The Resources of History Tradition, Narration and Nation in South Asia

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Item Code: IDK701
Author: Jackie Assayag
Publisher: Ecole Francaise D’extreme Orient
Language: English
Edition: 1999
ISBN: 9782855396071
Pages: 388
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 10.8" X 7.3"
Weight 1 kg
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Book Description


We owe to a famous novel by the British author L.P. Hartley the idea that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." For what human beings have done in the past seems radically strange to those who are acting out the present. And what we refer to as "the past" is in fact something that no one has ever experienced as "the present"-although in many ways we know much more about it than those who lived through it. Just this brief phrase from the novel takes us to the heart of the complex relationships between the past and the present, sameness and difference, presenting the experience of otherness as a justification for difference extended to a kind of temporal exoticism; more generally, the phrase refers to the awareness of time through narrations about it, and perhaps even more importantly, to the respective roles of history and memory as modes of apprehending the past and linking it with the present?

Thinking philosophically now: to extent that the past stands behind us in the form of memory, it also remains present for us-through its many traces and relics, in evocative images and written testimonies, but also in our bodies, predispositions and feelings, and in the objects of our perception and action. At first sight, the past may seem to be radically foreign to present experience, but at a second glance, it is seen to generate it, to the extent that the past is apprehended both as "experiential space"-whether private or transmitted by preceding generations or existing, with its strangeness overcome-and as a "horizon of expectations"-that is, a field of expectation directly conceived as a structure of practice.

In so far as experience leads towards an integration of the past, tradition and history give us support. Hence the obligation to remember, which connects us to our language, consciousness, culture and society. But equally-or even more?-important is the duty to look forward, against the weight of amnesia. Yielding to memory ages us, conceiving the future is rejuvenating. Without a firm outline, the past falls into death and oblivion. So tradition and history become meaningful only through a re-reading of the past made by an on-going future. A collectivity which has no contemporary resolution or re-reading that goes to the heart of the matter is on its deathbed. Memory digs us a grave, and on this closed foundation inventiveness builds us a home that is less sinister, much wider and, we hope, happier. Yet it is only on condition that we make an effort to imagine and exercise discernment: in short, to experience the full, strong meaning of the present. The contributors to Resources of history have devoted themselves to exploring the mutual interaction of the three modes of time-past, present, future-, on the basis of a few well-documented examples from South Asia.

The Contributions
There is no denying that the publication of texts which have been presented at a symposium lead to a product that risks artificiality, however precise the theme, the theoretical framework preceding the invitation to contribute, the arrangement of the texts and the selection of the contents. "Proceedings" are by nature disparate, tending towards dispersion if not irregularity.

Nevertheless, the combination of two academic events focusing on Indology and the Social, Sciences which brought over a hundred scholars from thirteen countries together in South India was the occasion for such a wide-ranging exchange that the organizers preferred to expose themselves to the risk of criticism than to consign this colloquy to the oubliettes of history and memory. In fact, the symposium provided an opportunity to compare choices of "objects" and approaches, to evaluate regional and national research traditions, to report on some examples of short or long-term transmission, to enquire into usages of the resources of the past, whether recent or distant, familiar or strange, and to reflect on the heuristic connections between history, memory and anthroplogy (in the widest sense)- all these strands, woven as if into a cord, relating to transmission in South Asia.

The representations of the past, which have been constructed and are still being constructed today by the actors in the contrasting regions of South Asia are multiple and varied; as are their concepts of the historicity of traditions, the transitory nature and diverse functions of rituals practices, the changing meanings of texts and cultures, the link between cultural practices and structures of power and the dialectic between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, dissent and conformity. The same is true of the roles that specific constructions of the past have played and still do in shaping present-day politics. Although the topics treated are very varied, this very diversity gives a unity to the whole, by throwing into relief a commonality of interests that persists through all the plurality of disciplinary approaches and fields of study. It was precisely this profusion that led to the decision to publish this impressive array of studies on the Resources of History-"history" being understood in all its three senses of "reality", narrative, and discipline.

The project seemed all the more fruitful since, quite independently of the diversity of questions dealt with, and without any premeditation on the part of the organizers, many contributions analysed usages and practices of temporality in terms of the three concepts of "tradition", "narration" and "nation"-which is why they supply the subtitle of this volume. However, these concepts do not cover the whole content of all the texts, still less all the possible issues or fields of enquiry that should be investigated.

