‘Renaissance State: The Unwritten Story of the Making of Maharashtra’ review: The many versions of Maharashtra

Literary Review

Maha-Rashtra, literally ‘giant nation’, thrives on the romanticisation of history and a past reconstructed by the audacious present.

There are many versions of Maharashtra to be told. One school of history argues that the name is derived from the Mahars, an important tribe turned caste.

What and who qualifies to be a Maharashtrian is a question as much for the discipline of political science as it is for cultural studies. Is language a decider, or is it a passage in the history books of the grand Indian nation?

Maharashtrians think of themselves as a core element of the abstract nation state controlled from Delhi.

Shivaji’s role

The central figure of Maharashtra is the benevolent yet shrewd tactician and strict king — the Bahujan Pratipaalak — Shivaji Bhonsale, a 17th century ruler with ambitions way ahead of his times.

Shivaji was probably the only person in the India of his time who unfurled the flag of Hindavi Swarajya: rule of the natives. Shivaji became Chhatrapati and thus began the upward rise of the Marathi Manoos — the Marathi man — taking on invaders from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turks, Mongols, and Europeans. Shivaji’s reign was the first indigenous rule that tried to establish an ideal society. That meant not sparing Brahmins and Marathas of his time who were happy to serve the Mughals but not Shivaji.

The Battle of Panipat started a new story for Marathas. The Maratha here is not a parochial casteist identity, but a secular name for those who followed Shivaji to reclaim native pride. Thus, the story of Maharashtra is not a mono-caste one and certainly not only about one person.

Renaissance State departs from this premise. Girish Kuber, the author, is a seasoned journalist with stints in various news organisations. As editor of a Marathi daily, Loksatta , Kuber, a Deshastha Brahmin from Mumbai, is not only proud of Maharashtra but sees its contradictions without preference. He declares his intentions and limitations early on. Kuber wants to use history as a medium to tell the story of his home State. However, to narrate its complexities and a deeply divided social present, Kuber needed to put on the protective gear of a cricket batsman.

Progressive, regressive

Whatever side Kuber would have chosen , he would have received brickbats. Renaissance State has limitations but manages to deliver the objective of bringing together vignettes and histories into a narrative form. From Arthashastra ’s mentioning of Ashmak, i.e., Nanded , to the empire of the Satvahanas , various empires ruled the region.

Spiritualism too had its roots here. Vitthal Rukmini, Dynaneshwar, Chakradhar Swami, Chokhamela are the dominant spiritual traditions. Although it doesn’t find mention in the book, Buddhism had a strong presence in Maharashtra.

The modern story of Maharashtra, it appears from Kuber’s book, is constructed of Chitpavan Brahmins, whether good, bad, or ugly. Thus, Shivaji’s downfall was due to the Brahmin Peshwas.

Maharashtra is known as much for upholding social justice as for its backwardness. The modernist trio of Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar comes from Maharashtra. So does the Brahminical Tilak-Savarkar-Golwalkar. How do we explain this paradox? It is to the credit of Ambedkarite politics and the Dalit Panthers that Maharashtra finds honourable mention in national and international discourse.

Kuber may be forgiven for merely summing up available records. A curious reader will have to wait for another book that summarises the subaltern, the untold stories, and come to grips with the actualised, non-narrativised version of the past.

Renaissance State is one of many attempts to reinsert Maharashtra’s significance in national politics. If Maharashtra is able to hark back to Shivaji’s rule , then there’s a lesson for the current political and academic field.

The State has continued to betray its earlier progressive politics. From the viewpoint of current politics, it seems that protective feudalism prolonged by nationalist calls will keep the State in a stalemate of progress.

Renaissance State: The Unwritten Story of the Making of Maharashtra ; Girish Kuber, HarperCollins, ₹699.

The reviewer is author of Caste Matters .

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Printable version | Apr 30, 2022 3:21:44 pm |