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A Window to Vanished 'Glories'

J.R. McNeill

By Julie E. Hughes
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2013, pp. xii 304, Rs. 795.00


Today India is home to about 1,500 tigers. A century ago, sportsmen killed that many every year. One Rajput, Fateh Singh, bagged 375 himself, not to mention 991 leopards, over his hunting career. The populations, conditions, and cultural meanings of wildlife in India have changed fundamentally since the heyday of the Raj. Since John Mackenzie drew attention to the connections between hunting and empire a generation ago, historians have energetically explored themes involving wildlife and hunting in many settings, including Africa and North America, and not least India, where, for example, Mahesh Rangarajan has outlined India’s Wildlife History (2006). Julie Hughes’s new book adds a tremendous wealth of detail and a modest dose of new insight to the historiography on the subject. Julie Hughes is an Assistant Professor of South Asian history at Vassar College in the United States. The book gives every sign of having originated as a doctoral dissertation. It is researched in primary sources, but written in dense prose. Its main contribution is her assessment of the importance of hunting for Rajput self-image and political authority, and her chronicling of Rajput efforts at wildlife and habitat conservation. Animal Kingdoms focuses on the decades between 1870 and 1930, when roughly 40% of the subcontinent consisted of princely states. Hughes narrows her attention to three Rajputs in particular: Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar, who reigned from 1884 to 1930; Maharaja Pratap Singh of Orchha (r. 1874-1930); and Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner (r. 1887-1943). Despite their remarkable endurance on their respective thrones, they were, according to Hughes, a representative sample of Indian princes of their time. This may be true in general, but in one respect it probably was not: each kept careful records of his hunting exploits. And one of them, Fateh Singh, commissioned paintings of himself engaged in grand rituals of the hunt.   These records and paintings are the main sources for Hughes’s work. She has consulted a wealth of secondary sources on hunting especially in imperial contexts, and occasionally situated her work with respect to that literature, gently disagreeing with Mackenzie on some points. But the contributions she makes derive from her primary sources.   Thanks to British power, by 1870 the Rajputs were not at liberty to a mass military honour and cement their political legitimacy through warfare as in times of old. To justify their privileges, burnish their reputations, and compensate for the unattain-ability of martial glory (except in subordinate roles fighting ...

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