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A Quality Collection of Historical Themes

The Varied Facets of History: Essays in Honour of Aniruddha Ray edited by Ishrat Alam and Syed Ejaz Hussain (Delhi: Primus Books), 2011; pp vii + 305, Rs 795.

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A Quality Collection of Historical Themes

Kanakalatha Mukund

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-self-development of humans is part of a process of evolutionary change could now be linked to the development of social organisation, which could otherwise only be attributed to some supernatural force. In spite of the misuse of Darwinian theory of natural selection by propo

T
his book is a tribute to the versatility and multifaceted interests of the historian Aniruddha Ray. Ranjit Sen gives a brief outline of Ray’s major areas of research – urban and social history from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Ray’s fluency in French enabled him to use the French sources extensively in his work. He also brought several fresh perspectives to the debate on the process of urbanisation and the decline of major port cities in the Mughal period when he challenged the accepted view that ports like Surat fell into decay because of Maratha incursions, and focused instead on the role of internal factors and weakening political authority.

The 16 contributions to his felicitation volume take up the themes close to Ray’s heart. Unfortunately, the range of topics covered in the articles is so

The Varied Facets of History: Essays in Honour of Aniruddha Ray edited by Ishrat Alam and Syed Ejaz Hussain (Delhi: Primus Books), 2011; pp vii + 305, Rs 795.

diverse that there is no cohesive theme on which a critical review can be c entred. The one common underlying thread that is noticeable in most (but not all) of the papers is the use of texts and other documents as sources for reconstructing social history. The papers are arranged chronologically though it would have been more to the purpose if they had been grouped for Bengal, medieval and Mughal India, and others.

The book begins with a brief comment by Shireen Moosvi as to how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has also changed the perception of human social development in history. The n otion that the physical and anatomical

Economic & Political Weekly

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april 21, 2012 vol xlvii no 16

nents of the superiority of European/ Nordic races, Darwin served to bring history out of the realm of creationism to a more scientific understanding of human development.

About Bengal

Six of the contributions in the book are about Bengal, tracing various aspects of the social history of the region from the early medieval period to the 20th century. If the beginning of Muslim rule marks a watershed in the history of medieval India, the three papers on medieval Bengal are based on the premise that the social development of Bengal and the spread of Islam were uniquely shaped by the distinctive culture and ethos of the region. There is general agreement that Bengal was a frontier or peripheral region in the true sense of the word, which had not been penetrated in full by

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the Aryan/brahminical infl uence much in evidence in the Indo-Gangetic centre of north India. Many parts of Bengal, especially to the south and the east were still peopled by tribal and other indigenous communities which had not been incorporated into the brahminical caste hierarchy while Buddhism had taken root in the region and was still an important social and religious force.

Ratnabali Chatterjee’s paper gives an account of the archaeological excavations undertaken in Gaur, the ancient capital which established that there had been no marked discontinuity in urban development in Bengal following the beginning of Muslim rule in the 13th century. Instead, she argues, a rich urban heritage had developed as language, literature, art and architecture drew upon a “regional popular culture”.

In one of the longest and most complex papers in the volume, Nupur Dasgupta highlights the distinctive features of the s ocial history of medieval Bengal drawing on three genres of literature: the Buddhist caryapadas written in the 11th to 12th centuries; the romantic works of Muslim poets under the sultans; and the mangalkavyas of the 16th century. The main focus here is on the grass-roots communities of Bengal, “autonomous autochthones” as Dasgupta describes them – in layman terms, these were the tribals and marginalised occupational groups who were not incorporated into a varna hierarchy. The everyday lives of these communities are best captured in the caryapadas, but even the mangalkavyas, in spite of their upper caste orientation, still provide insights into the lives of the outcaste communities and the incorporation of their deities into mainstream religion.

Dasgupta also makes the point that the spread of Islam did not result in social/religious binaries of Islamic and Hindu identities. In fact, Islam in Bengal took on a strong Bengali flavour, and the Muslim authors under the Sultans wrote in Bengali. Even Islamic religious tenets were presented in Bengali, turning away from the traditional Arabic.

Both these papers suffer from the same drawback; they do not care to situate their analysis in the context of the history of Bengal which would have been of immense help to non-Bengali readers, most of whom would not be familiar with this prior to the coming of the English East India Company. Dasgupta’s piece is also self-defeating to some extent since she tries to cover too wide a canvas that would require a fulllength monograph, with the result the reader loses sight of the focal points the writer wishes to make.

Mohammad Yusuf Siddiq’s paper on the spread Islam in Bengal in the 13th century also corroborates the points made by Dasgupta. Islam was widely accepted by the masses in Bengal, and he observes that

Much of the consolidation of Islam in the region was possible because the Islamic message was conveyed in the popular language and often used indigenous religious imagery...

Islamic mystics or Sufis also migrated in large numbers to Bengal from the 13th century, and this mysticism appealed strongly to the local people. Sufi s, in fact, were influential not merely in spiritual matters but also in social and political life. Siddiq concludes with a d etailed analysis and reproductions of Islamic inscriptions of Bengal.

France Bhattacharya moves us to the social scene of patronage and literature in 18th century Bengal, and compares the Annada Mangal of Bharat Chandra Ray with the famous Candi Mangal of Mukundaram, written in the 15th century.

