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keerthik sasidharan

A History of Histories

A History of Histories

In 1982, the great essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger published a playful but extraordinary short essay called ‘The Dream of India’. It was a collection of descriptors of ‘India’ as described by others before the voyage of Columbus in 1492.  While the authors of these descriptors are unidentified in Weinberger’s piece, one can nevertheless reasonably infer as to their origins:  they range from the Greek historian Herodotus to the Roman intellectual Pliny the Elder, from travelers who claimed to have met the mythical Christian king of India called Prester John to the Arab chroniclers who had journeyed to India for long.  From these accounts we learn that in the pre-Columbian world,  India was a fantastical place where we could find “women with beards growing from their breasts” or that in India “there is a race of people with backward feet”.  Not every descriptor that Weinberger catalogues however is deliciously absurd.  We also recognize truths in some of them — “peacocks run in [Indian] forest” or that “[Indians} sit cross-legged on the ground”  — which however, given the context of the presentation, stains them with mythopoetic impossibilities. 

In our times, when we think of European encounters with India, our imagination is colored by the complexities of the colonial experience.  Shards of collective memories, received prejudices, and schizophrenic responses to the nearly 200 year long colonial experience surface in our midst to this day in a variety of forms.  Whether it be the legacy of structural violence embedded in the organs of the Indian State , the predatory economic system that impoverished, killed or displaced millions that has found newer caretakers, as well as the less visible but equally radical intellectual reactions to catchup with Anglo-American modernity — Indians live amidst the fumes of the still decaying corpse of colonialism.   In our intellectual discourse and entertainments, however, the British Raj has made a comeback in our bookstores and on our televisions — packaged either as polemical indignations or as sanitized nostalgias for ruling class idylls.  But unlike the past, this time around, the creators of such cultural products dutifully pay obeisance to post-colonial Gods, lest they be dourly ferreted out as worshippers of that older, now much maligned God, the great God of Orientalism.  How the British now feel about Indian colonialism is anybody’s guess.  Although it is probably not unfair to say that newer generation of Europeans have simply forgotten such chapters existed thanks to elaborate obfuscation and institutionally encouraged amnesias by the previous and more complicit post-WW2 generation of mandarins, who viewed the whole experience with the melancholy of a self-respecting adulterer who has been caught. 

In both of these retellings — the pre-Columbian vision and the colonial project — attitudes towards India were resistant to transformations.  India was a place awaiting the imagination of a scribe or the careful appraisal of a scholar.  In a way, before Columbus set sail in 1492 to “discover” it, India was a bestiary of impossible truths that fascinated the European mind.  After the 1770s, when the English conquest had inexorably acquired a life-force of its own,  India had been traduced to a hard place: one marked by violence, commerce, and resistance.   Between these two transformations of attitudes is a period spanning 250 years that not just saw great political turmoil — the apogee and end of the Mughals, incursions by Nadir Shah, rise of the Maratha kingdoms — but also a steady reassessment of India by the steady trickle of Europeans in places like Khambatt (Cambay), Kozhikode, Goa, Agra and so on.   But more than just the number of European visitors on the shores of India, it was also a period of gradual but aggregated production of knowledge regarding a primordial question of social anthropology that animated European discussions for centuries:  what is India?  Not the India which is a quadrilateral patch of geography that bestrides beneath the Himalayas,  like some somnolent God, but the India of the European mind that till the 16th century was indistinguishable from fantasy.  By 19th century, India had become recognizable and was described in terms that we still recognize and employ even today.  It is this transformation of attitudes over 250-300 years following Vasco da Gama which is the subject of Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s new book ‘Europe’s India’.  The irony is that correcting, supplementing, and editing answers to that originary question — what is India? — which successive generation of Europeans asked, at least since Herodotus, and have claimed to answer is still a question that still animates our public discourse.   But unlike us, for the Europeans of the 16th century however, there were also practical hurdles to overcome in the first place: the diversity of languages, lives cut short due to disease, perilous journeys with uncertain outcomes, cost of capital to finance trips.  Even after arrival, there were epistemological and structural knots to unentangle: the inscrutability of how political power operates, the incomprehensibility of traditional mores, competition from fellow Europeans, and ultimately, and more personally, the ever-present nostalgia for homes in France and Portugal.   

