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Three Centuries of Historiography Under the Lens

Sumit Guha

By A.R. Kulkarni
Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 2006, pp. xix 363, Rs. 895.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 12 December 2007

Professor A.R. Kulkarni is the veritable doyen of Maratha history today. His research career began in the 1950s and the thesis that became (in English) Maharashtra in the Age of Shivaji (1969) was actually submitted in 1960. A revised Marathi version is still in print under the title Shivkalina Maharashtra (1993, 1997); and the English version was reprinted with minor emendations in 2002. This research was an important advance in our understanding of the social and economic history of western India at a time when the only comparable work was K.M. Ashraf The Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan (1959) and the thesis that became Irfan Habib’s classic Agrarian System of Mughal India (1963) had just been completed (in 1958). At that time, much work in agrarian history merely rehashed nineteenth century officials’ debates on land-revenue policy. Kulkarni broke out of that pattern and skillfully used both devotional literature and government records to depict the many aspects of country life in the 17th century. This was the first of his many important books in Marathi and English. But he is also a public intellectual of great significance. So for example, in the early 1990s, Kulkarni published two long articles in the Marathi daily, Maharashtra Times. These were expanded into a short, clear yet academically rigorous study Ashi Hoti Shivshahi (Such was the rule of Shivaji) that appeared in 1999 and went into a second edition in 2000. It dealt with many aspects of the Shivaji period and (among other things) firmly rebuffed the effort to turn that monarch into a forebear of Hindu nationalism.   The Marathas, it should be remembered, at various times dominated India from Orissa to Gujarat and from Delhi to Thanjavur. In 1806, the senior British official, Charles Metcalfe surveyed the political situation after the third Anglo-Maratha war: ‘India contains no more than two great powers, British and Mahratta, and every other state acknowledges the influence of one or the other. Every inch that we recede will be occupied by them’ (cited in Thompson 1978:1). This political prominence was even exceeded by their prominence in the historical archives. It is likely that the volume of surviving Marathi records is second only to those in English. Thus the generations of historians who have studied the Marathas have also found uniquely rich sources for their research. The work under review (based on Heras Memorial Lectures) represents an erudite scholar’s reflections on his predecessors in the ...

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