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Illuminating the Present

Mariam Dossal

By Rajnarayan Chandavarkar
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 270, Rs. 695.00

By The Royal University College of Fine Arts
Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 303, Rs. 1,200.00


Historian Raj Chandavarkar’s untimely death in 2006 is keenly felt by many. The publication of this collection of his essays, most of which were unpublished during his lifetime, is a labour of love, a tribute to an outstanding scholar. Assembled by his wife Jennifer Davis and colleagues at Cambridge University, these essays are inquiries into the history of the city of Bombay, now Mumbai, Indian politics and society, and Indian historiography. Written at various stages of Chandavarkar’s career, some are contributions to on-going debates in history, others examine issues of historical and contemporary significance. Together, they constitute a valuable addition to the writings of a distinguished historian. Chandavarkar refused to operate with deterministic categories, of class, caste, race or culture, states Davis in her Introduction, convinced that they would only ‘flatten and distort the subject.’ Rather, he looked for deep meanings, sought to unravel complexities and engage with and illuminate the present by research into the past. The first three essays have Bombay city as their subject and explore the complex themes of modernity, civic infrastructure and migration. Two others focus on the evolving relationship between state and society and religion and nationalism in India. Chandavarkar’s impressive introduction to the book One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Mill Workers of Girangaon. An Oral History by Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon (Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2004) has also been included in this volume. The final three are commentaries on Indian historiography, urban and labour history In ‘Bombay’s Perennial Modernities’, Chandavarkar examines what modernity really meant in the case of Bombay city. Often termed India’s most modern and cosmopolitan city, Bombay served as a gateway for western ideas, capitalist economic practices, spread of science and secular, liberal thought. While western education, law, and the transformation of customary rights into private property contributed to social change and a change in mentalities, the moot question raised by the author is how far did they influence the mindset of the majority of the city’s residents, how substantive was this civilizational project? For even in India’s leading industrial and financial capital, modernity, ‘rested lightly over the appalling conditions in which its poorer residents were forced to live.’ This exclusion from the benefits of the modernity project had serious implications for the political culture of the city. This is a core idea to which Chandavarkar returns in different essays of the book. ...

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