What Subrahmanyam shows us is it that just as there were many different groups of Europeans who sought to engage with Indian — beginning famously with the Portuguese and ending with the British, in the middle there were the Italians, French, Dutch, the Danes, and even the unsuccessful efforts of the Swedes — there were also different Indias that awaited discovery.  To narrate the history of this transformation of attitudes in a convincing manner means picking and choosing ways to enter a vast historical churn.  Subrahmanyam’s method is to speak of this era via the particularities of individual lives.   At its heart, this is a methodological approach where the small and fleeting lives of men become the mode to comprehend the capaciousness of humanity, rather than the opposite where the characteristics of impersonal descriptors — class, gender, race — circumscribes the life-works of a man.  In this, this book dovetails into a long French historiographical tradition called the histoire des mentalité (an history of mentalities), wherein the historian is both a sieve — separating out influences according to a narrative model — and a psychologist who seeks to, as the great Lucien Febvre summarized, “grasp the actions, the reactions, and measure the effects of the material or moral forces that exert themselves over each generation”.  There are scholarly, critical, and popular examples of this approach including Robert Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’, Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘The Cheese and the Worms’, Natalie Zemon Davis’ ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’, or Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s ‘Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error and Cathars and Catholics in a French Village.”  But unlike these examples whose field of action are predetermined and small, Subrahmanyam has a bigger canvas to narrate into being:  modern India, itself.   

Early on, two particular individuals become portals to enter that late medieval world for Subrahmanyam.  One is the famous Francois Bernier, traveler, writer, student of the now forgotten but highly influential medieval philosopherand rival of Descartes himself, Pierre Gassendi; and the other is the little remembered jeweler and artisan, Augustin Herreyard.  They both enter into the world of Indian court-life via the blessings of patrons.  Bernier finds himself a father-figure in Danishmand Khan, who was himself an emigrant from Iran, and Herreyard is the favorite of none other than Emperor Jehangir himself, who himself rather incredibly writes in his memoirs about a Frank called ‘Hunarmand’.  These two men, like public intellectuals of our times, have one foot in the pursuit and manufacture of knowledge, but the other in an elaborate gamesmanship of self-presentation to the powers-that-be.  To this end, these early Europeans become collectors of facts and experiences for their own books, but also experts and advisors in strategic image building which, as commerce grows, is a useful talent in royal courts with the powers to grant trading licenses.  In parts, this dissimulation is because the Europeans were acutely aware of the differences among their own and thus needed to differentiate themselves to the rulers, but also because they were acutely aware of the historic advantages that the Portuguese had accrued by virtue of being first.  

To the increasingly literate audiences in Europe, India became a location to make authorial careers. He who could tell a more exciting story about India to a expanding book market could find himself not just royalties and sinecures, but also an entry into the high society at home.  But more subtle was the real challenge:  how to map an Indian experience onto European vocabulary.  Thus, for example, we have early generations of European travelers struggling to contextualize the vivid diversity of religious practices that they observe in opposition to the easily recognizable “Moorish” (Muslim) rituals. For nearly a whole century, Hindus were often understood as, albeit a decidely strange version, of fellow Gentiles.  For nearly two centuries after the first European contact, there was no recognizable social category called ‘Hinduism’.  Knowledge about India could only be understood and transmitted via analogy, which in turn was stretched to its interpretive seams.   Thus, to the Portuguese, the importance of Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchipuram became a site containing as much importance as the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain.   This effort to triage this strange new culture — the Portuguese spoke only Arabic when they arrived in Kozhikode in 1498 — led to art, painting, and organizing the Hindu religious canon in ways that could be conveyed to audiences back home in London or Lisbon.  Thus, we have fascinating set of anthropological paintings called the Codex Casanatense, where the early stirrings of racialist theories of 19th century can be gleaned.  The emergent print and engraving economy in the 18th and 19th century led to an era of borrowings, (mis)translations, and redrawing of an earlier generation of European experiences from the 16th and 17th century, but now underscored by new political realities of an emergent colonial project.  Thus, while Bernier described Danishmand Khan in terms of courtesy or even respect as “his Navab or Agah” in 17th century, by the 19th century the European descriptors had transformed into something resembling the nostalgias of present day reactionaries.  They venerated an imagined Indian past filled with great glory, at par in terms of imaginative resonance with Rome and Greece, while concurrently they were filled with contempt for the political realities of 19th century, which in turn meant contempt for Muslim political ruling class of the 18th and 19th century.    

Reading Subrahmanyam is a welcome antidote to glib and morally sanctimonious readings of a past as some proto-liberal idyll as well as a reminder that the sons-of-the-soil who form elaborate theories of India’s past rely on the prejudiced but hard earned knowledge of foreigners.  The past, we realise, is not even a thing, but a kaleidoscope of competing interpretations with histories of their own.


A version of this post appeared in The Hindu on May 21st, 2017. 

The photo accompanying is this post was, I believe, from a 19th century archives of a studio. Unfortunately, I can no longer remember the source or the name of the photographer. 

Consensus Without Trust

Consensus Without Trust

Another Frame, Another India

Another Frame, Another India