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Asymmetries of Colonial Encounters


Rashmi Doraiswamy

LOOKING AT THE COLONISER: CROSS-CULTURAL PERCEPTIONS IN CENTRAL ASIA AND THE CAUCASUS, BENGAL, AND RELATED AREAS
Edited by Beate Eschment and Hans Harder
Ergon Verlag, Germany, 2004, pp. 384, price not stated.

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 8 August 2005

Looking at the Coloniser: Cross-Cultural Perceptions in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Bengal, and Related Areas is a valuable addition to the books being published on Central Asia because it is one of the few to move beyond geopolitics, oil and gas and other issues of strategic importance to this or that nation vis-à-vis Central Asia and the Caucasus. The focus is on culture in the wide sense of the term. “The main object of the present volume … is to explore intercultural perception in colonial circumstances on the basis of written historical and literary documents”, say the editors. The book brings together papers presented at the conference ‘Looking at the Coloniser’ held in 2002 in Germany in which scholars from the USA, CIS, Germany, India, Bangladesh and Great Britain participated. This was part of a larger project entitled ‘Distorting Mirror’ being carried out at the Institute for Orientalistik.   The volume brings together essays on encounters engendered by British colonization in Bengal and by the Russian expansion of empire in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The editors point out that “Bengal… has perhaps the longest documented tradition of conscious reflection on colonialism worldwide” (p.9); Central Asia and the Caucasus, in contrast, are being independently researched only after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening up of the archives. There are, however, long civilizational links between the countries of this entire region, that justifies their being brought together in one volume. Adeeb Khalid points out that “India cast a long shadow on Russia’s colonial encounter with Central Asia. The Russian conquest of the region took place in the context of imperial competition with Britain, and the Russians—rulers as well as settlers—were forever conscious of the comparison with the British in India. The colonized, too, were aware of India and its colonial rulers” (p. 253).   The book has been divided into three sections: the first deals with Central Asian perceptions of Russia; the second with Bengali perceptions of the British; the third with other cross-cultural perceptions. It includes essays on diaries (Shahin Mustafaev’s ‘The Diaries of Yusif Vezir Chemenzeminli: An Azerbaijani Intellectual in the Process of Acculturation’) and on travel accounts (Oliver Reisner’s ‘Grigol Orbeliani Discovering Russia: A Travel Account by a Member of the Georgian Upper Class from 1831-1832’, Olga Yastrebova’s ‘The Bukharan Emir Abd al-Ahad’s Voyage from Bukhara to St Petersburg’, Susmita Arp’...


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