poses a challenge to the neat demarcations without which the business of constructing a historical narrative cannot quite take off. Gandhi, to his credit, navigates this challenge with dexterity.

Rich mosaic

He starts where the canonical work on south Indian history stops. K.A. Nilakanta Sastry’s classic, A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar , ends around the time Europeans start setting up trading posts along the southern coast. Gandhi picks up the threads from this historical moment and weaves a mosaic of events, characters, and details that together make for a tour de force of modern south Indian history.


A great deal transpired between 1565 and 2018. The broad historical contours are well known. After joining hands to defeat the Vijayanagara empire, the Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Golconda and Bidar revert to their old pattern of intrigues and in-fighting. This is the time when Europe’s great maritime powers, Portugal, France, England and Holland, are competing, among themselves as well as with Indian merchants, for control over trade. This is also the time the Mughals are looking to decisively stamp their authority over the Deccan. The 17th century also saw the rise of another empire in the sub-continent, the Marathas, who would soon rival the British as the supreme power in the Deccan. And then there were, of course, the scores of smaller territories and suzerainties held by nayakas, poligars, and assorted chieftains and princes that criss-crossed the plateau. These would, in due course, be picked off one by one, or played off one against the other by the colonial powers until, by the mid-18th century, the entire region comes under the control of the British East India Company.

Gandhi’s narrative shifts back and forth between the four main tracks: Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. In the beginning, this takes a little getting used to, as the switch sometimes happens when you want the narrative to stay put and zoom in for greater detail. For instance, as we read about the British deployment of native soldiers to subjugate native princes, the Company’s deft exploitation of the old faultlines of religion and caste are duly mapped. So are the caste tensions that eventually lead to the Dravidian politics unique to Tamil Nadu. But rather than embed these dynamics in the social history of the region, the chosen approach seems to be to tick the important boxes and keep moving forward with the political chain of events. This gives the book a breathless, sweeping feel, and it is, indeed, magnificently comprehensive — its narrative journey covering not just every single milestone in the region’s political history but also pausing every now and then to contemplate a great musician or singer, a fine diarist, a social reformer, a crafty courtier, or a courageous warrior.

Gandhi is in his element when he slows down the narrative to fill in the colours on his vast canvas. His account of the rise and fall of Tipu Sultan, the section on the Vellore Mutiny, which anticipated the Revolt of 1857 by half a century, and the potted biographies of the early proponents of what we know today as Carnatic music strike a fine balance between the telling detail and the big picture.

Vaikom Satyagraha

He is at his best as a historian of the freedom struggle, taking the reader by the hand to elaborate on landmarks that tend to get the short shrift not just north of the Vindhyas, but even in the South. One such is the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924-25, which predated Gandhi’s famous Salt Satyagraha by half a decade and delivered perhaps the first major blow against untouchability in the South. It also achieved something unique in the context of the freedom struggle, something Mahatma Gandhi had striven for all along. As his grandson puts it, “In the Malayalam country, Vaikom helped the freedom and social justice movements to join hands. Elsewhere in India, the news from Vaikom confronted insulated caste Hindus with the ugly realities of untouchability and unapproachability.”

Finally, to state something obvious but oft forgotten, there is only ever one vantage point from which all history is produced and consumed: the present. So, while an orthodox historian might balk at the idea of viewing the past though the filters of the present (as opposed to learning about it on its own terms), the lay reader may well take a different tack. For her, one of the pleasures, and perhaps, uses, of studying the past are the intriguing parallels and patterns it throws up in the context of the unfolding present.

If you are one such reader, you will find this book to be full of moments where the present seems to be repeating itself in the past, as it were. And if you are a purist, then too, there is plenty to savour, not least the idea that the diverse peoples of a peninsula that has never been a single political or cultural unit could, nonetheless, have a lot in common, starting with their history.

Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times ; Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph, ₹799.

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