Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Observations on Jewish History/History-writing

The topic I discussed in the last Medieval History Session was on the concept of medieval amongst the Jewish diaspora, and Jewish historiography. I wish to further the discussion with this short post.

Most scholars aren't in a consensus as to when to fix the date of Jewish Medieval Period. One view suggests that it began with the discriminate laws of Constantine in 315 CE, and another view holds that it began when the community was exiled from Spain. Therefore there is a scamper to fit the Jewish history into the tripartite division for convenience. But it seems to be a difficult task.

Since the development of modern history writing in Western Europe had a Christian background, it has thus been difficult to wriggle in the Jewish community into this setting. Of course, one might argue that history writing deals not only with religion but with a larger context of economic, social and political scenario. It is here that one needs to be pointed out that the Jewish diaspora has surprisingly behaved as a nation even though they were scattered in different parts of the world. One might wonder if it is the promise of Israel in the Old Testament that has worked so strongly as to achieve this end. Their deep faith in their religion's political ends (something which has been taken as a trump card by many nations) makes the study of Jewish history even more interesting. Their historical journey is often written in a cyclic format of exploitation and resurrection, in tune with, say, the captivity in Egypt and their miraculous return to Canaan, in what is known as the Exodus in the Old Testament. The Holocaust also strengthened this concept.

Therefore the question which comes to the mind, if I consider that the marked separation of theology from history writing marks modernity in history writing itself, is whether the Jewish diaspora has really managed to separate theology from history writing or not. I don't know the answer to this as I have hardly read much about Jewish history writing, but I'm keen to know.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

O medieval, diverse thou art!

The elusive Second Session of our Club is only 6 days away. I am presuming that by now, most of you have finished off your assigned readings. I personally have had the opportunity to read a few of these and was quite astonished about how diverse the catagorisation of the medieval has been in different cultures. The politics behind naming a period medieval, the attributes used to define it, the temporality assigned to it -- all changes as one shifts one's focus from one socio-cultural milieu to another. Moreover, the notion of the medieval is used in various ways to justify/condemn one's actions in the present ormodern times. We are all familiar with how medieval Indian history has emerged as a battleground in the post-colonial Indian nation in the hands of warring political parties. Our readings would suggest that similar tendencies are noticeable in lands as diverse as Iran, Japan and Ireland, among others. With the Second Session round the corner, I think it would not be inappropriate to share such curious, if not intriguing, findings on this forum. Feel free to make separate posts for the different readings. We might consider it a dress rehearsal!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Rethinking the Medieval in World History

Very much like the modern discipline of history itself, the notion of a medieval period, or as it was called earlier, the Middle Ages, has its origin in the Western European collective memory and historical experience. This notion spread in Europe gradually in the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries and was linked with the association of the contemporary rediscovery of the ancient Greco-Latin civilisation as a cultural renaissance (re-awakening) after a long period of darkness and dormancy. With the rise of professional history-writing in the eighteenth century, this understanding crystallized into a tripartite periodisation between a celebration-worthy ancient, a gloomy medieval and a re-awakened modern.
As the European scheme of periodisation spread to different societies as a result of European colonisation, the notion of a middling period between a glorious past and a progressive and civilised present gradually came to be imagined and conceived almost everywhere. In case of the Indian subcontinent, the conception of the Middle Ages was intertwined with British imperial justification of empire and their vision of progress in history. In the British narratives of Indian history, the medieval period, which followed a glorious ancient Hindu past, represented a dark age of religious conversion, unremitting conquests and cultural sterility, from which only the British could lead the Indian people to a civilised modernity. In a similar fashion, the construction of the medieval, with its historical link with the notion of darkness and dormancy, had its different political agenda in different societies.
In the next session of the Medieval History Club, we rethink this very notion of the medieval, not only in the context of Indian history, but that of different societies of the world at large. The readings for the session will explore the complex processes of conceptualising the medieval in lands as diverse as Europe, India, the Arab countries, Iran, China and Japan. The basic questions that we have to engage with while reading and discussing these pieces may include some of the following.
1. What temporal span is signaled as the medieval in a particular society?
2. What are the characteristics of this medieval ?
3. What are the politics behind the branding of this period as medieval ?
4. When and in what historical situation did the notion of a medieval emerge in the society concerned?
5. How, if at all, does the nature of the medieval of a non-European society differ with that of the European Middle Ages?
It is, obviously, not essential to address all of these questions for every single article. The purpose of providing this set of questions is merely to suggest some directions of thinking about and questioning the notion of the medieval. The collective reading of these articles in our Second Session, we believe, will help us rethink what we understand as medieval in the context of India in particular and different parts of the world at large.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Uneasy continuum of History

