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The Usable Past

Sachidananda Mohanty

By Pritish Acharya
Sage Series in Modern Indian History, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 301, Rs. 595.00


In the public domain, public knowledge of Orissa (now happily renamed Odisha) seldom goes beyond Biju / J.B. / Navin Patnaik, Tata/ POSCO projects, starvation deaths in Kalahandi, and now, the menace of Maoist violence on the Andhra-Orissa border. More polite conversation might veer around Oriya bureaucrats in state capitals, Pattachitra paintings of Puri, Jatin / Nandita Das, Sambalpuri sarees, Konarka temple and Odissi dance of Sonal Mansingh Oriya students on JNU / Delhi University campuses, or the working / blue collar Oriyas in India and abroad, indeed ordinary Oriyas, seem to believe that destiny has been less than fair to their land. After all, goes the argument, both legend and history seem to have conspired to make Oriyas the losers. In the Mahabharata War, it is said, Kalinga backed the Kauravas, the losing side. The same kingdom at a later date was vanquished by Asoka the Great in the devastating Kalinga War. Mukunda Dev, the last independent King of Orissa tragically lost out to the Afghans in the Gohiratikri battle, near Bhadrak. And finally, the British preferred the three villages on the banks of Hooghly for their settlement rather than Balasore, on the bank of Budhabalanga and Subarnarekha. Bengal’s gain, some rue, was Orissa’s loss! Thanks to internal colonization, the province became effectively the rain shadow area of Bengal! Now you know why Navin Patnaik is unfazed by his lack of knowledge of Oriya! The ‘backwardness’ of Orissa seems to lie in its colonial past. A simple thesis? Well, many explanations in culture and life are extraordinarily simple! There are few good books that have attempted to make sense of Orissa during the Raj. Pritish Acharya, a student of modern India’s regional history, has tried to fill in the lacuna. The choice of the period is significant. For it witnessed in the region the simultaneous growth and intersections of two problematic political categories that often shared adversarial, and indeed, hostile relationships.Could it be that a historical study of this period would yield enough insights for understanding the twin concepts that continue to be at logger-heads in the era of national / coalition politics? Pritish Acharya was educated in Orissa and New Delhi. After a stint at the NCERT, he now teaches history at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar. At the Jawaharlal Nehru University and National Council for Educational Research and Training, he was exposed to some of the best minds in the ...

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