ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Seeing the Past through Modern Eyes

Knowing India: Colonial and Modern Constructions of the Past edited by Cynthia Talbot (New Delhi: Yoda Press), 2011; pp ix-409; Rs 595 (paperback).

For a book that was published more than two years ago, Cynthia Talbot’s Festschrift to historian Thomas R Trautmann has an understated resolve to it. At a time when parliamentary elections are proffered as the proof of a so-called national mood, Talbot’s book of essays makes for sober reflection on how one has arrived at this interesting cusp by focusing on colonial and modern views of the past. The labour is worth it; for throwing light on how debates on authenticity and identity were fostered, nurtured and deflected in a seminal colonial moment can only serve to enhance our intellectual critique of monolithic representations of Indian cultures, societies and politics.

The book is organised into four broad thematic sections: (a) musings on (mosaic) Ethnology, Language and Kinship; (b) seeing the Precolonial through Colonial/Modern Eyes; (c) taking the long perspective: the precolonial past; and (d) tributes to Trautmann. Most essays, according to the editor, were presented at a conference in 2007. As with all such initiatives, there is a real danger of too many good arguments being lost in the rapid transition of themes and authors, each with their own emphasis and style. The editor has done a commendable job to keep the threads of the major themes together and has put the varied interests of the different authors to good use. However, given the diverse terrain covered in the book, it is only obvious that the reader is left with questions about the inclusion of certain contributions.

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