Though this post may be dealing more with the present than the past, i find no better forum than to present my views here. And in a way, I would also like to point out the rather blurry line between what's 'history' and what the present entails.

The much awaited Ayodha Verdict has finally come out, and the verdict has thrown to the forefront several questions that have rather ambiguous and uncertain answers.

Time, as I perceive it, is a continual process, and the study and progress of history is embedded in it. Therefore sheerly on the basis of this logic, elements of history of the past is weaved into the present. It is in it's interpretations that questions arise. The judgement allows for a three-part division of the land between the contending parties and observes that the building was constructed after demolishing a hindu temple, and thus dismissing the claims of the Waqf.

The question here arises is that how much of historical facts and conjecture should infringe upon the present time. Is it commendable that what happened in the sixteenth century India should be brought in as evidence for an event that clearly happened in 1949, escalated to a combustible point in 1992? It definitely shows that history has that much of an impact in present day lives, but it also brings forward an uneasiness regarding the control of the past over the present.

- Posted by Sohini Chattopadhyay, Second Year, Presidency College Kolkata.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Leave history. take any discipline,. be it social ,technical, or material or metaphysical, the history of any discipline needs to be put under appropriate heads in order to make the study easier and also to have a near-clear idea about the events. but the thing which should be taken care of, is the heads or the basis on which the periodization is made.

the history of man’s progress on this earth is linked-subtly or grossly- to each other ,in that case when we study the invasion of the Arabs in sind, we should also look at their coming in Spain and other Mediterranean countries, in order to analyze the nature, intension and consequences of invasion. with the coming of the Mughals,the chaghtai turks,as Babar preferred to be called, one needs to have a look at the contemporary safavid and Ottoman empires ,the struggle between these big empires, the history of their rivalry ,in order to have a more rational and broad based knowledge of the Mughals .look at any other discipline , periodisation is necessary,be it literature ,science ,even business studies, in order to look at the nature of advancement of the discipline ,which whether ameliorated or degenerated., periodisation is often made ,and in that case ,purely for a comparative study ,with an object of an analytical approach to the whole picture.therefore,if we try not to periodise or demarcate or try to generalize history of any discipline,we may find it too difficult to interpret, realize and above all understand. Generalization as an alternative is too puerile, but a careful and genuine periodization is what we ask for.

