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Presenting A New Synthesis

Vernon Hewitt

By Sumit Sarkar
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2014, , Rs. 806.00


Modern Times is the first of a promised two part work in which Professor Sarkar sets out to review the current state of 19th and 20th century Indian historiography, and to add to his own already remarkable oeuvre. The work does not disappoint, and while there is much here that is already familiar to the student of Indian history, especially concerning debates about the impact of colonialism, modernity and capitalism, there is also originality and extraordinary breadth. What is presented is not a revised version of his own classic Modern India, but in effect a new synthesis of Sarkar’s earlier ideas, structured around new archival materials and recent methodological innovations. The arguments are set out chronologically and thematically. Sarkar begins with a succinct summary of the epistemological changes that have characterized Indian history since the late 1970s, the shifts away from empirical,‘top down’ accounts of imperialism; simplified accounts of nationalist awakening and liberation using historical ‘stages’, and structural Marxist and class based accounts of the colonial state. In the post-Saidian, Foucauldian world not only has the focus of history shifted downwards towards the production and reproduction of cultural artifacts, but also to the specific contexts in which these operated and gave form to particular and contingent economic and political participation. This localism, inspired in part by subaltern studies but pressed on by most poststructural and post-modern scholars (of various hues), stresses both the complecity of the colonial encounter, but also the often unpredictable and ambiguous dynamics generated by the deepening of British colonial administration which Sarkar takes as the hallmark of the late 19th century. Sarkar maps and analyses these dynamics across an impressive array of data and sub-fields of Indian history; political and institutional reform, colonial law and missionary activity, and land reform with particular attention to recent work on the environmental impact of the Raj. In the final section, headed Society and Culture, there is an impressive discussion of the construction of urban spaces and a summary of recent work on the rise of popular culture, entertainment and sport. All of these activities created new forms of interaction within the growing metropoles of late 19th century India, or reconfigured existing recreation for different participants. In each section of this densely worked book, Sarkar examines the impact of the colonial encounter by stressing not so much a Saidian imposition of the western imagination, but the constant imbrication ...

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