Thursday, October 18, 2007

Book review: Textures of time: Writing History in South India

(Apologies for being a bit irregular on the posts. Work has been rather busy the past week, but things are back to normal now)

As an avid amateur historian, reading about the history of kingdoms and cultures (and their influences on religion) has been a long standing hobby of mine. So my interest was more than piqued when I obtained a copy of Textures of time: Writing history in South India 1600-1800.

The main focus of the book is rather novel. It has been postulated often, by numerous historians, that India did not have a tradition of recording and preserving history. It has been said that history in India is a mixture of fact, legend, myth and popular belief. The Arab polymath, Al-Biruni, observed way back in the 10th century that “the Hindus did not pay much attention to the historical order of things.”

A substantial section of historians conclude that a historiographical tradition came to India with the Europeans coming and establishing themselves in India. It was they who brought with them the dry, “factual” style of recording history. This assertion usually crumbles under the mountain of historiographical literature the Delhi sultans, and subsequently the Mughals and their feudal nobles left behind. But two questions immediately raise themselves; the first being that perhaps the Indian historiographical traditions were borrowed from the well developed Persian and Turkish systems of recording history, and two, what about South India? Did the literary traditions of South India not have a historiographical tradition at all, but only had facts blended into stories and myths.

The authors of this book, Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, decide to investigate this assertion, and also see if they could bridge the somewhat artificial divide between “Hindu” and “Muslim” writing, by digging into a vast collection of resources from the 16th to the 18th century. They draw on primarily Telugu sources, along with a collection of Tamizh, Sanskrit, Marathi, Kannada and other sources of the time. Using an approach where the authors combine story-telling (of events from those times) with a systematic and rigorous analysis of those works, the authors steadily set about disproving that hypothesis.

For their material, the authors draw upon various court writings by scribes in the courts of various rulers; the songs and works of ballads and poets of the times, folk epics, as well as prose narratives of the time. Early on in the book, the authors point out that any choice of genre for writing history isn’t a constant, but has changed over time, as the society changes its preferred literary style. So, over time, a historical work ends up becoming a “literary work”. In the course of the book, as they explore four major historical incidents between the 16th and 18th century, based in what is today Andhra Pradesh and Northern Tamil Nadu, the authors subtly but elegantly point out that any history is invariantly written in the dominant literary genre of a particular community at that particular time (something that is quite intuitive, yet overlooked). For example, if puraana is the dominant literary form of the time, history would be written in puraana style, or kaavya style when kaavya is the dominant literary style. Obviously, this means that in any style, you will find both history and literature, and the trick is in distinguishing the two. But there are definite textual markers, syntax and expression styles, metrical devices and other indicators that distinguish literature from history. It is these that the authors try to distinguish and point out through the book.

The key question is how can they distinguish historical work from non-historical texts. The authors say that the answer lies in adopting a new way of reading the text. The “texture” of historical writing is substantially different from literature, though the style used may be the same. Part of the reason that this difference has been lost is because, to modern historians, the context has often been lost. In any story, the relation between the teller of the tale and the audience is of paramount importance. But if their connection is displaced, confusion is but inevitable. Literary traditions are easily broken, particularly when the audience for that text is “fragile”.

In this book, the authors explore stories which many of us would consider lesser-known, yet were well known (at least in South India) at the time. The major incidents explored in this book were recorded by numerous writers of the time (or even a little later) in the karanam style. Karanams were primarily accountants or court scribes of the time, and the authors describe their collective style of writing as the “karanam” style. Karanam scribes had been well established all across Telugu lands for centuries, and there exists a vast mountain of their recordings, from before the time of the Vijayanagara empire, and their traditions continued to evolve and develop long after Vijayanagara had fallen.

The authors start with the battle of Bobbili (which took place in 1757), of which detailed recordings and folk ballads were composed in Telugu. It essentially was a battle between two small-time warrior velama kings (who were both technically under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad). One of them decides to usurp the lands of the other (the “valiant” ruler of Bobbili, Pedda Bobbili Raju), and does so using the help of a confused, clueless French general, Bussey. The beauty of this tale is that it had distinct chronicles written by various sides; the admirers of the Bobbili Raju, or the rival treacherous king of Vijayanagaram (later Vizianagaram, and not to be confused with the earlier Vijayanagara empire).

In all these chronicles, while the characters may be described in different hues, and the valor or cowardice of one character might be exaggerated or diminished, the major facts of the story remain remarkably consistent. What’s more, the “dry, historical” recordings of a few English of French sources who were present match exquisitely with the facts in the Telugu sources. Similarly, later the authors explore the tale of the Desingu raja, in Senji, in the Arcot region of (present) Tamil Nadu. This minor chief rose up agains his lord, the Nawab of Arcot. Here too diverse sources, from karanams to folk singers, to Jaswant Rai, who chronicled history for the Nawab of Arcot, have remarkably consistent details. Jaswant Rai was a munshi, the north Indian equivalent of a karanam, who chronicled the life of the then Nawab of Arcot (who fought the king of Senji fort). As the authors take us through these (in themselves fascinating) tales, they consistently point out aspects of the narrative that shift from fact to fiction and to eulogy. The distinctions are subtle, but clearly consistent and significant.