Now before blaming the British,for the conventional periodization of Indian history into ancient,medieval and modern,there should have some gratitude for them as the history which they have constructed-be it faulty and defective ,particularly in approach ,if not in facts-was for a long time and is still, according to some historians ,serve as the basis for construction of history of India, which undergoes alteration ,modification, ,revision and criticism at every attempt of rewriting, the amount of hard work which they had put in to study the original texts and interpreting or deciphering the vast inscriptions --do serve as the basis of reading and writing of Indian history, subsequently. but did the British have a feeling or rather were sure of the fact that Indians have a general lack of constructing history of their own and therefore they are bestowing their support to make us realize our own forgotten and buried culture and be thankful to them forever for such a contribution? Like any other Indian,I do not prefer to be called historically challenged or apathetic and are ignorant of our past culture. well,yes we do not have such writings which can be called proper history, except RAJTARANGINI by KALHANA ,(according to M. Athar’s difficult not to call it authentic)but we must look at the amount of history produced with the coming of the muslims/turks in the country ,we do appreciate their initiative to write down the history of their coming(CHACHNAMA,being close to authentic, according to Athar Ali) their assimilation into the culture of the newly acquired land, and the building of a concrete empire, Hindustan(not a nation.till now)the achievements of their sultans, some sources do also openly criticize, portray some of their atrocities (ISAMI,BARANI)and some are vivid descriptions of their rulers’ benevolence and the social and economic transformation of Hindustan under the muslim rulers(abul fazl).we do now count them as our history-as we no longer call them ‘mlechchas’ or alien, barbarians ,as we now know that they, specially the Mughals did come to India not only to acquire the land but also to settle and live -unlike the contemporary mentality and hatred of the the ‘hindus’. detecting another dimension to this which I cannot stop mentioning, is that the above muslim historians are now considered to be ours,(or are they?)as their patron sultans are now considered to be rulers of India-is I hope not igniting another question ,that is the lack of history writing on ‘our’ part before coming of the muslims, the court bards and chronicles(which were written before and continued even after coming of the muslims) which fall short in being authentic and secular in comparison to the histories which were constructed by the muslim historians,as commented by J.N.Sarkar in the ‘History of historiography of the medieval period’ .if clearly stated ,it should sound more like, we accepted the histories of the muslim writers as we didn’t have such critical and well constructed history writing or the mentality to record the events of our day to day life for posterity, as Prof. Sarkar has commented that it was a gift to the people of this land by the muslim historians who sometimes accompanied or were commissioned by the muslim rulers,which serve as the basic structure for subsequent history writing of the land.on the other hand, Uttara Ma’am has given us a long list of indigenous writers ,mainly by rajput rajas and the people who were employed at different levels of administration of the muslim rulers. yes,they too serve as authentic records as the muslim histories, but perhaps not as popular or talked about as the histories of the muslim or arab historians.what should be the reason for this?
Thus,I do not wish to but rather bound to feel that history of India is constructed by people who came from outside,and not by the people of the land themselves. my fellow members of the blog may differ and present examples to prove me wrong, and which I dearly want in order to to be enlightened by the information which I am nor aware of. Now coming to the point where I was trying to lead to, the vehement criticism which we generally indulge in ,is the wrong periodisation of Indian history into three periods,on the basis of mainly religion and the sentiments which are generally attached to it ,and which has already been mentioned by Pratyay da in a previous post. in an earlier post there has been mentioned that regional history is generally ignored in case of generalizing history into the three broad heads (ancient, medieval and modern), I would like to mention two books in this regard which deal with regional history and which also suffer, the conventional barbarity which is generally associated with the history of the coming of Islam. In Abdul Karim’s ‘BANGALAR ITIHASH,SULTANI AMOL’,prof Karim has particularly shown the spirit of invasion of the muslim sultans,but he also mentions the skirmishes and rivalry which existed among the muslims(for e.g.-the rivalry among the khilji maliks in lucknawti)and in NIHARRANJAN RAY’s BANGALIR ITIHASH,ADI PORBO,in which he mentioned the peaceful and centralized structure-a pan Indian feeling- which was in vogue in Bengal in pre-medieval times, and which lasted till the commencement of the Gupta period and after which it assumed a regional structure. This very notion is generally linked with the coming of the Islam or rather the Arabs,a kind of regionalism linked with medievalism, however, this notion has subsequently been refuted by historians with suitable and strong examples and which somewhat was successful to controvert the idea.

