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

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.



somak said...

while i do accept the validity of the argument that nomenclature is ultimately an arbitrary exercise, one cannot forget its practical usefulness, be it politics or not. it is generally at the margins that the confusion over periodisation arise. nevertheless, one perhaps must not dwell too much on the debate, because after a certain point, the arguments assume a circularity that ultimately makes it a fruitless attempt.

Pratyay said...

Somak, you are correct in saying that it is at the margins where the confusion over periodisation arises. This understanding may also stated otherwise: it is basically the broad features of a historical time and society that are selectively identified and clubbed together to form a historical period. But why should we prioitise these broad features and overlook the margins?
Moreover, 'ancient', 'medieval' and 'modern' are terms loaded with judgemental implications and represent phases in the story of the progress of human civilisation from from a flourishing past to a bright future, punctuated by a dark middling period. Thus calling a certain time of the past 'ancient', 'medieval' or 'modern' reflects how one views the it in relation to the present. This is also where the politics of periodisation lies.