By the end of the book, you are certainly convinced that there was a historiographical tradition in South India, which was very mature long before the establishment of European presence in India. However, like most academic books, this one too left me with many thoughts.

One question that immediately comes up is that a main intention of this book was to show a substantial and well developed histographical tradition in South India that was thriving before the establishment of European colonial rule in India. So, would the earlier literary and historical traditions of the preceding South Indian empires (Vijayanagara, the Kakatiyas, the Pallavas, Cholas, Chalukyas etc) not be a better choice of material to show this? Those sources distinctly preceded the arrival of the Europeans, and were possibly less influenced by Mughal, Persian or Turkish histographical traditions as well. A related but obvious question would be to ask how well developed the historiographical traditions of those times were in South India. Could Al-biruni have been right, and did even the karanam style develop after the Mughals came to India? How different was the style of recording history in the 8th century versus the 16th?

A particularly interesting question would be to ask if there were similarities in the style of writing of Indian muslim writers (who went beyond the traditional Persian style of historiography) and other Hindu writers (of the karanam tradition). How much did each influence the other’s style? Was there an effort made by writers of each style to remain true to their chosen literary styles, or was there a strong influence of each style, and co-evolution? After all, by the 16th century, at least the northern parts of South India were strongly under the influence of the Mughals or the Dakkani sultans etc.

Of course, as the old saying goes, “history is written by the victors.” Even the most hardened skeptic will agree to some truth in that saying. The authors perhaps expect only South Asian historians to read this book, and therefore much of the book remains only of academic interest for the hardcore historian. But their engaging writing style, and admirable choice of thoroughly entertaining ballads and stories with which to make their points, actually makes the book rather readable. Through their systematic and nuanced analysis the authors go a long way in demolishing the idea that there was no concept of recording history in South India.

(Crossposted from Desicritics)


Ashutosh said...

I like this! Relatively unknown books (at least unknown for me) should come to light. And this of course records an important chapter in our history.

Sunil said...

ashutosh.....this was pretty much an "academic" book, so perhaps won't reach a large audience. But the focus was clear.......and there is increasing interest in understanding South Asian history beyond a colonial perspective. So, books like these go a long way in bringing about that understanding.

Arunn said...

Sunil: good review. made me look for the book now in this city. thanks.

Sunil said...

Arunn....don't know if you'll find the book in Chennai, but if you do chance upon it, it's actually rather fun to read.

Feanor said...

Nice review! I've heard variations of the argument that Indian history is essentially archaeology because no written record persists (reasons given: weather, perishable mediums, ...). But there records do exist - Hindu ones even - such as the long lists of names preserved at Kashi and Haridwar by the Brahmins of people who came for penance. Another example: Chinese travellers over the centuries seeking Buddhist knowledge have reported that Indians were meticulous in keeping records, but - tied to the cyclical view of life and the universe - tended to destroy these records when a new king or dynasty came to power. Furthermore, there's an argument that the oral tradition was more important than the written one in India. John Keay's India Discovered covers these ideas in satisfying detail. Have you read it? What did you think?

Sunil said...

feanor....apologies for not noticing your comment earlier. You make some good points about Indian traditions (some of which this book does address). There certainly are records.....but like this book points out, it is sometimes difficult to tell fact from legend. That, combined with a colonial prism, has tinted the study of Indian history substantially, particularly since there was no official historiographical tradition in India (in contrast to China).

Thanks for the pointer to India discovered. Another addition to my constantly expanding reading lists :-)

Feanor said...

Actually, Mr Keay has written several good books on India; as you are a man of science, you might find his book on the trigonometric survey of India quite a good read. If you like, my brief review of it is here.

Ludwig said...

A thoroughly balanced review, and a very interesting and eclectic blog. Happy to find other VNR/Shulman and Keay fans.

Rakesh said...

One question that immediately comes up is that a main intention of this book was to show a substantial and well developed histographical tradition in South India that was thriving before the establishment of European colonial rule in India. So, would the earlier literary and historical traditions of the preceding South Indian empires (Vijayanagara, the Kakatiyas, the Pallavas, Cholas, Chalukyas etc) not be a better choice of material to show this? Those sources distinctly preceded the arrival of the Europeans, and were possibly less influenced by Mughal, Persian or Turkish histographical traditions as well.

I've not read the book under review, but thought of expressing my view on the above quote. The authors should have chosen the period after European colonization, because only this period could've had the European records of Indian history that makes it possible for the authors to prove the accuracy of Indian historiography by comparing it with the European records.