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Empirical Richness and Rigour

Upinder Singh

Edited by R. Champakalakshmi , Kesavan Veluthat and T.R. Venugopalan
Cosmobooks, Thrissur, 2002, pp. 223, Rs. 495.00


Most narratives of the historiography of ancient India inspire a strong sense of déjà vu. There is the mandatory bashing of the imperialist historians, followed by a litany of complaints against the nationalist historians. This is followed by an account of post-Independence developments, in which the writing of ancient Indian history is presented as coming of age, with the imbalances and biases of the earlier eras replaced by a more sophisticated and sounder understanding of the past. This simple tripartite division of ancient Indian historiography (imperialist, nationalist, recent) does not work. It conceals the fact that there are spill-overs from one phase to another. For instance, the ‘nationalist’ glorification and idealization of the ancient past today serves other political agendas. The tripartite division of ancient Indian historiography also conceals the fact that while certain features and frameworks of ‘imperialist’ historiography have rightly been discarded, there are others that have been internalized and absorbed into post-colonial history writing.   The greatest advance of the last half-century of research into the state in ancient India has been the movement from political narrative to political structure, and the attempt to work out the connections between developments at the political, social, economic, and cultural levels. However, for all its apparent theoretical sophistication, much of the writing tends to be derivative, being based on a borrowing of the conceptual categories and analytical frameworks originally devised by western historians and anthropologists for other cultural and historical contexts.   State and Society in Pre-modern South India edited by R. Champakalakshmi, Kesavan Veluthat, and T.R. Venugopalan, is the outcome of a National Seminar on State and Society in Pre-Modern South India, organized by the Postgraduate Department of History, Sri C. Achutha Menon Government College, Thrissur. The aim is to bring together research on various important issues related to pre-modern South India. The editors’ Introduction to the book, which discusses the historiography of the ancient Indian state, goes over familiar ground in the predictable manner. It is true that some two centuries after Vincent Smith dismissed the history of South India as too complicated and unimportant to merit the serious attention of the historian, what is passed off as ancient “Indian history” often still tends to be a north-centric discourse. What is equally worrying, however, is the perception reflected in the editors’ Introduction (p. 22) that the studies of the state in South India are somehow qualitatively inferior to those ...

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