Not only do the periodisation and the general characteristics linked with the different periods ,suffer from defects, there were terms used by the colonial rulers which only mislead the reader. For e.g. The Constitution of India states that "India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states. India and Bharat are official short names for the Republic of India; whereas,Hindustan is mostly used in historical contexts (especially British India). Today these three terms are interchangeably used to refer to the political and national entity that is identified as India. But the term Hindustan did mean different during the medieval period. The rulers in the Sultanate and Mughal periods called their Indian dominion, centered around Delhi as Hindustan. in the thirteenth century Minhajus Siraj, a chronicler who wrote in Persian, meant the areas of Punjab, Haryana and the lands between the Ganga and Yamuna. He used the term in a political sense for the lands that were a part of the dominions of the Delhi Sultanate. In the early sixteenth century Babur used Hindustan to describe the geography, the fauna and the culture of the inhabitants of the subcontinent.
Hindustan was in use synonymously with India during the British Raj. In the 19th century, the term as used in English referred to the northern region of India between the Indus and Brahmaputra and between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas in particular, hence the term Hindustani for the Hindi-Urdu language. Thus, while the idea of a geographical and cultural entity like “India” did exist during medieval period, the term Hindustan did not carry the political and national meanings which we perceive today, it was only a product of the British construction of Indian history.
I have already mentioned above that periodization is often made to bring in a comparative study of history which also would have been the reason or logic in case of periodising Indian history by the British ,in order to compare it with the ‘modern’ period and to try to portray the progress and advancement which existed during the modern period and to suggest a general lacking in advancement during the period which existed before it i.e. the muslim period.this notion has been vehemently attacked by historians and in their alteration of the general idea of backwardness, they also refuted the idea of regionalism, which was often associated with the period before coming of the English rulers, i.e. the medieval times.

To conclude, one must take chronology i.e. time into account in case of historical study.for a historian time not only signifies different periods but also portrays changes in society, ideas and beliefs,periodisation only helps to recognize the past developments with the changing time and in doing so it develops a bridge among the similar characteristics which are shared by the different that case,we do not need to periodise social change under any rigid head ,for can study the period from the accession of Aurangzib to the throne upto the revolt of 1857(which according to the conventional periodisation fall under both medieval or muslim and modern or British period)one can always wish to extend the study as long as she wishes and doesnot have to be labeled as an ancient,medieval or modern historian,as I have heard many students having interest in a particular period of history which fall in both ancient and medieval or medieval and modern,and sometimes- queerly enough- ancient and modern(to go by the conventional periodisation)and in some other cases one may dislike to read certain portions of the course which usually fall under a particular curriculum in the conventional programme of study-ancient,medieval and modern. in case of this kind of reading one can always study as extensively as possible ,according to her wishes.this should not give the present reader of this post ,a feeling that I am talking in favour of a generalization.i am only thinking of a kind of study which is only demarcated by dates or centuries[for e.g.1658(the year of Aurangzib’s accession)to 1857(the great revolt)]one can first select the years which she wishes to read And then periodize, accordingly. do I sound illogical or is it a dull and Utopian suggestion?i took the liberty to be as imaginative as possible, but in doing so if I sound a bit ultra-imaginative or inordinate or unreasonable, I must be alerted. I may also err in giving some or all of the information. I am open to criticism.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Rethinking the "Time".

While we discuss and reconsider the periodisation prevalent in history as a discipline, we can take a step back and look at the origins of the concept of periodisation itself. Why does history need to be periodised? Essentially and quintessentially because it deals with time. We in the present practice of history writing, given to us in the 'glorious lineage' of the European modernist ideas, crystallized by Kant, Hegel, Ranke or Marx write an essentially 'progressive' history where we move from the distant past to the 'proxima'-present. This practice treats time as a flat, linear sequence that takes no twists, turns or somersaults and it also takes for granted that the history unfolds a positive human history, which has at its telos the 'greatest point' of human history -be it the Kantian Cosmopolitan state or the Marxian Scientific communism. But if we could for a second assume the absence of a linear time, if we could think of the various time frames available to us, as Rossamond Mckitterick would argue that in the prehistory of the linear time there were the cyclical time, the monastic time, astronomical time etc. which necessarily were not linear as understood today. The linearity as Mckitterick suggests was a monarchic-political contribution and not a social-economic one.
The question that comes next is so what if the linear time was political and not social economic? The answer is that it opens up possibilities. Possibilities if we consider the writing of history as an outcome of a heightened social memory, an agreed version of the past of a community, then we can consider the concept of time as also a phenomenon of consensus, a controlled-manipulative unit, that can be exploited by various histories of various consensus and various legitimacy. Also assuming at this point that each consensus understands history in its own way which may or may not be understood similarly by other parallel consensuses.
Therefore considering the straight line time scheme(liner sequence of temporality) to be just one of the 'legitimate forms', let us look at a time scheme prevalent among a group of writers in early modern South India, the Karanams. Velcheru Narayan Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam in Textures of Time writes of the use of Kala-Jnana(knowledge of time) as a form of time scheme among the Karanams where the historical relation is presented as prediction, the time in this form doesnot move in one single direction but travels to and fro. The authors also identify parallel time frames with cyclical sequence(that repeat at intervals) interspersed with events presented in linear sequential mode(for example the life of a king). Surprisingly this reminds us of the Annales' three fold time frame (the longe duree or the long term, the conjunctures or the cyclical occurences and the event or the immediate unique occurrence )! The (high sounding) proposal is therefore to look at the various possible ways of understanding time, in various spacial, temporal or communitarian(among various groups) consensuses to seek possibilities of newer modes of periodisation.

