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

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The Historical and the Literary Rani

The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India by Harleen Singh, Cambridge University Press, 2014; pp 199 hardcover, Rs 548.

There is no dearth of scholarship on the events that were precipitated in 1857 in colonial India—whether one prefers to interpret them as mutiny, rebellion, or something else entirely—nor is there a dearth of popular literature and iconography depicting the event. Both history and literature are further complicated by the figure of Rani Lakshmibai, whose participation in the events of 1857 remains a central preoccupation of the popular materials. Harleen Singh’s The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India uniquely resists the historicising impulse to show the ways in which popular literature needs to be given equal credence so that we may better understand the symbiotic (and symbolic) processes of history and literature in the production of colonial and postcolonial aesthetics, both British and Indian, and their relation to gender that has resonances in our current epoch.

In an impressive introduction cum first chapter, Singh positions her work alongside and at the intersection of a host of disciplinary approaches—history/historiography, literary studies (both Victorian and postcolonial studies), and gender studies. She retains this positioning—a source of strength—throughout the book. The introduction itself functions in the best sense of the word, highlighting the major works in various fields and sub-fields (“1857,” “Rani Lakshmi Bai, the Queen of Jhansi,” “Colonial Policy and Indian Women,” “The Woman Question in India,” and “A Woman’s Place in Literature and History”) that Singh organises with an eye towards readability before moving on to a description of her chapters. Such an organisational paradigm has very specific methodological consequences, of course, and the overall “effect” (of traversing the more theoretical work of say Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gayatri Spivak in one section, to the historical scholarship on the 1857 rebellion in yet another, to literary scholarship yet elsewhere) is to enable a reading of a figure—the Rani of Jhansi—in a manner that brings various approaches into play while also superseding the limitations of each. As Singh argues in the introduction, it is the lack of consensus between British and Indian scholarship as well as British and Indian popular literature that demands such a methodological approach.

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