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History as 'Passion'

Jaya Tyagi

By Uma Chakravarty
Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 328, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

Reconstructing ancient society has always been a challenging task for a historian. How do we shrug off the ‘baggage’ of modernity that we carry and relocate ourselves in the (very distant) past so as to be accurate? The only way to do it is with curiosity and with honesty—approach the ‘sources’ with an open and eager mind, without preconceived notions, which is what is being attempted in this compilation of articles written over a period of roughly two decades. Uma Chakravarti, in her incredibly inquisitive and penetrating style, moves, quite literally, ‘beyond’ hackneyed discussions of state, political institutions and the caste system, to highlight lives of wideranging groups and communities which played a significant role, but have been treated cursorily by most historians. She seeks to ‘represent’ Ancient India with essays related to peasants, servile labour, dasas and karmakaras, widows, monks and householders and the bhaktin; hitherto grey areas of historical studies and in doing so, reveals how methods of production, processes of social stratification, creation of ideological structures and institutions are inherently linked to each other.   The book begins with an introduction entitled ‘History as Practice’, a revealing chapter on how Uma Chakravarti evolves as a teacher and a ‘practicer’ of history. A must read for all academics, it reveals how one who is deeply involved and passionate about history can motivate others to read, research, and revel in the issues that are close to their hearts. The chapter, even while taking us through Uma’s personal journey as a historian, is full of details—how historical perceptions change from the colonial period to the nationalist period; the contribution of D.D. Kosambi; how Dev Raj Chanana and R.S. Sharma brought attention to marginal groups; how Buddhist texts are oriented differently as compared to Brahmanical sources. In the course of an absorbing discussion on changing historiography set against the backdrop of the women’s movement in India, the readers are introduced to the crucial issue of gender in history and how she along with Kumkum Roy, have helped change perceptions towards ancient India in such a way that no historian can ever find it imbued with ‘golden hues’, especially with respect to women. If history is a study of continuity with change, this chapter shows us how the predilection for ‘marginal groups’ would finally lead Uma Chakravarti to bring women’s issues to the mainstream of historical ...

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