Historians of India have lately been looking at the place of history in the country, both as an academic discipline and as a mode of public representation of the past. This book explores the status of regional and vernacular histories in relation to academic histories by professional historians.
Was there history writing in India before the British colonial intervention? The stock answer to this question is ‘no’. Other than the Rajatarangini of Kalhana, no ancient text adequately resembles a historical narrative. The itihasa-purana tradition is largely indistinguishable from mythology. The vamsavali and caritra traditions do not really distinguish between the legendary and the historical.
Yet these genres of narrating the past did percolate into India’s regional languages, being later complemented by the Persian court chronicles of Islamic rulers, with the latter showing writing practices much closer to European conventions of history writing.
Looking closely at vernacular contexts and traditions of historical production, the essays in this book question the assumption that there was no history writing in India before colonialism. They suggest that careful and appropriate techniques of reading reveal distinctly indigenous historical narratives. Such narratives may be embedded within non-historical literary genres, such as poems, ballads, and works within the larger itihasa-purana tradition, but they are marked by discursive signs that allow them to be recognized as historical.
Vernacular history traditions in Assam, Bengal, the North-East, Kerala, the Andhra-Tamil region, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh are examined here with fresh archival material and new insights, making this a valuable book for historians, sociologists, and South Asianists.
Raziuddin Aquil is Fellow in History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He is the author of Sufism, Culture, and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval North India (2007).
Partha Chatterjee is Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, New York. His many books include The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (1993), and A Princely Impostor? The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism (2002).