Because the Indian social fabric, in the present as in the past, is thoroughly multiethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious, it has been difficult for its observers and analysts to establish any simple connections between culture, religion and society. As the anthropologist Maurice Bloch has written, India is a case of "too much": too much social structure, and hierarchy, and a superabundance of the past in the present. In India-more than elsewhere?-there can be no general answer, and no ready-made solution to the problem of the intelligibility of social organization, structures of power and symbolic representations-nor of their inter-relationships. Hence the importance of approaches examining limited social and geographical units within the sub-continent on which observations and explorations can be focused for cultural richness and complexity vary according to the problems tackled and the level of analysis imposed. To have imposed a single framework of interpretation supposedly of linking the contributions would have risked creating a mirage of the kind, moreover, that was once sustained by a culturally-inspired structuralism.

The articles have been grouped in three sections. But there are numerous convergences and connections between the texts, as well as many cross-cutting and differences in the concepts governing the analyses. Each of the authors shows, along parallel intellectual pathways and according to varying periodisations, how the resources of history have been expressed and reworked, both as narrative expression of the past and in relation to its legitimizing value. In the context of disciplines that have been so much decried for their fragmentation, it is reassuring to note that all their practitioners agree in "deconstructing" the concept of tradition in its essentialist and a-historic senses. How do substantial transformations affect transmissions that are characterized as sacrosanct and sempiternal? What kind f narratives do actors use to give significance to their actions, and do they re-appropriate the changes that they have to undergo? Why do they attach so much importance to rediscovering the rules of the present in the past-or vice versa? And why is legitimacy conferred by duration?

Without always responding in the same way to these questions, all these articles do finally converge in their transition from a paradigm based on static structures to a clearer understanding of culture as action and process. This leads to a recognition that discourses on traditions have not emerged from the depths of the human psyche or the mists of history, but from a play of opinions between individuals and groups situated in history and debating about the past. This collective critique of a simple past supposed to be factual is based on a shared "constructivism", which questions present-day sociological unities by desegregating a nominally unified past. With its core disembedded, this past is then opened up to a wide variety of approaches, exploding into multiple perspectives which makes it easier, to discern the play of possibilities offered by the uses and practices of temporality.

Discussing the question of the past also raises the implicit issues of authority-and what guarantees its credibility and consensus about it-, of continuity maintained of the link with an origin, of the temporal depth attributed to it, and finally of interdependence, that is its difference from other pasts that give it significance. Explicating the concept of tradition is this way is to propose that we should neither overestimate the changes between generations, nor underestimate the significance of persistence across generations while also taking into account their temporal diversity, as some contributors remind us. We shall return to this issue below.

The first section, "Sacred texts and regionalism or nationalism", offers a series of presentations on ways in which the "sacred" texts of Hinduism have been used by various agents in the cultural and social history of the subcontinent. First of all priests in charge of temple worship, from the medieval period to the present day, in South India (Colas; Fuller; Freeman); then the agents of British colonization (Vishwanath), and both Indian and European representatives of Orientalism from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries (van der Veer). Two contributions underline the importance of Indigenous reappropriation of this cultural heritage, which is then reworked on the basis of both oriental and western traditions of the narrative (Hiltebeitel) and ritual (Jaffrelot), from the first half of the nineteenth century to the present day.

The second section focuses on the processes at work in the "Construction of regional traditions." We begin with Muslims, by looking at biographies of Muslim women collected in the city of Hyderabad (Vatuk), and the hagiography of an Islamic saint in Karnataka who is connected with a Hindu guru (Assayag). The discussion is continued within an important Vaisnava sect, the Varkari of Maharashtra (Glushkova), and also in several different castes: Vankar untouchables of Gujarat (Perez), Lohana and Sindhi merchants of Saurashtra and Sind (Lachaier), Visvakarmas artisans of Karnataka (Brouwer), but also the architects and master-builders of the Kingdom of Bhutan, in the context of a policy of national integration (Pichard). Artists have not been ignored: one contribution enquires into representations of popular forms of theatre in Tamil Nadu, especially looking at actresses who are often considered as prostitutes (de Bruin).

