History and the domain of the popular


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NEW ways of history writing? To answer that question, we need to consider what are the old ways of writing history that we have with us today. Have they served their purpose? Are they really antiquated?

Professional history writing by accredited members of the academy – that is to say, historians based in university history departments or in specialized research institutions – was established in India as the most reliable, authorized and ‘proper’ form of historical scholarship during the course of the 20th century. A full history of this process of the professionalization of history writing in India has not been written yet. But it appears to go hand in hand with the emergence, in the early decades of the 20th century, of a generation of university educated Indians who trained themselves in the modern methods of archival and archaeological research developed in Europe and applied those methods to the study of Indian history.

They were keen to establish that their methods were scientific, and they aspired to a certain version of ‘positivist’ historiography, upholding the value of material artifacts, epigraphic and numismatic sources and archival documents over those of literary texts and popular memory. Their nationalist sentiments pushed them towards a narrative framework centred around the institutions of the state, whether for India as a whole or for each of the regions.

Thus, the periodization of Indian history tended to be based on dynastic reigns – Maurya period, Gupta period, Mughal period, or even for a region, Pala period, Sena period, Sultani period – rather than on other, let us say, economic or cultural institutions. Clearly, there was an urge to establish a continuous history of India from ancient times in which social, economic and cultural developments could be framed by a history of the state.



It was also in the course of the 20th century that the institutions for a professional community of historians were established. After independence, there was a huge expansion in higher education, almost entirely supported by state funding. Through institutions such as the University Grants Commission, the recruitment of teachers, curricula, textbooks, examinations etc. in the universities were brought under a single, and more or less common, pattern for the whole country.

In the sphere of historical research, bodies such as the Indian History Congress, the Indian Historical Records Commission and the Archaeological Survey of India, journals like the Indian Economic and Social History Review and The Indian Historical Review (in the period when it appeared regularly) and, more recently, Studies in History, and major publishing houses like Asia Publishing, Vikas (both now deceased), Oxford University Press, Sage, Manohar, Orient Longman, Munshiram Manoharlal or Motilal Banarasidas, succeeded in creating a domain where works of historical scholarship could be circulated, discussed and evaluated by professional historians. It is also worth mentioning that the recognized language of scholarship in this professional domain, established in the course of the 20th century, is English.

What did the new professional and scientific history replace? Before the emergence of academic historians in the universities in the early 20th century, the bulk of history writing in India consisted of what may be called the ‘old social history’. These histories did not follow traditional modes of retelling the past, although they may have borrowed certain narrative elements from them. They were not written in Sanskrit or Persian but mostly in the modern Indian languages. They were histories of religious sects, castes, kinship networks, regions, localities, languages, literature, art, music and so on. Often, they received their impetus from the official gazetteers and censuses of the 19th century. They aspired to mobilize arguments and deploy evidence in the same modern and rational forms that were approved by the colonial institutions of government and education. In this sense they were modern histories. But they were also deeply entangled in the ideological web of regional, sectarian, caste and ethnic politics of the 19th and 20th centuries.



The scientific history of academic historians did not quite replace the old social history. Rather, it displaced it to a zone outside the authorized academy. The old social history did not die. It continued through the 20th century to produce histories – mostly in the Indian languages rather than in English – of the same social and cultural institutions as before: sects, castes, cults, lineages, ethnic groups etc. They were often deeply ideological and fiercely partisan histories, seeking to bolster the claims of one side or another in current political or cultural battles.

Academic historians hoped that their scientific histories, based on rigorously and professionally verified evidence, would undermine the ideologically driven claims of the rag-tag mass of old social histories. The new scientific history of the 1960s and 1970s chose to concentrate on economic activities and institutions. This was an area that was relatively less contaminated by the ideological germs of cultural politics. A rigorous history of economic transactions and motivations was also seen as affording a way of cutting through the contentious claims of the hyper-ideological social histories and establishing a more scientific foundation of historical explanation in material life. Some of the most remarkable achievements by Indian academic historians in the 1960s and 1970s were in the field of economic history which enjoyed great intellectual prestige in history departments of the time.



There is no doubt that the new academic history has achieved a great deal since the 1960s. It has consolidated a sphere of serious academic research with organized access to archives, libraries, journals, publishing houses, teaching programmes etc. It has also established for Indian history, historians and universities a recognized and respected place in the world of professional historical scholarship. The international connections are important because through the flow of students, researchers and publications, the professional practices of Indian historians have matched those prevailing in western academia. Historiographical innovations in other countries too have contributed to global debates on historical method.

A recent survey of two leading historical journals published in India and the booklists of four major Indian publishers shows that about one-third of articles and books on history published in India are authored by scholars located in foreign universities, mostly in North America, Europe and Australia.1 There is no doubt that at the turn of the millennium, despite much internal wrangling and some vituperative attack by votaries of the Hindu Right, the intellectual prestige of academic history writing in India is higher than it has ever been.

