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A Continuing Debate

Neerja Singh

Edited by Biswamoy Pati
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 324, Rs. 595.00

Edited by Sharmistha Gooptu and Boria Majumdar
Roli Books, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 218, Rs. 295.00


History captures facts in a framework defined by space and time, but debates and interpretations of historical facts allow it to step into the lap of social science. The very process of interpretation makes history contemporarily relevant. In this context, an attempt has ben made through the volume The 1857 Rebellion, to bring out a Reader which would not only put all the debates centering around 1857 in the various historiographic slots but also convey to the students the essential features of each historiographic school. Also recently there has been an emergence of a new genre of historiography known as ‘popular history’. It prefers appeal to authenticity as the arbiter of history. Although anchored in historical settings, it rests on myth, memory and media to weave a narrative of an historical event. The book edited by Sharmistha Gooptu and Boria Majumdar belongs to this genre.   Both the books engage themselves with the continuing debate on various aspects of 1857. If Biswamoy Pati’s book deals with the historiography of 1857, Sharmistha Gooptu and Boria Majumdar’s major focus is on the interaction between ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’, while charting out their own separate paths. Thus their attempt is to raise issues of methodological nature and its adequacy and relevance.   Revisiting 1857: Myth, Memory, History consists of articles by various authors centering around the momentous Indian event of 1857. The first article by David Washbrook is primarily a review of William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal which has generated varied responses to the discourse on ‘popular’ versus ‘academic’ history. The polarity between these two perspectives is, however, not intrinsic and both can sharpen their wits by a process of complementarity and symbiosis. For one ‘popular’ history may be of greater use and value in capturing the ethos of the time. Similarly, rigour of research, the hallmark of ‘academic’ history, can really make ‘popular’ history authentic and self-confident. Popular history relies on myth, legend and lore, which may or may not be a mental construction of historical reality but it maintains continuity of collective memory and herein lies its significance. Therefore, appreciation and not derision can bring them closer together in the service of the discipline. Unfortunately, this aspect does not appear to have been given a thought to by the protagonists of ‘popularity’ in the present volume.   Ronojoy Sen’s ‘Contesting, 1857: Indian Historians and the Debate over the Uprising’ is an overview of the main writings ...

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