The third section, "Imagined narrations of regionalism or nationalism" mostly covers North India and extends the area of study as far as the Punjabi Diaspora in California, which retains a nostalgic memory of what is now an unknown country (Leonard). Also explored are the long-lasting cultural identity of the Newars of the Kathmandu valley (Toffin), and the contemporary one of the devotees of the goddess Draupadi in Bangalore, one of the towns emblematic of the most sophisticated technological development in India (Srinivas). The contributors also focus their attention on ways in which history is re-written: whether by Bengali historians and men of letters of the nineteenth century (Ray), or by Marathi regionalists first in connection with a controversy about an "enlightened" maharaja at the beginning of this century (Benei), and secondly, with the afterlife of a warrior king of the eighteenth century, whose luster has increased ever since (Heuze). Such rewriting is in no way confined to Hindus, as is shown by the disputation over the concept of Jihad and its relation to frontiers, which has been going on amongst Indian Muslims for the last two centuries (Gaborieau).

Back of the Book


The representations of the past, which were and still are being constructed today by the social actors in South Asia's contrasting regions, are multiple and varied. So too are their concepts of the historicity, the changing meaning of texts, rituals and cultures, the link between practices and structures of power, the meanings given to belonging or social identity, and the dialectic between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, dissent and conformity. This profusion in the resources of history – the term being understood in all three senses of "reality", narrative and discipline – is presented from three perspectives: texts considered as sacred, the construction of local modes of transmission, and relationships between stories and their cultural areas, great and small. The plurality of disciplinary approaches and fields of study highlight a common interest shared by all contributors for, on the one hand, understanding the roles which specific constructions of the past have played and still do in present-day politics; and, on the other hand, exploring the traditions, forms and contents of narration, as well as the turbulent incarnations of the idea of the nation in South Asia.




Acknowledgements xv
Remerciements xvii
Le passe n'est pas (toujours) un pays etranger 1
The Past is not (always) a Foreign Country 21
Jackie ASSAYAG  
The Reworking of "Vedic" Paradigms in Medieval Liturgies 41
Gerard COLAS  
Priestly Education and the Agamic Tradition in Contemporary Tamil Nadu 51
Chris FULLER  
Texts, Temples, and the Teaching of Tantra in Kerala 63
Use of Sacred Texts. Generation of Knowledge and Effort of the Colonial State to Suppress Female Infanticide in India 81
Two Ways to Tell a Story: Alha in the Bhavisya Purana 95
Monumental Texts: The Critical Edition of India's National Heritage 113
Peter van der VEER  
Militant Hindus and the Conversion Issue (1885-1990): From Suddhi to Dharm Parivartan. The Politization and the Diffusion of an "Invention of Tradition" 127
Christophe JAFFRELOT  
Family Biographies as Sources for an Historical Anthropology of Muslims Women's Lives in 19th Century South India 153
Sylvia VATUK  
How Can One be Hindu or Muslim? The Resources of Hagiographic Exemplar in South India 173
Jackie ASSAYAG  
The Banyan Tree of the Varkari Tradition: Transmission and Invention 189
The Contradiction of Tradition: An Untouchable Caste of Gujarat 199
Rosa-Maria PEREZ  
Artisans Oral Tradition as a Resource of History 213
Lohana and Sindhi Networks 233
Can Tradition be Enforced? Today's Architectural Design in Bhutan Today 247
Pierre PICHARD  
Different Perspectives on Folk Theatre's State and Recent History in Tamil Nadu 261
Hanne Maria de BRUIN  
The Role of Tantrism in the Construction of the Cultural Identity of the Newars (Kathmandu Valley) 275
Gerard TOFFIN  
Medieval Bengali Traditions as Transmitted by the 19th and early 20th Century Historians and Writers of Bengal 283
Aniruddha RAY  
The "Forgotten Obligation": A Reinterpretation of Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi's Jihad in the North-West-Frontier, 1826-1631 295
Let the Gazetteers Burn! Scholars, Local Politics and the Nationalist debate in the Kolhapur District Controversy 307
Veronique BENEI  
Shiv Sena: History, Myth and Shivaji 321
Gerard HEUZE  
Inhabiting the Body of the Goddess: Urban Form within the Festival of Draupadi in Bangalore 347
California's Punjabi Pioneers: Remembering/Claiming Homelands 361

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