Santanu Sengupta

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Can 'Technology' be a basis for Periodisation?

The theme of the first session of this club being 'Rethinking Periodisation in Indian history' made me think, and after sometime got me baffled! This was because like most of us, I couldn't visualize of any better way of periodising especially the history of the sub-continent other than grouping time periods and placing different historical episodes in them so as to bring out a complete or perhaps a wholesome picture of Indian history portraying after a specified time different historical events giving way to another. This process of periodising, essentially by grouping time periods should remain, as such a frame of reference is necessary for our convenience, but while periodising the history of the sub-continent we generally tend to overlook regional variations. In such cases it becomes extremely difficult for chalking out grounds on which comparison between different historical episodes can be made. At times periodising was done on religious grounds, i.e. marking of a period as Hindu or Muslim, ignoring the prevailing divergent or rather heterogeneous religious identities.

Hence while looking up alternatives for periodising history; specially of the sub-continent, I had this idea if technology could serve as a parameter for this, as periodising history needs a basis for being grouped under different time zones; a common factor which would serve as a binding agent, encompassing a variety of happenings throughout the historical clock. As earlier said that at times religion was taken as a basis for periodising history and even if we purposely omit varied religious identities, we find that religion does not associate itself with every sphere of human life like economy and is not always a prime factor behind every historical event. On the other hand technology tends to exert its influence over most human activities. By technology I tend to mean the application of scientific ideas as everyone knows, but in different lines of historical developments. Technology here essentially stands for new ideas which need not be extravagant.

We had the 'Stone Age' in pre-historic times, then came the 'Chalcolithic Age' marking the use of copper, followed by the 'Bronze Age' during the proto-historic times, and the coming of iron in the ancient times kind of revolutionized the human way of life. The use of iron could be seen in every sphere of life, in agriculture or economy, in warfare etc., and this marked use of iron led several historians term this period as the 'Iron Age'. Likewise if we take the period that we essentially characterize as 'Medieval', saw numerous technological developments, especially in mining and textile. High grade iron ore was used to produce initially damascened steel, and the introduction of spinning wheel in the 14th Century led to an improvement in cotton production, although Lynn White had queried the presence of this device in ancient India. Nevertheless, the medieval period saw many more such technological advancements like the Ain-i Akbari highlights the working of the imperial kitabkhana. Although kitabkhana can be translated as library, it was indeed a scriptorium, i.e a place where the emperor's collection of manuscripts was kept and new manuscripts were produced. The process of manuscript making involved huge amount of labour mobilising. Then as we all know that Firuz Shah Tughluq was responsible for construction of numerous canals, and also amongst many other things, the tas-ghariyal which was a metal cup perforated at the bottom which when put in a tub of water would be filled up and sink after twenty-four minutes and the people were informed about this by the beating of a gong; after every four hours there was a double beating of the gong. And the errors of the metal-cup were corrected by reference to a sun-dial. Among the regional kingdoms, in the south we find that the Vijayanagara empire which happened to be one of the mighty kingdoms of the peninsula during the 13th-14th centuries, had seven line of fortifications which was an innovation as it encircled not only the city but also its agricultural hinterland and forests, unlike earlier times. All these little examples give us the picture that technology had a prominent role in different historical epochs or ages.

While concluding I would only like to highlight that periodisation on an all encompassing ground seems impossible, however technology, which tends to touch various aspects of people's lives can serve as a basis for grouping different historical time periods.

