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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

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.


Pratyay said...

The above post comes as a welcome step towards filling up the pages of this blog with the thoughts of all of you. The arguments have indeed been well-made and articulated. I would just like to add one or two points, in order to provoke a few more comments, may be.

We have got to note that not only periodisation, but the whole discipline of history, of which we all are students, is a Western import in itself, at least in the form we practise it. Of course, the process of remembering and recording the past existed in different forms in every section of the human civilisation. In the Hindu and Jain culture, there was the itihasa tradition, in the Buddhist tradition, we had the jataka stories, the Islamic civilisation had the tarikh tradition. However, as the case with so many other things, we inherited the discipline of history from our colonial rulers, as the institutionalised mode of analysis of the past, with all its ideological baggage. The practice of periodisation came as a part of this.

In the context of the subcontinent and the process of religious homogenisation while writing its history, the process of identification of historical periods with a dominant religion began, as you pointed out, with the need of the coloniser to justify its political domination. And once this was done, one kind of source or another was stereotyped as the major source of a specific period. However, as you all know, the British were careful enough not to brand their times the Chritsian period, but subtly christened it the British period. Eventually Sanskrit was dubbed to be the main source of the ancient/Hindu period, Persian that of the medieval/Muslim period and English that of the modern/British period. It was only in the later decades of the last century that historians began to focus more and more on vernacular material and thus break out of the stereotypes about sources set by the periodisation scheme.

Lastly, I congratulate the author of the last post for boldly urging us to abandon periodisation in history as a whole. In that case, however, we will have to think of alternate ways of comparing different historical times and societies and tracing similarities/differences between them. What might these be in absence of periods? Point to think about.

Olive Oyl said...

I think we can't do away with all kinds of periodisation. Such frame of reference is always necessary for exchange of ideas in a simpler manner. But the tripartite division, I think, does not go to well with the study of history. However, periodising is essentially about grouping time periods. Time periods shall always remain and should, in the form of years and decades and centuries. Provided we don't again fall prey to generalising the history of a certain area within that frame of time.

Pratichi said...

Basically,periodisation of history is a modernistic approach of generalizing the major trends that characterize certain phases of human civilization.Nevertheless,as sohini has mentioned,such periodisations act as frames of reference for relating/comparing certain historical events and sometimes help us to form a basic idea of the time period in question.

Aman said...

The post have been very well written it simply increased my excitement about the discussion. But it points out very well the problems of accepting the western model of periodisation in the Indian Context. But as a CU student I remember that last year we had two separate parts of the Medieval History the pre-1206 being called Early Medieval. Which many western Historians like to call Hindu Medieval Period. But because of the diverse nature of our country's social, religious and also political condition that nomenclature is not valid. Which has been pointed out very well in the post. I think in the discussion we should look forward to bring some way in which Indian History could be separated. In totally Indian way.

Rituparna said...

The above post nicely brings out the problem of periodising the history of the sub-continent which attempts 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.
I agree with the author that at times periodising was done on religious grounds, i.e. marking of a period as Hindu or Muslim, again neglecting the prevailing divergent or rather heterogeneous religious identities, but doing away with periodisation as the author also agrees cannot be a solution, as such a frame of reference is necessary for our convenience.
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. By technology I tend to mean the application of scientific ideas as everyone knows, but in different lines of historical developments. 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, specially 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.
My point however is not to periodise history by changing its most accepted nomenclature based on time periods,as here the author has rightly pointed out that periodising is essentially about grouping time periods. Time periods shall always remain and should, in the form of years and decades and centuries. Technology can however provide a basis for grouping different hiastorical time periods.