Yet this community of academic historians constitutes an enclave. The same survey I referred to above also showed that Indian historians published by the prestigious publishers and journals came from no more than half a dozen institutions in India, and of them the bulk were from a single city – Delhi. This reflects a set of deeply troubling facts about the unequal distribution of doctoral training programmes, access to libraries and archives, and openings into the world of academic publishing. Perhaps more significantly, it indicates the rather narrow limits of the influence of ‘high’ academic history on history writing in the country as a whole.



As I said before, the rise of academic history did not obliterate the old social history. It only pushed it outside the domain of the high academy. But it has continued to flourish there – in the Indian regional languages, through books, pamphlets, magazines, newspaper columns, local learned societies, sectarian or community organizations, and political associations. It has often had vital links with cultural and political movements.

It would be wrong to think that the producers of these histories have no links with the academic world. They often do. In fact, their authority as writers on behalf of particular causes or campaigns often depends on their location in a college or university. They claim to follow the same procedures of evaluating and marshalling evidence as those taught in the universities. The crucial difference is that operating in a zone outside that policed by the professional institutions of high academic history, they have no need to submit their work to the assessment of journal referees and peer reviews. They seek their legitimacy in the domain of the popular.



This, I think, is the crucial challenge facing academic history in India today – its relationship to the domain of the popular. The purist might protest and say, ‘Why must the academic researcher pander to the popular?’ Put this way, the objection is valid. The academic historian’s research agenda and methods should be set by the demands of the professional discipline, by other scholars working in the field. Surely, the mathematician or the physicist is never asked to relate his or her research to popular demands or tastes. Why should the historian have to think of the aspirations of social and cultural movements and what their propagandists are peddling in the name of history?

The matter, unfortunately, cannot be decided so easily in favour of the purist. First, despite the claims to being scientific, it is well-known that ideological presuppositions lurk under the methods adopted by all academic historiography. Second, if academic historians do constitute a social enclave, marked by specific associations of class, caste, region, language, etc., then their relationship to the popular does have an important bearing on the social legitimacy of their claims to historical truth. We know, for instance, from the researches of the late Pierre Bourdieu, how in societies with far greater social mobility than India, the members of the prestigious academic institutions still tend to come from a fairly narrow social strata. The situation is clearly more extreme when we consider the group that writes ‘high’ academic history in India.

Third, and crucially, if the promise of scientific history was to eradicate the ideological and often pernicious half-truths of the old social history, then academic history’s relationship to the popular is a test that it cannot, under any circumstances, avoid. Judging by the influence that academic history appears to have on the public domain in India today, it is a test that I fear we will fail.

I do not have any simple recipes for making academic history more sensitive to the popular. Certainly, the answer cannot be to turn academic history into some variant of the Amar Chitra Katha. Methodological rigour and intellectual discipline are the two pillars on which the superior claims of scientific history must rest; they cannot be given up without destroying the enterprise itself. I believe the answer must be found through a more rigorous search for an analytic of the popular.



For too long, academic historians have neglected or overlooked the diverse forms of recounting the past that continue to shape beliefs, stereotypes and attitudes in the public sphere. In fact, they have seldom shown any interest in the ways in which the products of academic history themselves are appropriated in the many forms of popular historical narrative in fiction, cinema, theatre, painting and song. My hunch is that a huge part of these popular narratives in the 20th century have selectively fed on the material provided by academic historians. By looking aghast and turning away from what people have done to our carefully researched histories, we only reinforce our insularity. We might do better by studying those transformations more carefully. It would require more, not less, rigour to develop an adequate analytic of the popular.

There is a second recipe I have that is easy to describe but, I suspect, even more arduous to implement. A major reason for, as well as the obvious symptom of, the insularity of academic history in India is the language in which it is practiced – English. It is not difficult to understand or appreciate why English must continue to be the language of historical research in India. But it is not clear why Indian historians could not also write in another Indian language.

There was a time in the 1970s when the Indian Council of Historical Research sponsored a gigantic project of translation of works on Indian history from English to the major Indian languages. I doubt very much that the translations had much impact. In fact, I am convinced that translations will never serve the purpose of reaching a readership outside the circle that today reads history in English. There is, first, the problem of the quality of translation. I know several translated books in Bengali that are incomprehensible unless you have already read the English original!

But, second, the quality issue hides an even more important reality. Academic history in English is written largely for other academic historians who inhabit the same professional institutions and share the same professional idioms. To reach outside that circle into the regions occupied by Indian language readers, academic historians must intervene in the field presently dominated by what I have called the old social history. Translated books will never accomplish this. Only original writing in the Indian languages can take up the challenge of fashioning a new conceptual language and idiom that might gain general currency in the Indian language public spheres. That would also mean opening up to, as well as confronting, the popular.

In short, there are good reasons to think that our current methods of writing academic history are not good enough. But to overcome those limits and wield greater influence over the public sphere, academic history needs both disciplinary innovation and more flexible but rigorous methods.



1. Partha Chatterjee (ed), Social Science Research Capacity in South Asia. Social Science Research Council, New York, 2002.