-posted by Rituparna Das, Second Year, Presidency College, Kolkata.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The meaning of Medieval India to a layman

After interacting with many people who are definitely not much interested in history I’ve come to the conclusion that medieval India is mostly linked with the Mughals. Or let’s put it this way most people think that medieval Indian history is the history of the Mughals.

The concept of the early medieval period is not at all there. Actually in schools people hardly come across the term ‘early medieval.’ To most people Sultanate rulers are a non-entity. They probably have heard the name of Iltutmish, Balban etc but they are certainly not as glorious as the Mughal rulers. It is also seen that some tend to confuse between the sultanate rulers and the Mughals thinking they belong to just one very long dynasty. Moreover many also think that muslim rule in India means the rule of the Mughals.

Last year in the college trip to Rajasthan we came across this guide in Chittor who while showing us Padmini’s mahal said that Alauddin Khalji, the Mughal ruler attacked Chittor. He even said that Padmini was the princess of a land beside Srilanka known as Ceylondesa!! But jokes apart this shows that the imposing stature of the Mughals has definitely undermined other medieval dynasties. It is generally overlooked that sultanate formed the very basis of Mughal rule. It laid down the basic framework.

In order to generate interest in history generally the glorious topics are taught extensively at school level. But to understand history properly the uninteresting portions(obviously to some people) are also to be taught with equal stress. This concept of equalizing the Mughals with medieval India should be rectified.Moreover people also think that the Mughals conquered the whole of India and there was no indigenous ruler at that time. The Mughals certainly exerted their influence over most part of the subcontinent but there were some stray places where there existed indigenous rulers. Though Alauddin Khalji invaded south it never remained the core area of the later rulers.

Medieval Indian history means lots of other things rather than Mughals. It is our duty to bring these things forward and try to clear these little but grave misconceptions in our own little way.

- Chandreyee Dasgupta, Second Year, Presidency College.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Emergence of a new periodisation?

The last post and its comments clearly point out that the present students of Presidency
College are fully aware of the politics and drawbacks of the tripartite periodisation of the
history of the Indian subcontinent. As you all know, these drawbacks began to be
apparent during the later decades of the last century and simultaneously there began a
search for alternative periodisation schemes for a better analysis of the Indian case. 

During the 1980s and 90s, B.D. Chattopadhyay and a few others strongly argued a case for an 'early medieval' period, following the breakdown of the centralised Gupta administration in north India in the 6th century and preceding the formation of the Turkish sultanate in Delhi in the 13th century. They point out that in contrast to the earlier and following periods, this period has a structural homogeneity of its own, characterised by emergence of various regional political dynasties, economies, culture and religion. 

During the last 10-15 years, Sanjay Subrahmanyam and J.F. Richards have identified the 16th and 17th centuries as the 'early modern' period in India, as a part of a global period which is known by the same name. They identify a trend of formation of absolutist, centralised, fiscal-military states in India at this time, moderated by an informed contact with global affairs, which was also the trend in other parts of the world during this period.

Do you think that the emergence of such new periods in Indian historiography, more informed by the peculiarities of the Indian scenario will nullify the drawbacks of the traditional tripartite division? How, if at all, can they help us think about Indian history in new ways?

Pratyay Nath.

Generality of periodisation

Disclaimer: I hereby take the liberty of bombarding an innocent new blog with my essentially motley ideas on a topic that hasn't yet been formally discussed by the club. However, I believe that any opinion provided in this forum shall only highlight the necessity of the theme of our first discussion.

Periodisation is often dealt as a frame of reference in the study of history. Compartmentalising certain attributes of a progressing society makes the study and understanding of history easier for the uninitiated. However, periodisation has been essentially a Western import. In accordance with Western ideas on the progress of Western Civilisations, India was to have a more or less glorious 'ancient' period, corrupted (lets take the word in a neutral sense) by the Muslims in the 'Medieval' era and finally rescued from its impending doom by the British.