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    Ray’s work, she argues, subverts the literary genre of the mangalkavyas which were primarily works of devotion dedicated to the goddess, even though a royal patron would be mentioned briefl y and blessings invoked for his well-being. Ray’s work, on the other hand, was an unabashed paean to his patron Raja Krishna Chandra Ray of Nadia. This was the forerunner for later works written to please the upper class bhadralok, and signified the coming of modernity in Bengali literature. Susnata Das explores the responses to the Mutiny (or Revolt) of 1857. While the educated Bengali upper classes were equivocal in the immediate aftermath of the Mutiny, when many were unapologetic loyalists for the British empire, the mood certainly changed towards the end of the 19th century, when there was a strong swing to nationalist sympathies. The section on Bengal concludes with a piece by Kanailal Chattopadhyay on the heroic role played by Dwarakanath Ganguli and the Brahmo Samaj in publicising the deplorable conditions of indentured labour contracted to work in the tea plantations of Assam under English owners which finally moved the government to pass the Emigration Act of 1882 which offered some degree of protection to indentured labour.

    Medieval India

    The first of the articles on medieval/ Mughal India is an urgent appeal by Iqtidar Alam Khan for archaeology in south Asia to reorient its focus to medieval sites and monuments, moving away from the preoccupation with ancient and proto-history sites. This, he argues, will also save many medieval monuments from demolition or mindless reconstru ction. Ishrat Alam covers nearly fi ve centuries in recounting the use of medieval documents for reconstructing social history. Inscriptions dating back to the 13th century (presumably in Sanskrit) give valuable information on merchants and occupational and social mobility among the Hindu castes. Documents like marriage and business contracts, as well as passes issued by the Europeans to Indian ships are useful for understanding social relations and business practices during the 17th century. Irfan Habib’s elegant article traces the evolution of Hindi from the various dialects spoken around Delhi and Agra, with a good dose of infl uence from Persian words. Najaf Haider analyses how, under the Mughals, especially Akbar, there was a state-sponsored project of translating various Sanskrit c lassics into Persian, in a process of intercultural communication and state building. Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi (my favourite paper in the whole volume) disputes the widely prevalent assumption that there was no middle class in Mughal India, and presents a series of paintings showing master craftsmen and men of various professions who definitely constituted a middle class. He even has drawings of the various kinds of headgear or turbans worn by these persons as depicted in the paintings. Iqtidar Husain Siddiqui gives an account of a book by Mulla Qata’i Harevi under Jahangir which gives biographical sketches of 153 Persian poets.

    Moving to the 18th century, Jeyaseela Stephen has used the diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai of Pondicherry to present an account of the business practices and activities of the famous merchant who was the leader of Tamil society in Pondicherry and was the dubash of Governor Dupleix of the French East India Company. Stephen has also published the diaries kept by Ranga Pillai’s nephew, who succeeded him, and his grand nephew, bringing these little known sources into the public arena. Here he also uses portions of the original diary which were not included in the original English translation which was published nearly a 100 years ago. It is sad that with all these credentials and his access to unpublished material, his paper is monochromatic and almost totally lacking in analytical insights or depth.

    Syed Ejaz Hussain has given an account of the travel of Mirza Abu Talib Isfahani to England and Europe between 1799 and 1804 and his responses to English society and, in particular, the technological revolution which was transforming manufacturing and industry in England. The listing of the new mechanical devices and Abu Talib’s comments is particularly unimagi native in arrangement and presentation, considering the historical value of this contemporary report on England by an Indian. Surprisingly, the paper does not refer to Michael Fisher who has also worked extensively on Mirza Abu Talib, and whose work was published many years ago. Lastly, Mariam Dossal’s paper on the Kutch reflects on the cultural assimilation of people from various parts of the world who migrated to this region and also its syncretic culture from the fusion of the three major religions, Jainism, Hinduism and Islam. Arid and defi cient in rainfall, the region is home to some of the most colourful craft production in textiles and embroidery. It is not clear why this resource-poor region attracted so many migrant communities, especially a vibrant business class. Surprisingly Dossal has also not referred to the crucial triangular trade between Kutch, east Africa and Persia which thrived for many centuries.

    Taken in all, the papers are more even in quality than is found in most such composite volumes, which is to the credit of the editors. It is also a tribute to the regard for Ray among younger (and older) historians that they have covered so many aspects of history refl ecting Ray’s own eclectic interests. On the downside, the book is replete with an unacceptable number of misprints and errors. Words are misspelt: “huggers” for nuggets, “rope” for rape (among many others); so are names: Brhaddhramma for Brhaddharma (Dasgupta: 90), Ananada Puravai for Ananda Puravi (Stephen: 206). Most inexcusable are factual errors. Dasgupta refers to a female character as “he” (p 91); Susnata Das says that Harish Chandra Mukherjee (1824-61) was the leader of the Indigo Peasant struggle in 1959-60 (p 233), and gives two dates for the publication of the Bengali History of the Sepoy War – 1879 and 1876 (p 235). If more attention had been paid to such details through professional editing, many such errors and shortcomings could have been eliminated.

    Kanakalatha Mukund (jmukund2001@yahoo. co.in) is an economic historian and author, formerly with the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.

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