The basic flaw of periodising the history of the sub- continent lies in its attempt at homogenising an area that is essentially diverse to a great extent. Periodisation often disregards regional variations. While a general statement for a time period is often suitable for school children as details in regional variation cannot be taught and teachers are more concerned with imparting a general idea, such generalisation does not suit those who pursue the subject beyond the elementary level. The idea of India is a product of the absorption of innumerable types of local and regional societies into a greater political scenario. For example, from the late 12th century India has been identified with the coming of the Muslims. But we tend to forget the fact that the pre-sultanate society was not wiped off. Some pockets probably remained the way they were, some were more influenced than the other. Therefore we get societies at various stages of development and having a pre-conceived notion of each society being under the umbrella of a 'period' discourages people from looking into the uniqueness of several areas of the country with a free-from-pre-conceived-notion mind.

There also rests an attempt at religious homogenisation which is an important issue in a sub-continent which has been the birthplace and/or a thriving zone for several religions. For example, ancient period was generally identified with a Hindu period till people thought it prudent to hide it under a flimsy curtain of secularism. But still for a long time, concept of a Hindu period trickled in through the pores, and therefore remain as a concept in some shady way or the other for many.

To conclude, periodisation can be taken as a frame of reference, with reservations, for giving a general picture of the history of a certain place to those only being recently introduced to the study of history,  provided it remains by far secular, as our country is famous for religiously touchy people, annoyed often at the slightest pretext. But when it comes to proper study of history in higher education, I would like to believe that the necessary reservations should be emphasised upon with great stress (irrespective of the country whose study of history is concerned) because it gives one the burden of the pre-conceived notion of generalisation that can lead to mistakes in interpreting the country's past. However, this is in context of the tripartite periodisation. Since periodisation is in itself a concept of a time-frame, no matter how much we desire to do away with it, we can't possibly manage without some form of periodisation or the other.

- posted by Sohini Chattopadhyay, Second Year, Presidency College, Kolkata.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Theme of the First Session: Rethinking Periodisation of Indian History

History is a discipline that analyses the past. In order to tackle the vastness of its subject, i.e. the past, the discipline has always found it convenient to compartmentalise it into different sections, or 'periods'. These periods are essentially arbitrary in nature. The temporal extent of these periods in the same region has not remained fixed. Consequently, the scope of the medieval too has not remained constant. Different historians have interpreted its span differently, according to the politics of their own visions and interpretations of history; while identifying a period as medieval, different landmarks have been selected at different times to represent its temporal boundaries as well. 

Hence, even while naming our forum the Medieval History Club, we are aware that there is nothing called the medieval period in reality and that it is just an arbitrary nomenclature of a portion of human history, a concept that changes dynamically with the changes of human memory and perception of the past and the professional historian's treatment of the same. Informed in this way, we use medieval as a convenient tool of our own to study the history of the world from approximately the middle of the first millenium A.D. to that of the second.

As such, we feel that a good starting point for such a study is to have a look at the politics of this periodisation itself, in the history of the world in general and that of the Indian subcontinent in particular. We begin the banquet of our club by 'Rethinking Periodisation in Indian History'.

Note: The First Session will be held at 2 pm on Monday, 27 September, 2010 in Presidency College, Calcutta. All are welcome.


Reading List for the First Session

The following is the complete reading list for the first session of the Medieval History Club. Of these, under-graduate students will be discussing the first seven, pertaining to the history of the Indian subcontinent. The last five readings, concerned with periodisation of history outside India, will be presented by post-graduate and research students. The discussions on these readings will be preceeded by introduction of the theme to the students by professors Shireen Maswood and Uttara Chakraborty.

1.  Javed Majeed, James Mill’s ‘History of British India’ and Utilitarianism as a Rhetoric of Reform’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 1990, pp. 209-224.
2.  Romila Thapar, ‘Interpretations of Ancient Indian History’, History and Theory, vol. 7, no. 3, 1968, pp. 318-335. 
3.  R.S. Sharma, ‘Problem of Transition from Ancient to Medieval in Indian History’, Indian Historical Journal, vol. 1, 1974, pp. 1-9.
4.  Brajadulal Chattopadhyay, ‘Introduction: The Making of Early Medieval India’, in Brajadulal Chattopadhyay, The Making of Early Medieval India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 1-37.
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